Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation
last updated July 2015
 

Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world, fueled in large part by the lucrative business of trafficking women and girls for commercial sexual exploitation.[1] Sex trafficking represents at least two-thirds of the estimated $150 billion in illegal profits generated annually by all forced labor around the world.[2] While sophisticated criminal organizations are increasingly involved in the international sex trafficking of women and girls, many victims are trafficked locally or within limited geographic regions by “unorganized” pimps or semi-organized criminal networks.[3] (See Trafficking in Women: Organized Crime and Trafficking in Women: Trafficking Routes for more information).

 

Commercial sexual exploitation takes many forms, and the relationship between prostitution and trafficking for sex purposes can be complicated. However, some researchers argue that, “pimp-controlled prostitution is indistinguishable from trafficking,” given the prevalence of violence and coercion in the commercial sex industry as whole.[4] Additionally, an increasing amount of research links rising demand for commercial sex in more economically prosperous countries with growing demand for trafficked women and girls.[5] A 2012 study by the London School of Economics and the German Institute for Economic Research found that human trafficking “inflows” into a country were highest in rich countries such as Germany with legalized prostitution and a thriving commercial sex market.[6] (See Trafficking in Women: Demand for Women’s Sexual Services for more information).

 

Some women are deceived, coerced, drugged or kidnapped before being trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. Vulnerable young girls trafficked for sex in their home country or abroad may be targeted and “groomed” by traffickers who pretend a romantic interest in the girls and then use violence and rape to control them.[7] The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that this particular form of recruitment by traffickers, known as “feigned romantic interest,” is becoming more prevalent.[8] Many women have never worked as prostitutes and do not know what is happening until they find themselves raped or forced to take clients.[9] These women may be trafficked into work at strip clubs as waitresses or as dancers, which then leads to situations of forced prostitution.[10] Some women are trafficked directly to brothels, where they are held against their will, coerced, raped and threatened.[11]

 

Regardless of how women are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation, the terrible conditions under which they are generally forced to work violate their fundamental human rights, including the right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity.[12] Women and girls trafficked across international borders, either by force or deception, are often at the mercy of brothel owners and pimps because they cannot speak the language or are unfamiliar with local customs.[13] Traffickers also use physical and sexual assault, threats of harm to the victim or to her family, and imprisonment to control women.[14] Few women successfully escape their traffickers. If they do escape, they may be caught, and the resulting punishment for the victim or her family can include severe injury or even death.[15] 

 

Most of the commercial sex trade is now conducted online, expanding the scale and scope prostitution as well as the demand for sexually exploited women and girls. As described in a 2014 Albany Law Review article:

 

Fifty years ago pimps coerced women to solicit on the street where they were advertised to the relatively limited marketplace of sex buyers who evaluated the women‘s physical appearances and made selections on the street corner. Prostitution is now a business that is advertised on the Internet, expanding the reach of pimps to a wider market of potential sex buyers. Women can be sold for 15 minutes or for a week for johns‘ sexual use, selected and purchased online like a rental car . . . . Eighty-eight percent of sex buyers in a 2011 research study had bought women and children for sexual use indoors via Internet-advertised escort agencies, strip clubs, gentlemen‘s clubs, brothels, and massage parlors . . . . Adapted by traffickers, pimps, and pornographers, the global reach of the Internet has facilitated sex buyers‘ access to prostituted women and children, thereby increasing sex trafficking.[16]

 

Earlier commentators noted the same trend, stating, "[t]he Internet has become a vast resource for promoting the global trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children. The information superhighway is used to actively engage in the buying and selling of women and children.”[17] Additionally, the European Police agency, Europol, reports that traffickers are leveraging social media, web-chats and web-cameras to lure more victims into prostitution and control their movements more easily and cheaply.[18] In general, the crime of sex trafficking thrives due to high demand and low risk of criminal punishment.[19]



[1] Polaris, “Human Trafficking,” http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/overview/why-trafficking-exists (accessed April 30, 2015).

