By the time you are done reading this column, three to four children will have been trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation in the U.S. alone.

This is according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, citing that every two minutes a minor is trafficked; this alarming quota doesn't even touch on the legions of those above age 18 suffering the same fate.

For many, sex trafficking is an appalling and disconcerting subject, but one that is far removed from the spectrum of our daily lives. People convince themselves that human trafficking is something that happens abroad, probably in lesser developed areas of the world. Not near us, and certainly not in Knoxville.

Wrong – Knox County was one of 78 Tennessee counties – collectively comprising 85 percent of the state – that reported at least one case of human sex trafficking in a 2011 investigative report conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and Vanderbilt Center.

"Human trafficking and sex slavery in Tennessee is more common than previously believed possible," Mark Gwyn, TBI director, said in the report. "Tennessee, simply because of its geographical position to Atlanta and the large number of interstates that cross the state, is conducive to a traveling business."

With numbers like these in mind, it is time Knoxville starts taking a more active approach to combating the atrocious pervasiveness of sex trafficking, particularly through preventive measures. One significant way this can be accomplished is through a radical reevaluation of how we as a society view prostitutes.

Prostitution has long been a stigmatic way of life and placed in an entirely separate sphere from sex trafficking, although in reality the line between the two is blurred and often nonexistent. The term "sex trafficking" immediately elicits cries of enraged protest and a sympathetic attitude toward victims. Now think about the last time you saw a woman who was presumably a prostitute on the street – to those unaware, they do exist in Knoxville. Did you feel sympathy for her?

Chances are, no, you didn't. We are socially conditioned to wrinkle our noses at the sight of women working the streets, to judge them and assume they chose their degrading lifestyle for themselves. The reality is: most did not.

Last spring, I had the opportunity to see Theresa Flores' lecture "Sexualization of the 21st Century: A Human Trafficking Epidemic," brought to UT by the Women's Coordinating Council. Flores, an escaped sex slave herself, provided eye-opening facts and insight that made me realize I, too, had been habituated to view prostitutes as almost less than human and consequently judge them for their "choices."

As Flores taught me, for the overwhelming majority of girls and women, prostitution did not begin as a choice. A staggering third of women in the sex trade were sold into it by their families (again, this is in America we are focusing on), with the average age for entry into prostitution being 13 years old.

Sixty percent of trafficked girls are tricked into the business, like Flores herself was. These "tricks" are executed in a variety of ways – in Flores' case, she was drugged and raped by multiple men at the age of 15. Video footage of her gruesome assault and threats on her younger brother's life were then used as leverage to coerce her into joining her rapists' "business."

A substantial number of prostitutes are sourced from the enormous number of runaway children in the U.S., which hovers at nearly half a million. TBI's investigation revealed that one in four children who run away from home are approached for commercial sexual exploitation within 48 hours of leaving home.

In order to aid victims currently suffering from forced prostitution and prevent those at-risk from being sucked into the trade to begin with, we need to change the way prostitutes are socially construed and stop criminalizing them, especially legally. One of the most alarming statistics Flores provided was that in cases of prostitution-related arrests, 90 percent are the prostitutes themselves. That leaves only 10 percent of customers, or "johns," and pimps incarcerated – both groups the very reason prostitution exists to begin with.

Society blames the women, arrests them, then throws them back out into the world with a criminal record, no support, no sympathy and nowhere else to turn but back to the lifestyle they've known. It is likely for this reason that most women will not survive lives of prostitution for more than seven years.

By criminalizing prostitutes, we take away their only chance at salvation – our empathy.

Liv McConnell is a junior in journalism and electronic media. She can be reached at mmconn12@utk.edu.