Sex trafficking of Black girls demands more attention

One in four Black girls will be sexually abused by age 18. Schools must give youth the knowledge and awareness not to fall prey to sex trafficking, a UIC professor writes.

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There’s been outrage over the failure by the Senate Judiciary Committee to release decades of flight logs of Jeffrey Epstein, the late convicted felon charged with two felony prostitution charges and one count of sex trafficking of a minor.

But where is the outrage for Black girls who are victims of sex trafficking happening in Chicago today? 

Chicago, one of the leading cities for human trafficking, is a hub of sex trafficking. According to a Cook County report, between 16,000 to 25,000 girls and women are involved in sex trafficking in Chicago, which the FBI labeled as one of 13 locations of “High Intensity Child Prostitution.” Last October, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office said that within two weeks, 10 people were charged with human trafficking in Chicago.

I was recently in a café in North Lawndale, a mostly Black low-income community, when a community leader told me a “Girls for sale” sign was spotted in the neighborhood. As a University of Illinois Chicago professor and a Black woman doing research aimed at protecting Black girls, I was sickened.

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Black girls are more likely than white girls to be trafficked at a younger age. A 2020 report from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation shows 40% of sex trafficking victims were identified as Black girls and women. Black girls and women are more likely to experience sexual and physical abuse than women of other races, and 36.9% were trafficked by their partners.

One in five Black women are survivors of rape, and one in four Black girls will be sexually abused before the age of 18.

Black girls face heightened vulnerability to the social problem of child sex trafficking, given the intersection of their race and gender.

Other research shows Black girls endure higher rates of sexual trauma and are at increased risk for sexually transmitted infections and HIV because of their “early” bodily development when compared to their peers. Black girls experience menarche around 8 years old and may be pursued by adults, even though they are minors who are too young to consent to sex. 

Girls forced into ‘adult roles’

Research also shows the over-sexualization of Black women and girls’ bodies has played out since slavery, affecting their sexual behaviors and treatment. And when Black girls are sexualized, it leads to their “adultification” and the erasure of their childhood, forcing them into “adult roles” before they are ready.

Racial and sexualized stereotypes about Black girls and women often dehumanize their experiences of interpersonal violence, which leads to the silencing of their stories.

In addition, many outside factors increase a Black girl’s vulnerability to sex trafficking, such as lower socioeconomic status, involvement in the child welfare or criminal justice system, detachment from education, and a history of physical/sexual abuse.

Not surprisingly, sex trafficking has lasting psychological effects on Black girls, as they are subjected to extraordinary physical, sexual, and psychological violence. This puts them at risk for developing physical ailments as well as mental health issues that can profoundly alter their ability to navigate socially. Injuries and violence inflicted on them as a result of sex trafficking are associated with higher levels of PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Teachers, community leaders, policymakers, elected officials, police, and families can be intentional in fighting sex trafficking in their communities. School-based sex trafficking prevention programs for Black girls are needed in Chicago now.

This would require policymakers to change sex education policies to include stories of sex trafficking that center the voices of Black girls and women and build knowledge and awareness about the realities and risks of sex trafficking among school faculty working at schools. In the U.S., there are well-established educational institutions and policies that mandate school attendance. However, schools must educate youth about gender-based human rights so they have the knowledge and awareness not to fall prey to sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking of Black girls, whether in Chicago or in the U.S. overall, takes place because too many people refuse to acknowledge, recognize, and eliminate this horrific crime.

Every Black girl deserves our attention and protection. We cannot look away.

Natasha Crooks is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project. 

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