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What Is Sex Trafficking? Definition & Facts

what is sex trafficking

Sex trafficking, in which children and adults are captured and exploited for sexual services against their will, is a widely misunderstood crime, yet it’s one of the FBI’s top priorities. While many people have images of what trafficking looks like —- a la movies or television shows —- there are myths about trafficking that need to be dispelled in order to help identify and report instances of human rights abuses that may be happening in plain sight.

A common misconception about sex trafficking is that perpetrators kidnap victims to sell them abroad in the sex trade. In fact, many victims don’t cross state lines. Sometimes, they’re even trapped in their own neighborhoods.

“Human trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, which involves illegal border crossings,” Polaris, one of the largest anti-trafficking organizations in the world, states. “In fact, the crime of human trafficking does not require any movement whatsoever. Survivors can be recruited and trafficked in their own home towns, even their own homes.”

Another myth is that victims are only wealthy white girls or disadvantaged minorities. This stereotype is also incorrect. Victims can be any ethnicity and from any socioeconomic strata.

“Survivors can be recruited and trafficked in their own home towns, even their own homes.”

There is one commonality that links trafficking victims: many come from profoundly dysfunctional homes. Whether there is physical, sexual, or emotional abuse happening within the home or the child is winding through the foster care system, traffickers prey on children and teenagers who don’t have a stable home to rely on. This way, the traffickers’ promises of new shoes, unconditional love, or a daily McDonald’s meal appeals to victims.

“The tragedy in trafficking is that it is committed by master manipulators who prey on vulnerability. The trafficker looks for, rather hunts, individuals with low self-esteem, shattered support systems, and dwindling resources,” says Samantha Breakstone, Associate Attorney in the Human Trafficking Unit at Weitz & Luxenberg, a Morgan & Morgan partner in sex trafficking lawsuits.

“The trafficker promises romance, independence, and opportunity but delivers only violence and exploitation in the ultimate bait and switch,” adds Breakstone, who formerly served as assistant district attorney for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office.

According to the FBI, trafficking is in the bureau’s top three priorities in most towns across America. Not only do many people not understand it’s happening in their towns, “The Johns” who pay for sex don’t always know they’re paying for sex with someone who’s being trafficked.

People also assume the traffickers are strangers to the victims. This can be untrue. “Many survivors have been trafficked by romantic partners, including spouses, and by family members, including parents,” Polaris says.

How to Spot Sex Trafficking

If someone’s clothes are tattered, they don’t speak and someone speaks for them, or if they seem scared, they may be a trafficking victim. The indicators suggest a person may be a trafficking victim, according to the U.S. Department of State:

  • Living with employer
  • Poor living conditions
  • Multiple people in cramped space
  • Inability to speak to individual alone
  • Answers appear to be scripted and rehearsed
  • Employer is holding identity documents
  • Signs of physical abuse
  • Submissive or fearful
  • Unpaid or paid very little
  • Under 18 and in prostitution

Polaris suggests looking for these additional identifiers:

  • Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior
  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement or immigration officials
  • Shows signs of substance use or addiction
  • Poor Physical Health
  • Shows signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, and/or fatigue
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture
  • Lack of Control
  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is frequently monitored
  • Is not in control of their own money, financial records, or bank account

The State Department suggests asking these questions to potential victims:

  • Can you leave your job if you want to?
  • Can you come and go as you please?
  • Have you been hurt or threatened if you tried to leave?
  • Has your family been threatened?
  • Do you live with your employer?
  • Where do you sleep and eat?
  • Are you in debt to your employer?
  • Do you have your passport/identification? Who has it?

Making A Difference

If you think you’ve seen an incident of sex trafficking, call the police immediately to report a suspected human trafficking incident.

Aside from prosecuting traffickers, Morgan & Morgan believes the properties that turn a blind eye to this epidemic should also be held responsible. For decades, the hospitality industry has ignored sex trafficking. Hotels and motels are keenly aware of and complicit in the enslavement of children and adults happening on their properties, choosing to ignore what’s plainly visible to maximize profits.

We are investigating claims against many major hotel chains for participating in sex trafficking in the U.S. and seeking to hold the hospitality industry accountable for their role in human enslavement in the U.S.

If you a sex trafficking survivor or know someone who may be, survivors can fill out this free, confidential form here

Survivors can also call this confidential line to find out if they may be able to join the Morgan & Morgan sex trafficking lawsuit: 888-995-2554.

Not only may survivors be entitled to compensation from these properties, filing a lawsuit against them can help prevent it from happening in the future.

We appreciate your help in fighting to end sex trafficking.

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