Sex Trafficking

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, the first comprehensive federal law to protect against human trafficking, defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing or soliciting of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age (22 USC § 7102).

Those engaging in sexual exploitation in its many forms fuel the demand for sex trafficking. This form of trafficking is predominantly driven by men.

Traffickers recognize an opportunity to score large profits with little upfront investment. A 2014 Urban institute study of eight U.S. cities estimated $39.9-$290 million was generated annually through the illicit sex industry in each city.1 An informal study by Polaris Project estimated a pimp’s wages based on a victim’s account. The victim was forced to meet quotas of $500 per night, seven days a week. She gave her earnings to her trafficker each night. Three other women were also trafficked by this pimp. Based on these numbers, Polaris Project estimated the pimp made $632,000 in one year from four young women and girls.2

These huge profits come at an enormous cost to human dignity. The 2009 National Report on Minor Sex Trafficking conservatively estimated a domestic minor sex trafficking victim who performed sex acts with five different men per night, for five nights per week, for an average of five years, would be raped by 6,000 buyers during the course of her victimization through prostitution.3

What does sex trafficking look like?

Sex trafficking is pervasive. It occurs through forced prostitution on the streets, in motels and hotels, at truck stops, in cantinas, at residential and commercial front brothels, in massage parlors, on boat cruises, in gentlemen’s clubs and via escort services. Another practice, sex tourism, is rampant and involves choosing a vacation destination with the intention of engaging in commercial sex acts, usually prostitution, whether legal or not. Commercial sex acts or sexual exploitation can also be carried out through forced participation, or the involvement of a minor, in stripping, exotic dancing, pornography, phone sex operation and online exploitation. Mail order brides often find themselves the victims of sex trafficking.

Trafficking victims may be forced to work 18-20 hour shifts seven days a week. Perpetrators set quotas for numbers of customers serviced or amounts of money to be earned each day. If the quota is not met, laborers are beaten. Clients often choose not to use condoms, inflict violence or force victims into performing objectionable acts.

The Damage Done

The physical and mental damage done to sex laborers is devastating.

Physical health problems include sexually transmitted diseases, infertility, unwanted pregnancies, damage caused by botched abortions, anal trauma and various gynecological problems. Addictions, often initiated through coerced drug use to ensure compliance and leave victims more open to demeaning acts, afflict victims even after escape. Headaches, fatigue, eating disorders, back pain, scars, weight loss, pelvic pain, dermatological complaints and gastrointestinal problems are common.

Psychological trauma results in depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, disassociation, memory loss, flashbacks, and insomnia. In part because there is such a stigma associated with prostitution, victims can be racked with feelings of hopelessness and shame. Some sex trafficking survivors are rejected by their families and communities. Feelings of social isolation and residual pain lead many survivors to experience thoughts of suicide.

Because of the psychological wounds experienced, many survivors do not initially identify themselves as victims of trafficking. Traumatic bonding, developed as a coping mechanism, is a phenomena frequently experienced by victims. This dysfunctional bonding occurs with their perpetrators and causes them to feel a sense of loyalty to their trafficker or experience a false sense of safety in his presence. Traumatic bonding may induce a victim to return to their traffickers two or three times before making a final escape.