Can we candidly discuss “the girlfriend experience” and sex trafficking of girls with intellectual disabilities?

Can we candidly discuss “the girlfriend experience” and sex trafficking of girls with intellectual disabilities?

Can we candidly discuss “the girlfriend experience” and sex trafficking of girls with intellectual disabilities?

One popular way to make light of harm linked to illegal or legal prostitution and to engender empathy for buyers of sex is by promoting the notion that buyers of sex are primarily seeking to buy “the girlfriend experience” – a way to get their emotional intimacy needs, not sexual demands, met when they purchase sex.

In my research on sex trafficking of underage girls in Florida, I found that one-third of girls exploited in sex trafficking were diagnosed with an intellectual disability (ID). Other study samples have found the same prevalence of ID among sexually exploited girls. The high prevalence of ID among trafficked girls clearly contradicts the notion of the “the girlfriend experience” as a motivation for buying sex.

In my study examining sex trafficking of girls with ID recently published in the journal Sexual Abuse, I examined data from 54 juvenile sex trafficking (JST) cases and compared 15 JST cases involving girls with ID with 39 JST cases involving girls without ID. The findings revealed a disproportionate risk for exploitation in JST for girls with ID, endangering circumstances creating vulnerability among this population, as well as the perpetrator–victim dynamics that complicate prevention and intervention. Complicating dynamics included victim lack of awareness of exploitation and its endangerments, inability of victims to self-identify, and the relative ease with which traffickers manipulated these girls. The disproportionate risk faced by girls with ID substantiates the need for enhanced safeguards to prevent sexual exploitation of girls with ID including stiffer penalties for those who exploit and buy sex with youth with disabilities.

In my sample, the trafficked girls with ID were physically 14 or 15 years old when they were first exploited in sex trafficking but with the intellect of 7- to 10-year-old children. The girls with more severe ID were not capable of protecting themselves from – nor did they even comprehend – sexual exploitation by their schoolmates (“school boys brought her to a house to engage in sex with a stream of random men), strangers (“during her stints of running away, she would get approached by strange men in cars who would ask her to come home with them and she would get in their car and go and engage in sex”), or family members (“mother used to invite men to home to have sex with child for money”). These girls had very limited to no understanding of sexual or romantic relationships and did not understand the difference between a boyfriend and a sex trafficker or buyer of sex. Perhaps, this is what is meant by buying “the girlfriend experience” – sexually exploiting girls who have the innocent mind of a child and cannot tell the difference between you and a boyfriend?

Other girls in my study sample with less severe ID (with the intellect of 10- to 12-year-old girls) seemed to understand to some degree that they were being sexually exploited but had no idea about how to get out of dangerous situations such as being “picked up from a bus stop, beaten, driven to downtown area and forced to have sex with men for money” nor did they grasp their right to say no, as one of the girls was described, she was “unable to say no and just goes along with whatever she is told to do by anyone.” Again, I would like to ask if this is what is meant by buying “the girlfriend experience” – having sex with girls who do not grasp their right to say no to you?

I must ask for your understanding if I sound angry. I am angry. Operating within the shadows of societal tolerance for buyers of sex coupled with unprecedented technological accessibility and anonymity, our most vulnerable children continue to be exploited in the commercial sex industry. Yet, their tragedy is often overlooked and minimized. My research on sex trafficking of girls with ID raises serious doubts about the legitimacy of attributing other motivations to buyers of sex beyond that – buying sex.


Reid, J. A. (2018). Sex Trafficking of Girls with Intellectual Disabilities: An Exploratory Mixed Methods Study. Sexual Abuse, 30(2), 107-131.


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