Sex Trafficking

Last updated April 9th, 2020

Sex trafficking involves the commercialization of sex acts for the economic benefit of another – namely, the trafficker. It can but does not always involve the use of force, coercion, or deception to require the performance of sexual acts for money or other economic purposes.  It can involve exploiting children or teens for sex acts in return for something of economic value (often a place to stay or food).  It can involve exploiting into the sex trade people who are vulnerable for reasons of poverty, drug or alcohol addiction, being part of a marginalized population, or having cognitive deficits.  It commonly occurs within a person’s own town or city, or it can involve the movement of people across state or national borders. 

The sex trade and sexual exploitation are complex because they take many forms. Many argue that there is a difference between being trafficked by another versus working for one’s own economic gain in the sex trade industry; not all activities in the sex trade meet the definition of “trafficking.”  There is some debate among advocates and professionals as to whether anyone trading sex for economic benefit does so truly “voluntarily.”[1]  However, for the purpose of this discussion, “trafficking” involves specifically the economic gain by one person derived by the performance of sex acts by another.

The sale of people for sex occurs in many different ways. People are sex trafficked via social media platforms, and as part of the adult entertainment industry, such as in strip clubs and adult pornography.  Sex trafficking is committed in hotel rooms, suburban basements, brothels, apartments rented solely for commercial sex, massage parlors, vehicles, truck stops, on city streets, in parks, and in bars.  It is ubiquitous.    

Anyone can get pulled into sex trafficking, but there are certain factors that make some more vulnerable than others.  Sex traffickers often exploit people whose circumstances make them vulnerable.   High risk factors include a history of childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or of sexual assault, involvement in the child protection system or juvenile justice system, parental drug or alcohol abuse, parental domestic violence, substance abuse, and housing instability.[2]  People of color are far more represented among those trafficked than are whites; people who identify as LGBTI are also highly-represented.[3]     

Gender

Women and girls are more vulnerable to sex trafficking than are males, although not necessarily by wide margins.[4]  Across the world, women and girls have less access to education, monetary resources, and power – all the factors that create risk for human trafficking.  Sex trafficking is a symptom of patriarchy that makes (generally) male buyers feel entitled to sex if they can pay for it, and that blinds them to the circumstances of the victim/survivor.[5]

However, because sex trafficking is committed in secret and is hard to identify, research about survivors is not always thought to be thoroughly accurate.  Therefore, it is not clear to what extent men and boys are subjected to sex trafficking.  Survivors who identify as male, or as non-binary in their gender, are likely driven even more underground than females by the stigma of being trafficked, and therefore may be underrepresented in studies.[6]  Thus, it may be that resources focused on female victims/survivors may fail to support a significant population of sex trafficking survivors.

Race

In any given location, racial or ethnic minorities generally suffer sex trafficking at higher rates than do those in the majority racial or ethnic population.  Racism is a root cause of many of the economic and social vulnerabilities that lead to sex trafficking.  Populations that have experienced generational racial trauma are frequently also subjected to astounding rates of sexual violence, including sex trafficking.[7]  Globally, populations in poorer, historically-oppressed areas of the world, for example countries in  Asia and Africa, are sex trafficked into more affluent areas.[8] In the U.S., American Indian and African American women are sex trafficked much more commonly than are other groups.[9]

Youth

Youth who have problematic home lives are prime targets for trafficking.  Youth who run from home, for example, are likely to be approached by a trafficker within days of leaving home.  Youth who identify as LGBTI are more likely than others to suffer abuse at home, and to run or to be kicked out of their family homes.[10]  This makes that population particularly vulnerable to sex traffickers.

Regardless of why the teen is away from their family home, the trafficker can exploit that lack of stability.  This usually involves a “grooming” period in which the trafficker will give the emotionally-hurting person attention, compliments, tell the person he “loves” her, and buy things for the person such as clothing, food, or drugs.[11]  The trafficker offers the teen a “family,” often calling himself the “daddy.”[12]  The trafficker will then begin demanding that they pay their way by “working” for the family selling sex acts for money.  This demand may begin within as little as a day from when they met, and it will almost always be accompanied by rape.  The money earned all goes to the trafficker.

Adults

People enter sex trafficking as adults, too.[13]  In some cases, a trafficker may portray himself as a boyfriend – again, offering “love” and stability to someone who lacks those things.  This relationship, however, will involve acts of domestic violence, sexual violence, and the constant threat of those things.  The trafficker may threaten that the trafficked person must help to pay their way, using the internet or personal contacts to arrange for paid sexual encounters.  The trafficker will keep all of the money.  The trafficker may have other “girlfriends” who also “work” for him.  The trafficker may also use the victim’s/survivor‘s children, especially if he is the father, as a means of control.  Controlling access to children, or threatening to call child protection services, are strong weapons for traffickers.

Some trafficked adults work for a massage parlor and are required to exchange sex acts to keep their jobs.  Some are actually kidnapped for the purpose of being forced into the sex trade.[14]   Sex trafficking adults is as variable as are the ways in which people experience life difficulties.

Family Members

Children are sometimes trafficked into the sex trade by their own families.[15]  Having family members who sell sex, traffic others, or even who buy sex, are strong trafficking risk factors for a child.[16]  A parent’s drug addiction is also a strong risk factor for familial child trafficking.[17]  Sometimes a young person is desperate for money and a friend teaches them how to make money through trading sex.[18]   This is known as “survival sex.”

