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Sex trafficking has spread deep into Tennessee's rural communities, a panel of experts said Wednesday, creating fresh challenges for efforts to stop the enslavement of women and children for sex.

Studies by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation show that 17 of the 21 counties in the state where sex trafficking is most prevalent are categorized as rural. That finding contradicts assumptions that sex trafficking primarily involves foreign-born women living in cities, TBI special agent Margie Quin told an audience of about 100 who attended a Lipscomb University forum organized by The Women's Fund of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

"It happens to U.S. citizens in our own backyard," Quin said.

A century after Congress passed the Mann Act to combat the "white slavery" of prostitution by criminalizing the transport of women across state lines for immoral purposes, concern over sex trafficking has again been on the rise in Tennessee. A coalition of activists, law enforcement officials and state lawmakers has worked to raise awareness about child exploitation and the coerced prostitution of women.

The effort has led to tougher state penalties for human trafficking, and the passage of a Tennessee law that lets prosecutors charge those who pay for sex with trafficking. The Department of Children's Services and the Department of Human Services also have been asked to designate staff specifically to helping adults and children being exploited.

Much of the push has been based on a 2011 study that documented more than 100 recent cases of sex trafficking in Tennessee. The TBI will release a follow-up report by the end of this year that focuses on factors that pave the way for boys and girls to be forced into prostitution, Quin said.

Experts said victims of sex trafficking first fall prey around the age of 13, on average, as traffickers take advantage of past sexual abuse, domestic violence or other childhood traumas.

Reaching vulnerable children who live in rural areas can be difficult, the panel said, since outreach efforts tend to be based in and funded by Tennessee's major cities. But they said increased awareness of risk factors and the signs of sexual abuse can protect boys and girls from traffickers.

"Training can be prevention," said Derri Smith, the founder and executive director of End Slavery Tennessee, a Nashville group that focuses on human trafficking.

Panelists also heard from Ryan Dalton, co-founder of Rescue Forensics, a Memphis firm that collects and archives information from websites, such as Craigslist and Backpage, often used to advertise sex. The firm's database can be tapped by police officers to detect signs of sex traffickers' operating in their communities and by prosecutors to build cases against traffickers.

Dalton urged audience members to consider how they can put their professional skills to work to combat sex trafficking.

"Anybody can be an abolitionist," he said. "The needs are endless."

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