Sex trafficking is a crime when women, men and/or children are forcefully involved in commercial sex acts. In the United States, any minor under the age of 18 engaged in commercial sex acts is automatically considered a victim of sex trafficking under the law. Worldwide, it's estimated that there are 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking.
Worldwide, false promises are ways in which traffickers bait and enslave their victims – both adults and minors. Indigenous populations and those who live in abject poverty are typically economically and politically marginalized; thus, most lack rights and access to basic services such as education which make them particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.
Many times, people from these communities are offered false employment opportunities in major cities. For example, men and boys are sent overseas to work in construction and agriculture but are also forced to perform commercial sex acts. Women and young girls may be offered jobs as models, nannies, waitresses or dancers. Some traffickers operate under the guise of agencies that offer cross-country dating services. However, upon arrival, these individuals are abused, threatened and sold in the sex industry.
Often, traffickers keep victims under their control by saying that they’ll be free after they pay their debt. The “debt” is supposedly incurred from the victims’ recruitment, transportation, upkeep or even their crude “sale.” Thus, sex trafficking may occur within debt bondage/bonded labor. Victims of sex trafficking may eventually perform other functions, in addition to being forced sex workers. Some traffickers use sex trafficking victims to recruit or transport other victims.
As a result, when sex trafficking victims are caught, they might be detained and prosecuted for criminal activity (e.g., prostitution). However, a legal charge is only one area of concern. Sex trafficking has devastating consequences for the trafficked individual. Victims may suffer from long-lasting physical and psychological trauma, disease (HIV/AIDS), drug addiction, malnutrition and social ostracism.
Forced labor includes forced sexual services. The ILO’s Forced Labor Convention defines forced labor as all work or service exacted from a person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily. The UN’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (the Palermo Protocol) includes three elements in its definition: the act, the means and the object. Sex trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons who under threat, force, coercion, fraud, deception or abuse of power are sexually exploited for the financial gain of another.
Similarly, in the United States, sex trafficking involves three elements: the process, the means and the goal. The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act defines sex trafficking as the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of an individual who under force, fraud or coercion is induced to perform a commercial sex act. Note that sex trafficking does not have to have some form of travel, transportation or movement across borders. At the core, sex trafficking is characterized by sexual exploitation through force, fraud or coercion. For children (anyone under 18 years old), consent is irrelevant, and the element of means (e.g., force) is not necessary (22 USC §7102).
The United States is a source, transit and destination country for sex trafficking victims. Trafficked men, women and children are typically taken to brothels, escort services, massage parlors, strip clubs or hotels and are prostituted on the streets or forced to participate in pornography. Primary countries of origin for foreign victims in FY 2013 were Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, Honduras, Guatemala, India and El Salvador. Americans may also be trafficked within the U.S. or sent to other industrialized states such as the Netherlands, Germany and Japan.
Supply and demand have increased through the years partially due to the internet and the ease with which traffickers and customers can discreetly complete a transaction. Traffickers utilize social media, dating sites and online advertisements to market minors and trafficked victims. Ads seemingly posted by a person willingly engaged in the sex trade are often created or monitored by traffickers. Traffickers lie about the victim’s age and may even disguise themselves as the person in the ad when communicating with johns via the internet or phone. Some websites try to screen ads for trafficking; however, the sheer volume of ads makes this process a daunting task. For instance, when the U.S. Craigslist Adult Services Section was available, there were 10,000-16,000 adult services postings per day in the U.S. alone. Additionally, it’s difficult to determine if the person advertising is independently working in the sex industry or is under a trafficker.