What is Sex Trafficking?

Sex trafficking is a form of sexual exploitation that occurs when an individual uses force, fraud, or coercion to cause another individual to engage in sex acts in exchange for something of value. Money is most frequently traded, but items of value may also include shelter, food, drugs, power, esteem, and social currency. Sex trafficking is often conflated with prostitution, a form of sex work where an individual “voluntarily” engages in sex in exchange for something of value. In actuality, the term “sex trafficking” more broadly refers to a third party’s exploitation and sale of another for sexual purposes.

Sex trafficking affects adults as well as minors, but the key difference between the two is the requirement to show that force, fraud, or coercion were involved in the process of exchanging sex for something of value. Adults can consent to sex work, meaning that there has to be a clear lack of consent—the use of force, fraud, or coercion, for example—in order for the act of selling sex to be considered sex trafficking. Such is not the case with minor victims because minors are unable to consent to sex. Because minors cannot give consent, one need not show that a minor was trafficked via force, fraud, or coercion.

Sex trafficking exists on a continuum of sexualized violence, from micro-aggressive sexual harassment to macro-aggressive gang rapes. It thrives on intersectional inequality and the vulnerability of its victims. Thus, while adult men, women, and those of other gender identities can become victims of sex trafficking, young girls and persons of color are disproportionately affected and targeted by sex traffickers. The sex trafficking industry is a global enterprise that generates billions of dollars per year by exploiting vulnerable, young bodies into forced sexualized conduct. It is one of the largest and fastest-growing organized crimes.

Who buys sex?

Anyone can buy sex. Most often, men make up the purchase population, but anyone can buy sex. Buyers, often called “johns,” transcend demographics and stereotypes. A john could be a doctor, a police officer, a tourist, or even a family member. However, little research about the specific behavior or demographics of the average buyer is available, in part because those who purchase sex typically pay in cash to avoid leaving a “paper trail” that could lead to their identification.

Who is most vulnerable to being trafficked?

Sex traffickers prey on vulnerable people because vulnerability makes a victim easier to exploit and control. Specifically, sex trafficking as an industry targets and preys on those who experience material vulnerabilities like financial instability or homelessness, as well as emotional vulnerabilities like a history of emotional abuse or low self-esteem. These types of societally marginalized populations are most susceptible to trafficking victimization.

Why don’t victims of sex trafficking “just leave”?

Survivors are regularly trafficked by someone already close to them. Many people are forced into sexual violence and sale by romantic partners, spouses, parents and other family members. Traffickers prey on marginalized, vulnerable populations with the knowledge that they have fewer resources and social safety nets to leave. Urgent financial need is the biggest reason people enter or are forced into trafficking. Traffickers, colloquially known as pimps, exploit this vulnerability to trap victims and cut them off from any means of escape .

Survivors overwhelmingly enter sex trafficking as minors, most often between the ages of 11 to 16. At such a young age, most victims are unaware that they are being victimized to begin with, and are often afforded little agency, knowledge, or access to resources for help and intervention.

Moreover, victims are often criminalized by the criminal justice system despite strong evidence that they were forced by a trafficker to engage in sex acts. Because survivors are frequently confronted with inadequate support and victim blaming when they do come forward for help, they often learn not to trust the authorities and systems that purport to protect them.

Why does language matter?

Language influences the way we make value judgments about people. The words we use to describe someone impacts whether we view them as a victim or participant, as perpetrator or innocent, as willing or unwilling. The language commonly used in discussions of sex trafficking often lends itself to blaming victims for the crimes committed against them. Language reinforces these ideas which promote treating victims not as victims — but as criminals — by both society and by the criminal justice system. As a result, we deem victims are untrustworthy and undeserving of sympathy.

Does trafficking occur in the United States?

Yes, sex trafficking occurs globally, including our local communities. It is a very real and prominent problem in neighborhoods throughout the United States. Trafficking victims are not exclusively girls born in foreign countries who are brought here to be trafficked. Instead, traffickers who operate in the United States often target United States citizens using the same types of exploitative tactics that traffickers use on victims who are immigrants to the United States.