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Sex Trafficking

by Heather Zeiger

Sex trafficking is an old business. But thanks to the internet, it has a different veneer. Traffickers can prey upon vulnerable girls over social media, and online classifieds can advertise for sexual services. Sex trafficking statistics are notoriously difficult to track. As Monique Villa, CEO of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, points out, the problem with human trafficking is that the victims are silenced. Thus, many cases go unreported, meaning the actual numbers are likely higher than the reported ones.1

By the Numbers

The U.S. State Department's 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report defines "trafficking in persons," "human trafficking," and "modern slavery" all as terms for "the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion."2 A 2013 study in Reviews of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimates that there are approximately 800,000 people trafficked across international borders annually. Eighty percent are women or girls, and 50 percent are minors. The vast majority of these people are trafficked for sex work.3 The Geneva-based International Labour Office (ILO) estimates that 4.5 million people globally are victims of forced sexual exploitation.4


Sex trafficking is a lucrative business. The ILO estimates that the annual profits made from forced sexual exploitation total some $99 billion (in U.S. dollars). While Asia has the largest number of victims of sex trafficking and, therefore, the most overall profits, the U.S. and the Middle East have the highest per-victim profits because traffickers can charge more for sex acts in these locations. The annual profit per victim is about $80,000 in the U.S. and $55,000 in the Middle East.5

United States

Many victims of sex trafficking in the United States were brought here from other countries on false pretenses. Through promises of well-paying work, better living conditions, and even eventual citizenship, traffickers are able to lure in girls from other countries. America is an enticing destination, especially for girls who are poor or who come from countries with an unstable political structure.6

Additionally, many American women end up in the sex trade through manipulation tactics. According to BeLoved Atlanta, an organization that provides housing and support to women trying to get out of addiction and the sex industry, Atlanta's underground sex economy is the largest in the United States, bringing in an estimated $290 million per year. But any large city that attracts conferences or sporting events will also attract the underground sex trade.7

The National Human Trafficking Center keeps statistics on reported trafficking in the United States. According to its 2015 Annual Report, the center received over 4,000 reports of sex trafficking that year, via phone calls, emails, or online tips. Over 91 percent of the victims were female, and one-third were minors.8 The State Department estimates that 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States annually for either sexual or labor purposes.


Often the women who are caught up in the sex industry will not seek help because they fear incurring criminal charges themselves. Pimps use this fear as a way to manipulate their victims, making them feel like criminals with nowhere to turn for help. While many states have enacted Safe Harbor laws to protect minors who have been forced to do illegal things as a result of sex trafficking, the laws are less clear-cut for adults.9

In 2015, Amnesty International declared that criminalizing consensual sex acts between two adults is a violation of human rights, even if money is exchanged. But others, including former sex workers, point out that most people end up stuck in the sex trade through manipulation and coercion. Legalization would serve to legitimize an industry that preys on vulnerable people.10

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which was reauthorized in 2003, 2005, and 2008, was passed in an effort to encourage countries to enact laws that focus on protecting victims and punishing traffickers. The law outlines "minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking applicable to the government of a country of origin, transit, or destination for victims of severe forms of trafficking."11

Manipulation Tactics

Often women and minors are lured into the sex industry with false promises of a better life. -Sometimes they come from difficult circumstances or are already broken down by emotional or psychological trauma. In this sense there is a volitional component to their entering into sex work, but the situation quickly turns into an abusive power play by the pimp or trafficker. This kind of courting and seducing of victims into the sex industry is called finesse pimping.

While the goal of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act is to prosecute the trafficker and protect the victim, actual enforcement is proving difficult when brainwashing and manipulation are involved. Few victims will speak out against their pimps or traffickers out of a mixture of fear and devotion. Traffickers use such "traumatic bonding" to control their victims, causing them to feel both intense fear and deep gratitude toward the trafficker for allowing them to live and not turning them in for prostitution.12

Physical & Psychological Effects

There are both short-term and long-term physical consequences for victims of sex trafficking. Often they will contract infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted infections that will affect their future reproductive health. They may experience severe back pain and irrevocable damage to their urinary and sexual organs. Because sex trafficking often involves physical abuse, they may also suffer from other types of injuries, including concussions and head injuries.13

There are psychological consequences as well. Studies show that women coming out of the sex industry exhibit various kinds of mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress and anxiety, that leave them particularly vulnerable to self-harm or addiction.14 

A follow-up to this piece can be found at the Salvo blog. Identifying the Person as the Problem: Euthanasia for Mental Illness by Heather Zeiger.

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