Sex Trafficking

The Numbers and Statistics

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 

Internet Connection

In March 2016, the U.S. Senate voted to hold, the second-largest online classified ads site, in contempt of Congress because the company would not comply with a subpoena to provide documentation on how they vet ads for sex trafficking. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, there has been an 846 percent increase in reports of suspected child sex trafficking in the last five years, which the center attributes to the internet.1

Social media outlets such as Snapchat, Vine, Kik, and Instagram are some of the most common ways through which traffickers lure their victims. Pricilla Alvarez recounts one girl's story in an article for The Atlantic.2 The girl, who was seventeen at the time, was lured into sex slavery via Facebook. She came from a good family and home, but when her mother went to jail for embezzling, things fell apart for her. Then she met a man on Facebook, who preyed upon her vulnerabilities by saying the things she wanted to hear.

After she graduated from high school, she bought a bus ticket to meet him. The man, who was seven years older than she, told her that she had to start earning money immediately if she wanted to stay with him, and started her in commercial sex work. After working for him and another pimp for several months, she returned home, only to be lured into the sex trade again through another man she met on Facebook. This time the pimp was part of a trafficking ring. He took his victims across state lines, did not allow them to communicate with outsiders, and threatened them about attempts to leave. The girl only escaped the situation when the FBI eventually shut down the ring.

Parental Advice

In an interview for the Huffington Post crime blog, Lt. Andre Dawson, a retired officer with the Los Angeles Police Department who has worked in the human trafficking department, mentioned several things parents can do to protect their children from being preyed upon. These include monitoring their children's friends and social media activities, being on the alert for behavioral changes that could be due to drugs, and taking note when their children start to wear inappropriate clothing or use cell phones that do not belong to them. He also advised parent to trust their instincts—"if you feel something is wrong, you're probably right"—and to not be afraid to ask questions.3

Sex Slavery & Terrorism

The U.S. State Department has reported a "new" spin on sex trafficking in recent years: sex crimes as a tactic in armed conflict. Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram use sex crimes as an intimidation tactic in war:

ISIL has made the targeting of women and children, particularly from Yezidi and other minority groups, a hallmark of its campaign of atrocities. In the past year, ISIL has abducted, systematically raped, and abused thousands of women and children, some as young as 8 years of age.1

These groups throw the rules of engagement out the window; thus, this "new" tactic is really a reversion to the old practices of rape, pillage, and plunder. The terrorists use medical facilities as their base of operations, and they kidnap children to be used as body shields, child soldiers, beggars, sex slaves, and even executioners.

The Yezidi report that, as of 2014, about 3,500 of their women have been abducted, while only 400 have escaped.2 The United Nations estimates that 2.8 million people from Iraq and 4 million people from Syria have fled the countries out of fear of enslavement.

The New York Times recently revealed that ISIS members have been keeping the women and girls they abduct on birth control so they can continue to be used as sex slaves, since their laws forbid sex with a pregnant woman. The head of the Iraqi Ministry of Health said that out of 700 reported cases of rape, they would expect to see about 140 pregnancies, but they have only actually seen 35, and there were no indications of the women having had abortions. Testimonials from women who have escaped reveal that ISIS fighters "have aggressively pushed birth control on their victims so they can continue the abuse unabated while the women are passed among them."3

In Nigeria, the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram has kidnapped more than 2,000 women and girls since 2012. Their tactics were brought to the forefront of international news coverage when they kidnapped 276 female students from the Government Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State, in April 2014. Chibok is a predominantly Christian area, and Boko Haram was targeting girls who were getting a Western education. While Boko Haram's forces have dwindled in recent years, as of this writing, the whereabouts of two hundred of the girls are still unknown two years after their abduction.4

Even when they are able to escape, many girls face additional hurdles when they return home. According to a report by International Alert and UNICEF, many of them are not integrating back into society. There are a number of reasons for this. Sometimes the people fear that the former slaves have been "radicalized" and will try to recruit others. Also, any children born from sexual violence are denigrated for having "bad blood." Many of the victims' families have rejected them and their husbands divorced them, thus forcing the women into poverty.5 

has an M.S. in chemistry from the University of Texas at Dallas, and an M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University. She resides in Dallas and currently works as a freelance science writer and educator.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #37, Summer 2016 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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