Risk Factors & Indicators: Sex Trafficking

Originally posted on MeetJustice.org on June 29, 2011.

We don’t like to look at the disoriented, disheveled woman standing underneath the highway overpass. We can hardly finish the case study that describes a teen who was tricked, drugged, and gang raped for 48 hours while her captors waited for a customer to purchase her, or the documentaries about young men and women who were abducted from their families and forced to have sex with dozens of strangers each night. These stories make our fists clench in helpless indignation.

But we don’t have to be helpless. And the horror stories that victims endure don’t have to continue repeating themselves. Scribbled in an old journal found in an attic in 1944 were the words “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.” Anne Frank has a point.

We fail these victims each time we flippantly dismiss them as prostitutes without knowing if they play an active role in determining their actions. We deny them the suffering and pain they go through when we assume that trafficking isn’t a big issue in the U.S. The trouble is, the numbers about sex trafficking are vague. Victims of sex trafficking are difficult to identify. They’re hidden away, forced into secrecy by their traffickers, and threatened with arrest or deportation if they reach out to police.

The first step we can take to responding to the crisis of human trafficking is recognizing its victims. Below is the third victim profile in the Risk Factors and Indicators series. It includes the risk factors of people who may be commercially sexually exploited, indicators that someone is a victim, and where sexual exploitation might be occuring.

Who is at risk of sex trafficking?

Youth (Read Risk Factors and Indicators of CSEC here)

“ Victims of sex trafficking are proportionately younger than other trafficking victims, with 31% of the identified sex trafficking victims being under 18 years old.” (Farrell, McDevitt)

– Women

“Traffickers lure poverty-stricken females with false promises of high-paying jobs as house cleaners, housemaids, nannies, cooks, and models. Some pimps or traffickers promise assurances of marriage or get-rich-quick schemes for their families and home villages. Many times, drugs are forcefully induced to facilitate kidnapping. The traffickers typically charge females $7,500 in illicit border-crossing fees.” (Kralis)

Immigrants and those hoping to immigrate to the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 14,500 and 17,500 people are brought across U.S borders for the purposes of trafficking each year. Children trafficked into the U.S are almost always done so for sexually exploitative purposes.

“Vulnerabilities are increasingly found in visa programs for legally documented students and temporary workers who typically fill labor needs in the hospitality, landscaping, construction, food service, and agricultural industries. ” (US State Dept.)


The 2011 TIP Report has identified in the U.S, U.S Citizens are more often exploited for sexual purposes than for forced labor, while foreign workers are more often exploited for forced labor purposes than for sexually exploitative purposes.

A history of sexual abuse

“Experiencing early sexual or physical abuse puts youth at a greater risk for being sexually exploited. “

Indicators that a person is being trafficked:

  • lack of familiarity with where he/she is: victims are forbidden to observe street names or businesses: this is called “staying in pocket”.
  • They are not in control of their own visas, passports, identification, or work documents
  • Lives with their employer and/or several other people in a small space, like a hotel room
  • Drug Addiction: Victims are often forcibly inoculated with drugs to make them dependent on their traffickers. The need to feed the addiction becomes more important than the need to escape. This also further brainwashes the victim into believing that they are criminals, enforcing hopelessness and distrust of police.
  • The person has untreated or recurring sexually transmitted diseases or infections.
  • They have an agent/manager in the adult entertainment industry.
  • They are not allowed to be on their own.
  • Frequent, sudden travel without notice
  • Presence of tattoos marking ownership or possession by another person
  • Presence of anxiety disorders
  • Post-Traumatic Stress disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Conduct disorders
  • Self-harm
  • Insomnia

Where it Occurs

Often times, sex traffickers pose behind fronts for legitimate business opportunities to lure young girls, both American and foreign-born, into situations where they are then trapped and then raped for someone else’s financial gain.

  • Model Agencies
  • Travel agencies
  • Employment companies
  • “Au Pair” babysitting services
  • International matchmaking services
  • Mail order bride services
  • Commercially fronted brothels
  • Massage Parlors
  • Cantinas
  • Hostess Clubs
  • Strip Clubs
  • Escort Services

If you are aware of someone who may be being commercially sexually exploited, please seek help for them by calling:

National Human Trafficking Hotline

This article is the third part of a series of articles.

Read about the Risk Factors and Indicators of CSEC here.

Read about the Risk Factors and Indicators of Forced Labor here.

Further Reading:

2011 US State Department TIP Report

Understanding and Improving Law Enforcement responses to Human Trafficking

Renew America

Children at Risk


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