The 2012 film Eden distills all of our culture’s fears about underage sex trafficking into a single nightmare narrative. It shows dozens of young girls kidnapped from high school, forced into prostitution, and then murdered when they get too old for their dissipated clientele. Immoral, heartless criminals preying on innocent, attractive cissexual girls: This is a trafficking story that resonates. 

Eden was supposedly based on the true life experiences of a woman named Chong Kim, and when it was first released it received rapturous media accolades. But it was later revealed that the film was largely fabricated. Indeed, the truth is much less sensational: Most domestic minors in the sex industry are not kidnapping victims. They’re children who have fallen out with their parents (often because they are gay or trans), or been forced from their homes, and who sell sex to survive. And the biggest danger they face is not from organized rings of predatory criminals, but from the police. 

That’s one of the central insights in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains, a new book by RTI International researcher Alexandra Lutnick. Youth in the sex trade are a criminalized and stigmatized population, and it’s very difficult to survey them or get accurate statistics about their experiences. But Lutnick told me by email that in her research and those of others, “It is not uncommon to hear that young people experience violence more often from law enforcement officials than from any other group.” 

In the worst cases, this violence takes the form of physical and sexual assault. Lutnick reports on one incident in which an underage transgender woman in New Orleans was forced to have oral sex with a police officer in order to avoid arrest, and another in which an underage cisgender worker was forced to fondle a police officer for five minutes. “I don’t understand,” the girl told her caseworker, “If he’s an undercover cop and I’m a minor isn’t he not supposed to, you know, let me do that?” (Lutnick also discussed this incident in testimony before a California public safety committee in 2015.) 

Kristen DiAngelo, the executive director of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) Sacramento told me by phone that this kind of police abuse is common and persistent. DiAngelo worked in a massage parlor when she was in high school in the 1970s and early 1980s. “There was this team, two police officers—one was Hispanic one was Asian—that’s all I remember, young men,” she told me. “They’d come over and pick me up and they would take turns doing that with all the girls all over town, they’d take you out to the field, have sex with you—we’d call it rape now. But back then you just did what the police officer wanted. They’d dump you out in the field, it was surrounded by farmland and you had to figure out a way to hitchhike back in.” 

In 2015, SWOP Sacramento interviewed 44 sex workers in the area. They reported similar police abuses to those DiAngelo had experienced. “The same stuff is happening today,” she said. “You could almost remove the face, put in a different person, and everything would be the same.” Jenny Heineman, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas worked with the federally funded Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children program, in collaboration with research teams across the U.S. “More than half of the young people I interviewed stated that they regularly perform sex acts for police officers in exchange for their not being arrested,” she told me. 

The danger for minors engaged in survival sex isn’t just from a few (or many) corrupt officers. The legal system itself is abusive. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000, states that no minors should be charged with prostitution or selling sex. But, Lutnick told me, “Because prostitution-related offenses are regulated at the state level, the federal law is rarely applicable.” In fact, she reports in her book that between 2000 and 2009 arrests of minors for prostitution and related vice charges rose by 8.5 percent. Lutnick found that even in places where minors have technically been decriminalized, young people are arrested for what is essentially a prostitution offense; police find something else to charge them with, like loitering, disturbing the peace, or even lying about their age to police officers. 

Young people are supposedly arrested for their own good, to remove them from the influence of pimps and from their own dangerous choices. But in practice, Lutnick told me, “Any time a young person is arrested, their vulnerabilities increase. If convicted, young people face barriers to employment, housing, benefits, and educational goals.” In other words, arresting young people means that they are less likely to be able to get jobs and education, which means that they have even fewer options other than selling sex.

Because of the threat of abuse and imprisonment from law enforcement, minors engaged in survival sex are afraid to go to the police when they do need help. In her book, Lutnick quotes Leah Albright-Byrd, a survivor of sex trafficking, who says, “I was exploited from 14 to 18, and in four years I did not have one encounter with law enforcement that could have led to my escape from my exploiter.” A 2009 study by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project in Chicago which interviewed youth involved in trading sex concluded, “Police often accuse girls in the sex trade of lying or don’t believe them when they turn to the police for help.” Research shows that most underage people engaged in survival sex work alone or with peers. But when young people do stay with an abusive pimp, according to Heineman, it’s often because they are seeking protection from police. 

“We want so badly to believe the issue of underage sex work is as simple as bad guys hurting good girls,” Heineman told me. But the Eden vision is mostly fiction in America. Boys and girls, both trans and cis, who sell sex for survival don’t usually need police intervention. They need housing, food, and other services. “Young people’s involvement in trading sex needs to be decriminalized,” Lutnick told me. “No one under the age of 18 should be arrested for this. This social issue will not be solved by arresting and prosecuting youth.”