Human Trafficking: An Overview of Sex Trafficking

Updated: Jul 16, 2020


In 2019, the National Human Trafficking Hotline announced that there were 11,500 reported cases of human trafficking. Of those, 8,248 were reported to be sex trafficking and 1,236 were reported to be labor trafficking; while 505 were a combination of sex and labor trafficking. The crucial item to emphasize here is that these are only the reported cases - as human trafficking is significantly underreported.

Source: The National Human Trafficking Hotline

What is Sex Trafficking?

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) defines sex trafficking as a form of modern-day slavery in which women, men, or children are forced into commercial sexual exploitation through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Under U.S. federal law, any minor under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex acts are considered to be victims of human trafficking, regardless of whether there is consent force, fraud, or coercion. Sex traffickers frequently target victims and use violence, threats, lies, false promises, or other forms of control and manipulation to keep victims involved in the sex industry for profit.

Even though traffickers often use tools of physical and psychological abuse, victims of sex trafficking are often viewed as willful participants in prostitution. A key element in understanding the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution is consent. Prostitution is usually classified as willful and the person is usually doing so under their own accord. Sex trafficking happens when the victim is forced against their will into sexual servitude. Many sex trafficking victims give their consent and seem as though they are willfully engaging in prostitution but their consent was obtained through force, fraud, or coercion. Traffickers use an abundance of different tactics to force or coerce their victims. For example, restricting access to food or shelter until the victim consents to their demands. Thus, someone who has no food, shelter, or safety can be coerced into sexual servitude to maintain their access to those necessities without needing to use physical forms of restraint or force.

Another well-known form of human trafficking is labor trafficking, which involves the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion. In labor trafficking cases, people are trafficked by being forced to work as domestic servants, farmworkers, or factory workers in inhumane conditions and often without any pay. It’s important not to confuse sex or labor trafficking with other similar forms of abuse and criminal activity. Human trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, which involves illegal border crossings.

Though labor trafficking is an important issue, the remainder of this report will focus only on providing a comprehensive overview of sex trafficking including the following:(1) the different forms of sex trafficking so that one can begin to recognize what this type of victimization looks like, (2)how sex traffickers maintain control over their victims by breaking down the specific tactics that traffickers use, (3) the trauma-informed approaches and the steps that law enforcement can take to help a sex trafficking victim, and finally (5) a brief list of resources available for victims of sex trafficking.

Source: Human Trafficking Center

Forms of Sex Trafficking

Victims of trafficking are forced into various forms of commercial sexual exploitation including:

  • Prostitution,

  • Pornography,

  • Stripping,

  • Live-sex shows,

  • Mail-order brides,

  • Military prostitution

  • Sex tourism.

Typical Venues

  • Sex trafficking operations can be found in highly-visible venues such as street prostitution, as well as more underground systems such as closed- brothels that operate out of residential homes.

  • Sex trafficking also takes place in a variety of public and private locations such as massage parlors, spas, strip clubs, and other fronts for prostitution.

  • Victims may start off dancing or stripping in clubs and then be coerced into situations of prostitution and pornography.

How Do Sex Traffickers Maintain Control?

An estimated 20.9 million men, women, and children are trafficked for commercial sex or forced labor every year, worldwide. Many of these cases are not reported because of the coercion and manipulation tactics that traffickers use to elicit compliance. Many victims often don't want to report being trafficked because: (1) they may fear being viewed as complicit and risking imprisonment, (2) they may be financially dependent on their trafficker(s), or (3) they fear that they or their family may be harmed as a result of cooperating with law enforcement. Traffickers prey upon these fears while simultaneously using a myriad of other tactics to continue to seek unwavering compliance from victims.

Tactics used by Sex Traffickers:

  • Manipulating their victims by gaining their love and trust through an initial period of false love and feigned affection

o initial period is critical to attaining long-term emotional control and manipulation of highly vulnerable victims often with past trauma and experiences with victimization

  • Catering to low self-esteem by promising victimscareers in modeling, dancing in music videos, or an entryway into show business

  • Promises of a better life, including future luxuries or even basic financial support that for food and necessities

  • Creating a sense of family, belonging, and protection, which may sometimes be the first experience the victim has had with feeling any form of security

  • Purposeful targeting of minors because of their vulnerability and naivete, making it easier for traffickers to control them

  • Premeditated targeting of substance abusers, possibly homeless, who are already vulnerable

  • Kidnapping

  • Violence or force

Trauma-Informed Approaches to Human Trafficking

When victims come into contact with law enforcement, they are often fearful and traumatized. Law enforcement must be aware of this and take proactive steps to provide trauma-informed approaches to these victims. Victims are victims and they should be treated as such.

