Hurricane Harvey and the Increased Risk of Sex Trafficking and Child Sexual Abuse

In the wake of hurricane Harvey, human suffering has surfaced in many forms.

The news cycles have churned with images of lost homes, overwhelmed rescue teams, and separated families.

Unfortunately, the suffering of sexual exploitation is also exacerbated in the midst of this devastating storm.

Detailed statistics about the impact of natural disasters on the frequency of sex trafficking and child sexual abuse are virtually nonexistent. This gap in information is largely due to the fact that both child sexual abuse and exploitation are shadow crimes—chronically underreported and conducted both by lone individuals and international or domestic organized crime.

However, after any natural disaster, there is an increased vulnerability for both sex trafficking and child sexual abuse.

This is plain to see. People are isolated from their loved ones, law enforcement is focused on rescuing survivors, and basic resources like clean water or food may be scarce.

One 2015 study on risk factors for both minors and adults in sex trafficking found that “Survival sex and peer influence increase the odds of minor victimization, and a lack of available support and resources for victims while attempting to escape significantly increase the odds of adult victimization.”

Around a natural disaster like hurricane Harvey these risk factors can skyrocket.

Scarce resources can compel already vulnerable populations such as low income or transient persons into survival sex (i.e. trading sexual acts for food, clothing, water, or shelter). Further, with the continued rate of rescue work and difficult mobility between flooded regions, support resources for those being sexually exploited are less available than usual.

In addition to this, as people evacuate flooded areas they are beginning to seek refuge in nearby cities like Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. This mass geographic displacement is another risk factor for sexual abuses.

Already, reports say that more than 1,200 children in foster care have been displaced from their existing residential centers, and are being shuffled between various churches and shelters.

In 2012, Najat Maalla M'jid, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography noted that, "Children's vulnerability is significantly increased when they are separated from their families, unaccompanied, orphaned or displaced following humanitarian crisis. . . Some people exploit the chaotic environment that follows a natural disaster to engage in criminal activities, such as selling children for the purpose of. . .sexual exploitation"

As if this increased vulnerability isn’t enough, identifying current victims of sex trafficking and child abuse in the midst of a natural disaster can be difficult. This is because their signs of trauma related to abuse may appear similar to other individuals’ signs of trauma from the storm, such as not having many possessions, anxious expressions, physical distress, etc.

It is vital for those volunteering or working in shelters to remain alert to the signs of both sex trafficking and child sexual abuse.

Signs of sex trafficking include:

  • Any person under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex acts
  • Any person (regardless of age) engaging in pimp-controlled prostitution
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts / cannot provide previous home address
  • Not allowed to speak for themselves / cannot leave
  • More signs listed here

Signs of child sexual abuse include:

  • Bleeding, swelling, discomfort in the genital area
  • Inappropriate sexual knowledge or behaviors
  • Self-harms or reverts to early developmental behaviors like thumb sucking
  • More signs listed here

While hurricanes may leave many vulnerable to the worst aspects of human nature that seek to abuse and exploit, humanitarians across the country also rise to represent the best sides of human nature.

Simply by being aware, and alert to the signs, every rescue worker, volunteer, and neighbor can do their part to combat the suffering of sexual exploitation.

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If you or anyone you know is in immediate danger call 911.

National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1 (888) 373-7888

National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 800 656-HOPE (4673)

To report a missing child, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-866-908-9570.

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