 International

While a person can be trafficked in their own home or hometown, traffickers also transport people across international borders for sex trafficking.[19]  This may begin with a promise of a better life, to someone who is expecting to go to another country for a “regular” job.  It may involve a friend or family member “selling” the trafficked person to traffickers who whisk the person away.  It may involve all the risks discussed above, making the person fall into the hands of traffickers who take them across state lines or country borders to be sold for sex elsewhere.[20]

Victims/survivors of international sex trafficking commonly fall prey to a particular type of exploitation called debt bondage. Traffickers burden victims with excessive “debt” to trap them and exploit them for sex or labor. In the context of sex trafficking, debt bondage usually occurs when traffickers force people into commercial sex work to pay off “unlawful ‘debt’ purportedly incurred through the victim’s/survivor’s transportation, recruitment, or even their crude ‘sale.’”1 It can be very difficult for trafficking victims/survivors to escape from debt bondage because they rely on their traffickers for basic needs like housing, food, and transportation.

In situations of debt bondage, people are unable to earn back the amount “owed” to the traffickers. If the trafficked people are in a country illegally or do not speak the local language, they have little recourse against their traffickers.  The traffickers often retain travel documents and use violence and threats of violence against the victims/survivors or their families to further control them. Traffickers may continue to charge costs for other services such as room and board and then fail to apply money earned by the trafficked person to the debt.2

In the context of illicit massage businesses, for instance, traffickers control victims/survivors with “debts” accrued from a variety of sources. Not only do traffickers use traveling fees, rent, or other household costs against victims, but also arbitrary fees for avoiding “bad” buyers or breaking house rules that perpetrators make up. When trafficking victims are allowed to keep their tips, if at all, they are often forced to use that money to pay off debts or other living expenses.3

Conclusion

The “stock” of people for sale for sex is constantly “rotated” by traffickers, from brothel to strip club, pornography to street walking, to major sports events. This worldwide endemic problem is fueled by the demand of ready buyers. Unlike drugs, human beings can be used over and over again in trafficking.  The more we understand it, the better we can provide solutions to end the sex trafficking of humans.    



[1] L.D. Long, (2004) Anthropological perspectives on the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation. International Migration, 42(1), 5-31.

[2] L. Fedina, C. Williamson, & T. Perdue, (2016). Risk Factors for Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in the United States, J. Interpersonal Violence, 34(13), 2653-2673.

[3] L. Fedina, C. Williamson, & T. Perdue, (2016). Risk Factors for Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in the United States, J. Interpersonal Violence, 34(13), 2653-2673.

 

[4] UNDOC (2018).  Global Report on Trafficking Persons, United Nations publication E.19.IV.2.

[5] (2019, updating 2018 report), Who Buys Sex?  Understanding and Disrupting Illicit Market Demand. DemandAbolition.org https://www.demandabolition.org/who-buys-sex/

[6] https://www.nursing.umn.edu/research/research-projects/trading-sex-and-sexual-exploitation-among-high-school-students

[7] C. Nelson Butler (2015). The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking, 62 U.C.L.A. Law. Rev. 1464.

[8] UNDOC (2018).  Global Report on Trafficking Persons, United Nations publication E.19.IV.2.

[9] C. Nelson Butler (2015). The Racial Roots of Human Trafficking, 62 U.C.L.A. Law. Rev. 1464.

[10] L. Fedina, C. Williamson, & T. Perdue, (2016). Risk Factors for Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in the United States, J. Interpersonal Violence, 34(13), 2653-2673.

[11] https://www.endslaverynow.org/blog/articles/basic-stages-of-grooming-for-sexual-exploitation

[12] https://sharedhope.org/the-problem/trafficking-terms/

[13] K. Hickle & D. Roe-Sepowitz (2015). “Curiosity and a Pimp:” Exploring Sex Trafficking Victimization in Experiences of Entering Sex Trade Industry Work Among Participants in a Prostitution Diversion Program. Women & Criminal Justice, 27: 122-138.

[14] K. Hickle & D. Roe-Sepowitz (2015). “Curiosity and a Pimp:” Exploring Sex Trafficking Victimization in Experiences of Entering Sex Trade Industry Work Among Participants in a Prostitution Diversion Program. Women & Criminal Justice, 27: 122-138.

[15] G. Sprang & J. Cole (2018). Familial Sex Trafficking -of Minors:  Trafficking Conditions, Clinical Presentation, and System Involvement. Journal of Family Violence 33, 185-195.

[16] G. Sprang & J. Cole (2018). Familial Sex Trafficking -of Minors:  Trafficking Conditions, Clinical Presentation, and System Involvement. Journal of Family Violence 33, 185-195.

[17] G. Sprang & J. Cole (2018). Familial Sex Trafficking -of Minors:  Trafficking Conditions, Clinical Presentation, and System Involvement. Journal of Family Violence 33, 185-195.

[18] L. Fedina, C. Williamson, & T. Perdue, (2016). Risk Factors for Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in the United States, J. Interpersonal Violence, 34(13), 2653-2673.

[19] UNDOC (2018).  Global Report on Trafficking Persons, United Nations publication E.19.IV.2.

[20] UNDOC (2018).  Global Report on Trafficking Persons, United Nations publication E.19.IV.2.