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Child sex exploiters often trap their victims by posing as valentines

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While the country prepares to celebrate love and romance on Valentine's Day, those two appeals are often ruthlessly twisted to lure girls into commercial sexual exploitation. 100,000 minors being sold for sex in the U.S. is considered a "conservative estimate" by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

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Many of them have been trapped by deceitful offers of romance and vows of love by human traffickers posing as valentines. This cruel tactic is so prevalent that it has its own terminology: "Romeo pimp" or "boyfriend pimp."

A 2013 Report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council stated, "The boyfriend pimp, described as one of the more common types of traffickers, leads victims to believe they are in love and develops a romantic relationship with them, often described as a trauma bond. The boyfriend pimp promises victims a better life, but begins to isolate them as he 'grooms' them for exchanging sex for money."

A report from the California Child Welfare Council describes the evil process like this: "They shower victims with attention, affection, favors and gifts with the intention of becoming the youth’s boyfriend or girlfriend. In time, the 'romance' deteriorates and the gifts diminish. Money gets tight, and the exploiter asks the child to do him a favor: 'Well, you know, since you’ll be staying with me, we need more food. We need to find a way to get some money.' This 'favor' usually involves selling sex. Soon, one favor turns into another. The youth now 'works' for her exploiter and 'will remain loyal and hopeful that someday the loving relationship will return.' It never does."

Alameda County DA’s Human Exploitation & Trafficking (H.E.A.T.) Watch Program released its first graphic novel about child sex trafficking with the story of a victim that is all too common in the Bay Area. With powerful illustrations and moving narrative, the Romeo pimp nightmare is shown in its terrifying reality. The impact of this anti-trafficking tool should serve as a cautionary tale to vulnerable girls as prevention and a motivating impetus for citizens to work against the sale of children in their communities.

A tragic result of this treachery is that these minors often don't realize they are being criminally exploited and are victims of, in President Obama's words, "the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name—modern slavery." In a study of 113 sexually exploited minors served by agencies in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, the WestCoast Children's Clinic discovered that "fewer than half recognize that their pimp or exploiter is not operating in their best interest."

As their perception of a satisfactory relationship becomes hideously distorted, the standards by which these horrifically abused children define acts of human kindness can also sink woefully low. A report about commercially exploited minors in New York recorded this testimony: "one [victim] considered one of her dates helpful because he had not participated in a gang rape and 'helped me find my clothes. I think he felt bad ‘cause I was crying.'”

Protect Oakland, another initiative by H.E.A.T. Watch, confirms that "many commercially sexually exploited minors do not think of themselves as victims and often feel sympathy for their traffickers due to trauma bonding." Exploiters plying love and romance as trafficking tactics do so to entrap minors into a nightmare of being sold for sex and then keep them there.

The Protect Oakland billboard campaign in partnership with M.I.S.S.S.E.Y. and Clear Channel Outdoor intends to raise awareness of the victimization of children. The audience of this nationally lauded campaign includes those who are being exploited to help them recognize that their "valentines" are vicious criminals.

For these victims of child rape for profit, the campaign promotes local resources and support services to escape from harm, be protected, and helped towards recovery and independence. For the community, the billboards inform about the threat of commercial sexual exploitation and how to report it.

While it is understandable a child not realizing they are being victimized by a calculating predator posing as a valentine, it's inexcusable for adults not to recognize them as victims of an atrocious crime and to respond as they would to any other form of child sexual assault. As one of the campaign's billboards states: "Buying a teen for sex is child abuse. Turning a blind eye is neglect."

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