In the quest to be trauma-informed law enforcement must understand that victims have bonded with their traffickers. As such, victims may fear losing their trafficker, sense of support, and stability - especially if they have not received those things anywhere else. This is one of many examples explaining why victims are fearful of speaking with the police.

In cases of sex trafficking, the trafficker may continue to have significant control over the victim emotionally, even when the victim establishes a sense of safety. Therefore, it is imperative that law enforcement use approaches that take into consideration the trauma and emotional triggers victims experience. Doing so, enables the victim to feel empowered, cooperate with law enforcement investigations, and also limits re-traumatization.

When Interviewing Victims, Use Trauma-Informed Questions:

  • Keep questions general and open-ended; the victim may give you more information this way

  • Refrain from judging any victim or using facial expressions that depict a negative emotion reaction

For example, if a victim tells you about something they experienced that was violent and gruesome, it is helpful not to react in a horrified or disgusted manner, instead, make eye contact with the victim.

Instead - acknowledge it must have been a difficult experience and ask if they need a moment.

  • Do be aware of the victim’s trauma but avoid excessive sympathy or pity, as this may cause a victim to feel patronized

  • Don't argue with the victim and do not interrogate them

For example, a victim provides a different explanation of where they were on the night in question. Instead of asking a question that suggests guilt “didn't you just say earlier that you were at home that night?”.

Say instead, “you mentioned earlier that you were home that night, I wanted to clarify and make sure I got all the details down correctly. Was my understanding correct?”.

By simply rephrasing, the victim will take the position of clarifying and not defending themselves.

  • Do not question victims’ reactions or ask them why they did or didn't do something when being trafficked

Things Law Enforcement Must Remember When Interacting with Sex Trafficking Victims:

  • Victims and abusers are sometimes in intimate relationships, and it can be difficult to break that bond

  • A threatened person may find it difficult to escape and may believe he or she cannot, and thus are dependent on the abuser

  • A threatened person may be isolated from others, which can eliminate any possible alternative relationships for support

  • While anyone can become a victim of trafficking, certain populations are especially vulnerable; vulnerable groups may include the following:

o Undocumented immigrants (because they have limited accessibility to the legal system due to fear and hostile national immigration policies)

o Runaways or homeless youth

o Victims of previous trauma and abuse

o Refugees and individuals fleeing conflict

o Drug addicts/substance abusers

National Resources on Sex Trafficking For Law Enforcement To Consider:

  • The National Human Trafficking Hotline connects victims and survivors of sex and labor trafficking with services and supports to get help and stay safe. The toll-free phone, SMS text lines, and live online chat function are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Help is available in English or Spanish, or more than 200 additional languages through an on-call interpreter. Call 1-888-373-7888(TTY:711)

  • Victims and survivors can also call a Legal Services Corporation program in their area for legal assistance. The Legal Services Corporation website has an interactive map where victims can choose their state and see what legal resources are available. T: 202-295-1500

  • RAINN operates The National Sexual Assault Hotline. It is a safe, confidential service made up of a network of independent sexual assault service providers, vetted by RAINN, who answer calls to a single, nationwide hotline number. The number for the National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-HOPE and click here for their online chat hotline.

  • Amara Legal Center provides free legal services to individuals whose rights have been violated while involved in commercial sex, whether involvement was by coercion, necessity, choice, or otherwise, in the D.C. metropolitan area.

  • The Domestic Victims of Human Trafficking Program (DVHT) follows a comprehensive approach and aids victims by providing housing options in the short and long term, as well as treatment for substance abuse, counseling, educational resources, employment services, legal services, and financial services.

These are just a few of the resources available for victims. For more information on human trafficking, please check out our TTA catalog and resources page. Like and comment below to continue the conversation!

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