What is sex trafficking and the sex trade? 

Sex trafficking refers to the recruiting, enticing, obtaining, providing, moving, and/or harboring a person or to benefit from such activities knowing that the person will be caused to engage in commercial sex acts. In order for a person to qualify legally as a sex trafficking victim, they need to be under the age of 18 or for individuals older than 18, force, fraud, or coercion must be proven. The sex trade refers to the commercial sex industry, and includes sex trafficking victims, as well as adults that engage in sex work without a third party’s influence. Survivors of the sex trade often do not identify as victims. Their experience in the sex trade can vary over time between working because of force, fraud or coercion to working independently. 

A commercial sex act refers to any sex for which anything of value is given to or received by any person. This can include:  

  • Trading sex for food, housing, or other basic needs, street prostitution, escorting, exotic dancing/stripping, erotic/nude massage, pornography, phone sex lines, cyber sex

Sexual exploitation:   

  • Affects ALL genders, ages, economic classes, races, education levels

  • Disproportionately affects people that are young, financially poor, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ2IA+

  • Includes both international and domestic recruitment for the sex trade 

Types of traffickers:   

Boyfriend pimp:

Shanice met T at a store one day. He noticed her, approached her, and told her how beautiful she is. She fell in love with him and he began to provide for her. She didn’t have anywhere else to be, so she spent her every moment with him. One day, he told her that he needed money to pay his court fees and asked for her help—just this one time. He taught her how to have sex, negotiate money, make sure the date wasn’t a cop, and then return the money to him. She did it. The first man she had sex with for money was much older than she was, unkempt, and reminded her of her dad. She felt so disgusting she wanted to shower, but she also felt proud to provide for her boyfriend in this way.

Guerilla pimp:

Sarah filled out an application at a kiosk in the mall. She didn’t write any references on it because she didn’t know anyone that would speak well of her. She didn’t write an address on it, because she was currently moving around. She was surprised to get an interview, but quickly learned it wasn’t what she expected. When she showed up ready to present herself, a large man put her in the back of a van, drugged her, and raped her. He beat her regularly, threatened her anytime she tried to leave, and began forcing her to sell sex. She felt she needed to appease him in order to stay safe.


Michael was staying in a shelter and feeling depressed about his life. He met another guy who had nice clothes and confidence. They became friends and the man told him that he was once broke too, but now knows how to make fast cash. The man explained the rules and introduced Michael to some new men. With this new cash influx, Michael was able to move out of the shelter, into motels, and finally bought the clothes that made him feel better about himself.


Maria was born into a family that had ties to a pedophilia ring. By the time she was five, she was regularly being sold to men who had “particular tastes.” She tried to run a couple of times, but her mom found her each time and would bring her back home. She knew no life, except her own, and assumed that this was normal and no other options existed.


Manny felt like he didn’t belong anywhere. He met a friend on Facebook, who met him in person and introduced him to others—he finally felt like he had found “his people.” They jumped him to officially make him part of the gang, then continued to set him up with dates. When he wasn’t trading sex, he was with his friends—who he liked. He knew that he couldn’t leave if he wanted and he felt trapped, but most of the time, he liked being a part of their group.

Organized crime (business):

Hua was recruited to work in the US with a work visa. The recruiting agency provided housing, food, and all basic needs. She was brought to an apartment building, where she met other women working for the same company. The business had a board of directors and managers. Her manager explained the type of work she would do—providing sexual services to clients. He kept her visa and the money, giving her a minimal amount of money to send home to her family. She was proud to provide for her family and knew that it would be impossible to find another job without documentation, language skills, or connections to other local people.

Types of recruitment techniques:  

Selling the dream: 

Naomi grew up in a home where her basic needs were not met. She never knew her father, and her mother struggled to provide for her and her siblings while she unsuccessfully attempted to overcome substance addiction. One day, Naomi was invited to an after school group with a friend and a volunteer leader began to learn about her vulnerable story. He became close with her, learned about her interests, and her hope for a better life. One day he told her about a way she could make a lot of money fast, finally getting closer to the American dream. He painted a picture for her future that promised things she felt she could never attain on her own. Maybe she could even make enough money for college some day.


Monica was a single woman, who worked three jobs to support herself and her emotionally abusive father. One night she went out and met Ryan, who worked as a police officer. Ryan was friendly, charming, and made Monica feel safe. They went on a few dates and Monica opened up to Ryan about her emotionally abusive father and how she feels so alone. Ryan told Monica that he would protect her and that she never had to worry about being alone again. He promised her that she would be able to make $1,000 a night and he would to take care of her. All she had to do was a few small “favors” for him, and he promised to shield her from any legal repercussions.

Threats and violence: 

Alyiah was a senior in high school when she started receiving threats from Todd. Todd graduated two years before her.  He would burn her with cigarette butts or hit her if she didn't fulfill his demands of having sex with him and his friends. He then escalated his threats to entail hurting her family if she didn't deliver on time and to the degree they expected from her. One day, when she refused to work for him, he had his friend kidnap and sexually assault her sister and told her he’d do it again anytime she said no to him. This terrified her as Alyiah loved her sister. He also convinced her that no one would believe her if she reported him as he had been a well-liked student at the high school. 

Individuals engaging in sex work may:  

  • Not understand or identify with the terms “trafficking” or “exploitation”

  • Show signs of dissociation from trauma via physical, mental, or emotional symptoms

  • Experience trauma bonds with their traffickers (Stockholm Syndrome)

  • Be defensive, protective, or distrusting of people trying to help

  • Have limited agency and personal freedom

  • Have difficulty remembering and/or explaining their situation 

  • Not want to share their experiences or may lie about their experiences

  • Feel ashamed and stigmatized

  • Feel empowered by sex work 

After trafficking:  

  • It is common for a person that has experienced sex trafficking in the past to continue to engage in sex work without being forced, threatened with fraud, or coerced into commercial sex acts. 

  • Many believe that it is their fault and there is nothing else they can do to earn money.

  • Many believe that they will always be recognized as a sex worker, which brings stigma and shame.

Common beliefs for individuals involved in the sex trade:  

  • Competitive nature, limited resources

  • Power dynamics: you either pimp or get pimped, you either have control or none, you’re either dominating or being dominated

  • Most men are viewed as either pimps or buyers

  • The world is viewed as those “in the life” or those out of it (“squares”)

  • You’re either being punished or rewarded

  • “Always a dollar short and a day late” (Nothing works out for me.)

  • My appearance is above my basic needs, including dental and health care

  • “Once a ho, always a ho” (People will always know who you are.)