[2] International Labor Organization, “Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labor” (May 20, 2014).

[3] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014” (Vienna: 2014), https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/GLOTIP_2014_full_report.pdf. 

[4] Melissa Farley, Kenneth Franzblau, and M. Alexis Kennedy, “Online Prostitution and Trafficking,” Albany Law Review 77, no. 3, 1055 (October 8, 2014): 1039-1094, http://www.albanylawreview.org/Articles/Vol77_3/77.3.1039%20Farley%20Franzblau%20Kennedy.pdf.

[5] Vanessa Von Struensee, "Globalized, Wired, Sex Trafficking in Women and Children," Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law 7, http://www.murdoch.edu.au/elaw/issues/v7n2/struensee72nf.html.

[6] Seo-Young Cho, Axel Dreher and Eric Neumayer, “Does Legalized Prostitution Increase Human Trafficking?” World Development 41, no. 1 (January 16, 2012): 67-82, http://ssrn.com/abstract=1986065.

[7] Lauren Martin and Alexandra Pierce, et al., “Mapping the Market for Sex with Trafficked Minor Girls in Minneapolis: Structures, Functions, and Patterns,” Full Report: Preliminary Findings, September 2014, available at http://uroc.umn.edu/documents/mapping-the-market-full.pdf.

[8] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014” (Vienna: 2014), https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/GLOTIP_2014_full_report.pdf.

[9] See, e.g., Rafael Romo, “Promise of a better life leads to the nightmare of sexual slavery,” CNN.com, September 17, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/09/16/human.trafficking.claudia/.

[10] Human Rights Watch, "Hopes Betrayed: Trafficking of Women and Girls to Post-Conflict Bosnia Sex Industry," Bosnia And Herzegovina, p. 16-17, Volume 14, No. 9(D), November 2002.

[11] See, e.g., Hazel Thompson, “Inside the brutal and hopeless world of Mumbai's trafficked teenage sex slaves,” The Guardian, September 28, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/28/trafficked-india-red-light-districts.

[12] See the Advocates for Human Rights, Stop Violence Against Women, “Trafficking Violates Women's Human Rights,” http://www.stopvaw.org/Trafficking_Violates_Women_s_Human_Rights (accessed November 20, 2014).

[13] Vanessa Von Struensee, "Globalized, Wired, Sex Trafficking in Women and Children," Murdoch University Electronic Journal of Law 7, http://www.murdoch.edu.au/elaw/issues/v7n2/struensee72nf.html; see also Rafael Romo, “Promise of a better life leads to the nightmare of sexual slavery,” CNN.com, September 17, 2010, http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/americas/09/16/human.trafficking.claudia/.

[14] See, e.g., Hazel Thompson, “Inside the brutal and hopeless world of Mumbai's trafficked teenage sex slaves,” The Guardian, September 28, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/28/trafficked-india-red-light-districts.

[15] Ibid.; see also, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime,Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014,” pp. 32, 38, 43, 45 (Vienna: 2014), https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/glotip/GLOTIP_2014_full_report.pdf. 

[16] Melissa Farley, Kenneth Franzblau, and M. Alexis Kennedy, “Online Prostitution and Trafficking,” Albany Law Review 77, no. 3 (October 8, 2014): 1039-1094, http://www.albanylawreview.org/Articles/Vol77_3/77.3.1039%20Farley%20Franzblau%20Kennedy.pdf.

[17] Ibid.

[18] The Associated Press, “Sex traffickers 'using Facebook' to lure young women into prostitution,” IBN Live, November 28, 2014, http://ibnlive.in.com/news/sex-traffickers-using-facebook-to-lure-young-women-into-prostitution/515344-11.html.

[19] Polaris, “Human Trafficking,” http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/overview/why-trafficking-exists (accessed April 30, 2015).