And that figure may actually be optimistic, says Dr. Neil Weiner, a senior research associate at the Center for the Study of Youth Policy at Penn, and one of the study’s co-authors. "We’ve been told by social service workers that our numbers are conservative," he says. "But we decided early on that it was critical to present credible numbers, and we knew from experience that showing the low end of the spectrum would increase our credibility. We tried at every turn to minimize the numbers of children involved."
Commercial sexual exploitation is defined in the study as a one-on-one, interpersonal interaction in exchange for goods and services. And while researchers found that most of these kids engage in sex to stay alive, or for "survival sex," using their bodies to secure food, shelter, or clothing, some children were also having sex for drugs or products they might not otherwise be able to afford. Money, however, is not the primary factor at play here: According to the Penn study, while poorer children are at higher risk for exploitation, researchers encountered large groups of white, middle-class teens who’d run away from home, or were "thrown away" by their families.
Beyond the broad spectrum of children involved in the sex trade, the profile of the people who engage in sex with kids is also especially startling, says Weiner. Most "customers" are men, often married with children of their own, and men who are away from home for stretches at a time, at conventions for example, or at truck stops during long road trips. The study also shatters the stereotype of the "stranger with candy" sex predator: Researchers found that 47 percent of sex abuse is committed by family members, 49 percent by acquaintances like coaches or teachers, and just four percent by strangers.
According to Weiner, researchers weren’t so much surprised by what they found as they were totally unprepared. "We didn’t expect anything," he says. "There was no prior work we felt was credible. So we started out not knowing, hoping the numbers would be insignificant. Unfortunately," he adds, "we were wrong."