What is Sex Trafficking?

Human trafficking – for both forced labor and sex – is modern-day slavery. It is the fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world, and incredibly lucrative – a $150 billion per year industry (International Labor Organization, 2014) in the buying and selling of human beings for profit and pleasure. The profits are huge and the risks of being prosecuted are slim.

Federal law (Trafficking Victims Protection Act) defines sex trafficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act where such an act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform the act is under 18 years of age.” A commercial sex act, which includes pornography, stripping, and prostitution, is an act performed for anything of value. What is received in this exchange is often money, but can include something as simple as a hamburger for someone who is hungry, a place to stay, drugs, or higher status in a gang.

While it is true that there are individuals who are at higher risk for becoming a victim, such as runaways, those who have experienced abuse and youth who have been in the foster care system, all children and teens/young adults are vulnerable to some extent. Traffickers are masters of both targeting  and manipulation – seeking out youth where they congregate: parks, malls, coffee shops, transit stations – as well as through social media.  Potential victims are approached and groomed, sometimes while living right at home, and are often advertised for sale on the internet. A comparatively small percentage of these cases involve abductions – most are being sold by people they have met and know, threatened with harm to themselves or their families if they try to leave or tell someone.

A lack of awareness, coupled with the anonymity afforded by the use of the internet and cell phones, makes the role of the pimp and the recruiter extremely easy and the task of law enforcement much more difficult. Fueled by a variety of vulnerability factors, as well as greed and demand, the scope of this horrific crime seems overwhelming, but everyone can make a difference. Seek out education and training, share with those in your sphere of influence about the tactics of traffickers, and know the red flags to watch for. There is truly no place for ignorance and complacency. This is happening on our watch and we who have the freedom, resources and opportunity can take a stand, seek justice and restoration for the marginalized and exploited.


Quick Facts:

  • Sex Trafficking has been documented in every state – it is happening in rural areas and suburbia as well as urban centers.
  • Victims of sex trafficking can be U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, women, men, children, and LGBTQ individuals.
  • Sex trafficking occurs in a range of venues including fake massage businesses, via online ads or escort services, in residential brothels, on the street or at truck stops, or at hotels and motels.
  • In 2016, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimated that 1 in 6 endangered runaways reported to them were likely sex trafficking victims.
  • In a 2014 report, the Urban Institute estimated that the underground sex economy ranged from $39.9 million in Denver, Colorado, to $290 million in Atlanta, Georgia.