Anyone of any age, gender orientation, and sexual identity can be a victim of sex trafficking.
According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, sex trafficking is defined as a situation “in which a 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 age1.”
Students are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking because they are innocent to the implications of false actions of others towards them. As their emotional and social skills are developing they are navigating social roles to fit in with their peers. Students are continually engaged in seeking social approval of others and participate in social media which too often impacts their decisions and actions.
They want to make their own way in the world by being independent. They are trying to be like their friends. We don’t teach our children to be aware of the red flags of how to identify unsafe relationships or establish appropriate boundaries.
Students with special needs are particularly vulnerable to victimization. They are often regarded as having less social awareness and viewed as not being sexually active. Sadly, these students are perceived as not being credible or accurate reporters of personal events.
If sex is exchanged for anything of value with a minor, it is always sex trafficking
The trafficker works to identify something of value to the victim. Something of value could be a romantic relationship, food, a place to stay, clothes, drugs, a ride, or anything of importance to the victim.
Sex trafficking does not discriminate nor does it target any specific sexual orientation, gender identity, or socioeconomic status. Anyone can be a victim of sex trafficking.
Strategies of Sex Traffickers
Sex trafficking begins with a sex trafficker coming in contact with a potential victim. These traffickers use a variety of strategies to attract and control their victims. The strategies always include one or more forms of force, fraud, or coercion.
Force may look like:
- Physical violence
- Sexual assault
Fraud may look like:
- Tricking the student into believing the trafficker loves him/her/them
- Telling the student they are going to be a model
- Offering basic needs without being told the intention behind the kind acts. Needs like food, clothing, cellphone, a ride etc.
Coercion may look like:
- If a student does not want to engage, the trafficker could use threats like posting photos of the student online, sharing these with family, sending them to schoolmates.
- Debt Bondage
- One way traffickers get to know a student and build a relationship is by offering materialistic items or going on trips (car rental, hotel room, etc.). Then the trafficker comes back to the student and asks them to sell sexual acts for him because they are out of money and they are a team.
- Threats to harm the student or their family and/or friends
- Traffickers have nothing to lose but to keep up their reputation. Threats of physical violence can also be made towards any environment in which the student feels safe (home, school, church). If a student ever shares that their trafficker threatened to shoot up their family, school, church, etc. believe them.
Common places students can be recruited
While recruitment can take place in different environments, the most common are:
- Malls/social hangouts
Any place where it is normal for strangers to speak to students. It feels like a safe place to speak to others, because so many people are in the area.
- Social media
Any social media platform can be used. Every social media from Instagram to Discord are all used to recruit. Having a public account that anyone can follow will not have as strong boundaries compared to an account that is private. Traffickers are looking for posts that make someone vulnerable, “I hate my family,” “I want to get out of here,” etc. Seeing a vulnerable post gives the trafficker the opportunity to message the student and provide support.
- Group homes
The student may be wanting to run away, may need a ride, etc. Students in the child welfare system tend to have trauma and lack safe attachments. Traffickers know this and work to meet the student’s emotional needs as a way of building trust and grooming them.
- Bus stops
If a trafficker notices someone sitting at the bus stop, it can be easy to offer them a ride.
Traffickers can be waiting outside of schools, cat calling, or giving out compliments to students. It is important to note that traffickers can recruit through other students, or students recruit other students.
Traffickers are typically people students know:
Research shows that traffickers are people individuals know. In Phoenix and Tuscon, Arizona, out of 81 Youth Experiences Survey (YES) participants, 33.3% reported their sex trafficker was a friend, 20.8% reported their sex trafficker was a boyfriend, 20.8% reported their sex trafficker was a family member, and 8.3% reported their trafficker was in a gang (Roe-Sepowitz, 2020)2. Students could meet their traffickers (as a stranger) online through Instagram, for example, and develop a relationship of trust and commitment. Romantic relationships or a close friendship can be developed before the sex trafficking victimization begins.
- Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, PUBLIC LAW 106–386 [H.R. 3244] (2000). https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/PLAW-106publ386/pdf/PLAW-106publ386.pdf
- Roe-Sepowitz, D., & Bracy, K. (2020). 2020 Youth Experiences Survey. https://socialwork.asu.edu/sites/default/files/stir/2020_youth_experiences_survey_report_final.pdf