To understand human trafficking, it is important to understand the underlying causes and risk factors. In September 2016, the Urban Institute released a study, "Impossible Choices: Teens and Food Insecurity in America." The report reveals a link between food insecurity and sexual exploitation. Teens suffering from hunger, mostly girls, are exchanging sex for food or for money to buy food.
The study included teenagers from low-income families in 10 communities. The teens, ages 13-18 years old, participated in 20 focus groups. One of the most consistent findings showed that teens engaged in risky behavior due to food insecurity. Hungry teens begin to strategize on how to save food - from regularly eating at a friend's house to going without food themselves. Oftentimes, teens would engage in criminal behavior - from stealing food to selling drugs - to help feed their families. The teens reported that they would much prefer to earn money through formal employment than engage in criminal behavior but employment opportunities were hard to come by given their young age and their geographic concentration in high poverty areas.
Finally, in all 10 communities, researchers learned that teens (mostly girls) exchanged sex for money or food. Oftentimes, this was discussed in terms of a "transactional dating relationship," where the line between dating and prostitution was blurred. "Dating" frequently occurred between young girls and much older men. Such behavior was normalized in high poverty communities where teens witnessed their mothers making these same choices, and children saw teenagers doing it as well. Though risky, it may seem safer than the perceived alternative of stealing or selling drugs. Other exploitative behavior such as offering sexual favors to strangers and stripping were reported in 7 out of 10 communities.
The study concluded with strategies to help alleviate hunger and steer teens away from illegal behavior. These include increasing food benefits to families at home and at school, and offering more job opportunities for youth. The report calls for additional training for educators and criminal justice officials in recognizing trauma to provide trauma-informed interventions to treat girls who are sexually exploited so that they do not end up in the criminal justice system.
Take Action: Get educated. Learn more about the link between food insecurity and sexual exploitation. Support policies that help fight hunger. By fighting hunger we also help to prevent sex trafficking.
Kimberlee Hicks is a representative of the Southwest Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force membership committee.