Philadephia Thousands of girls and boys, ages 9 to 17, trade their bodies so they can secure food, shelter, clothing and other basic needs to survive on America's streets.
A significant number of their customers are married men, many with children of their own, according to a University of Pennsylvania professor who coauthored a study on the subject released Tuesday.
Between 300,000 and 400,000 children in the United States are victims of prostitution, pornography, and other forms of commercial sex, professor Richard J. Estes said.
"Child sexual exploitation is the most hidden form of child abuse in ... North America today. It is the nation's least recognized epidemic," said Estes, a Penn social-work professor and a co-author of "The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada and Mexico." The three-year project was funded by the Department of Justice, the W.T. Grant Foundation, the Fund for Nonviolence, and Penn's Research Foundation.
Estes said the study is the first to give a dimension to the problem. The 300,000-plus estimate would mean that about one in every 100 children in the United States was a victim of commercial sex.
The study indicated that children who run away, are homeless or are thrown out by their relatives are most at risk for commercial sexual exploitation. Most of the children in the study were white youths who had run away from middle-class homes. Less than 25 percent came from impoverished families, Estes said.
"A disproportionate number of street youth have histories of recurrent physical or sexual abuse at home and took to the streets in a desperate effort to bring their abuse to an end," said Estes, who wrote the study with Neil Weiner of Penn's Center for the Study of Youth Policy.
"It is ironic that running away from home increases their risk of physical violence and sexual abuse."
According to the study, some U.S. children engage in commercial sex while living at home. Estes said these children generally find customers among their peers. They exchange sex for money or drugs, more expensive clothes and other consumer goods.
"We have no idea how pervasive this is," Estes said, adding that "it is the most secretive" area that the researchers confronted in the study.
Other children at a higher risk to become victims of commercial sex include:
Female gang members who get involved to raise money for the gang.
Foreign children, whether brought into the country legally or illegally.
Teen-agers living along the Canadian or Mexican borders who cross into those countries specifically to solicit sex.
Estes said he was stunned to discover that about a quarter of customers were married men. In interviews, the exploited children said many of these men would talk about their own families during sexual encounters, he said.
Another 25 percent of "customers" were transient single men such as long-haul truckers, those in the military, seasonal workers and conventioneers.
Estes and Weiner include an 11-point agenda to eliminate the sexual exploitation of children. Among its points:
Targeting adult sexual exploiters for punishment instead of children.
Establishing a national child sexual exploitation intelligence center.
Increasing the penalties associated with sexual crimes against children.