Millions of people around the globe are victims of sex trafficking. While the prevalence of this criminal enterprise in the United States isn’t clear, it’s become very obvious that women and girls, as well as men and boys, are being sexually exploited for profit, against their will, in cities and towns across all 50 states.
The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as a “modern-day form of slavery involving the illegal trade of people for exploitation or commercial gain.” According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking.
Sex traffickers will use various means – including threats, manipulation, lies, and debt bondage – to coerce adults and children into commercial sex. In the United States, any child under the age of 18 induced into commercial sex is considered a trafficking victim, even if their participation wasn’t coerced through fraud, threats, or other means.
Like all human traffickers, sex enslavers prey upon those who might be particularly susceptible to their manipulations because of psychological or emotional vulnerability, economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, natural disasters, or political instability. In some cases, these monsters will pursue a romantic relationship with their victim, only to manipulate or coerce them into prostitution. Others lure their victims with promises of a job, often in modeling or entertainment.
Victims of human trafficking, including sex trafficking, can be any age, gender, race, or immigration status. They may live in cities, suburbs, and rural areas.
Globally, the majority of trafficking victims – 71% — are women and girls, with women making up 51% of all cases and girls under the age of 18 accounting for 20%. However, men and boys comprise nearly a third of those coerced into commercial sex.
It’s also believed that 1 in 7 of the endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2017 were the victims of sex traffickers. Of those, 88% were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran away.
Sex trafficking occurs in multiple venues, including, but not limited to:
In the United States, hotels and motels are the most common sex trafficking venues. Buyers of commercial sex often assume these establishments are safe, and they provide a level of privacy and anonymity that usually ensures their conduct goes undetected. Hotels and motels also allow sex traffickers to avoid the responsibility of facility maintenance and move their victims from place to place without attracting the attention of law enforcement.
From a recruiting and marketing standpoint, the internet is an important and extremely effective tool for sex traffickers. In fact, 8% of survivors in one recent survey said they first met their controllers online.
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as dating apps like Tinder and PlentyOfFish, also provide sexual enslavers with a cost-effective means of advertising to a wide selection of customers, with relative anonymity. Traffickers may also utilize social media accounts to monitor their victims and track their locations, while commercial sex buyers frequently use internet forums to review their encounters and share tips on evading law enforcement.
On the positive side, a growing number of sex trafficking survivors have successfully used social media platforms to reach out for help and escape their controllers.
Victims frequently have a complicated relationship with their traffickers. In fact, survivors most commonly report that their controller was a romantic partner, at least initially. In many cases, survivors married or had children with their trafficker, a circumstance that made leaving even more difficult.
A significant number of survivors also report that their controller was a family member, most commonly a parent or other individual in a caregiving role. These situations typically occur when the victim is a minor child.
Survivors might also describe their controller as an employer. In most cases, these individuals are trafficked through a strip club or escort service. While some survivors knew from the outset that they would be engaging in commercial sex, most reported that the nature of their “employment” was not what they expected. In such situations, traffickers typically use debt bondage, blackmail, threats, and sexual abuse to maintain control of their victims.
Sex trafficking is a $32 billion business. But it’s not just the pimps and exploiters who are benefitting financially from sexual slavery.
In fact, many legitimate businesses profit from these criminal enterprises by allowing traffickers to use their facilities and services, rather than reporting the activity and helping victims obtain their freedom.
Businesses within the hospitality industry, including hotels, motels, resorts, cruise ships, and casinos, are prime territory for sexual exploiters. Truck stops are also a popular hub for commercial sex, and major social media companies reap profits by allowing traffickers to advertise their illegal services on their platforms.
Any responsible business whould have policies in place to ensure their facilities or digital platforms don’t become a haven for sexual enslavers. Hotels and other hospitality venues should also train their employees to recognize the tell-tale signs of trafficking and alert authorities to any suspicious activity.
Businesses that ignore sex trafficking are negligent, complicit in these crimes, and deserve to be held accountable.
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