Over half a million children go missing in the U.S. each year and many are believed to be trafficked for sex. Sex trafficking is the fastest growing business of organized crime in the world because it is hidden, involves the most vulnerable of victims, and is difficult to prosecute. The victims are young and often frightened to testify against the violent criminals who have groomed and brainwashed them over time.
Sex Trafficking 101
- Sex trafficking is the commercial sexual exploitation of children. It is a form of modern-day slavery in which individuals perform commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.
- Under U.S. law, minors under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex are considered to be criminal victims of sex trafficking, regardless of the use of force, fraud, or coercion.
- Sex trafficking is the fastest growing business of organized crime in the world. Young victimes are easily lured and often too frighted to testify against their perpetrator, resulting in impunity.
- Human trafficking does NOT require movement across borders – county, state or national.
- Worldwide, traffickers exploit 77% of victims in their countries of residence.
Sources: Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, International Labor Organization.
- Sex trafficking is a form of child sexual abuse.
- Child sexual abuse is any sexual act (commercial or non-commercial) between an adult and a minor or between two minors when one exerts power over the other.
- CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) includes the exploitation of children in pornography, sex for barter, localized prostitution, or national and international trafficking.
- Sex trafficking occures when individuals buy, trade or sell sexual acts with a child. It includes the recruitment, harboring, transporting, provisioning or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commerical sex act.
- In 2020, The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) reported 365,348 missing children, many of whom are at risk of being sexually trafficked and exploited.
- Due to the hidden nature of trafficking activities, gathering statistics on the magnitude of the problem is a complex task.
- Human trafficking can be difficult to trace as it involves the legitimate services of the banking systems, transportation companies, the hospitality business, health care providers and digital social media platforms.
- Polaris has identified 25 different types of human trafficking in the U.S. Each has its own business model, trafficker profile, recruitment strategy, victim profile, and method of control that facilitates human trafficking.
Sources: FBI National Crime Information Center; National Center for Missing & Exploited Children; Office for Victims of Crime (ovc.ojp.gov), Polaris
- Trafficking is a crime of opportunity. Children are often trusting and can be easily lured, groomed and manipulated.
- Those who exploit children for commercial gain do it because it is highly lucrative and because they think there is a good chance they will not be caught.
- Unlike a drug that can only be consumed once, children can be exploited multiple times per day.
- In the U.S. trafficking is the second most profitable criminal industry, after drugs. Globally, human trafficking earns illegal profits of over $150 billion annually – more than the 2019 profits of Google ($34B), Facebook ($18B) , Apple ($55B) and Microsoft ($39B) combined.
- Trafficking is difficult to prosecute – victims are hard to find and even when found are often too scared to testify. In 2016 there were only 14,894 prosecutions and 9,071 convictions globally.
Sources: International Labor Organization, OSCE, humanrightsfirst.org, 2017 Trafficking In Persons Report (TIP)
- Sexual enjoyment can be a motive for purchasing or abusing a child for sex but it is not the only one and there are usually also other motives at play, including power and control.
- Buyers often do not consider it child abuse. They convince themselves that the child has consented because he/she comes across as mature, and that the abuse is not harmful.
Media and culture can also contribute to the normalization of seeing children, especially teens, as sex objects. Some media sexualizes power and aggression, and a large proportion of sexual scenarios in mainstream pornography include manipulation, coercion or persuasion.
Society still often treats victims of abuse with doubt, which makes abusers feel more confident that they will get away with it.
- After nearly disappearing in the ’90s, the spread of child porn and child sex trafficking exploded with the rise of the online market.
- Reports of suspected child sex trafficking online increased 800% over the last 5 years.
- 76% of trafficking transactions with underage girls start on the internet.
- 150,000 escort ads are posted online every day.
- It is easy to disguise the age of a victim in an online advertisement photo.
- Online platforms have not prioritized algorithms to identify and stop sex trafficking communications.
Sources: thorn.org; National Center for Missing & Exploited Children; youth-underground.org
How Victims & Traffickers Meet
- Most, but not all, victims face unstable living or family situations, and some have been victims of other kinds of abuse in the past.
- Children and adolescents are more likely to be trafficked by someone they already know.
- Children who run away are often manipulated into thinking they are running away with a ‘boyfriend’ who cares about their well-being.
- Any child with a smartphone is vulnerable to be groomed.
- Approximately 40% of sex-trafficked children come out of foster care. 36% come from a “regular home” (not foster care or juvenile detention).
- Average age of first victimization is 12-14 years old. 1 in 6 is trafficked under the age of 12.
- Girls make up 71% to 96% of victims – these numbers are hard to verify as it is generally accepted that boys are vastly more under-reported than girls.
Sources: Us DOJ, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children; FBI Uniform Crime Statistics
- Sex trafficking of kids younger than age 10 is done almost exclusively by family members.
- Trafficked children older than 11 are generally trafficked by people in their social network, or a stranger they have recently met in-person or on line (generally using a fake social media profile). A pimp’s promise of love and wealth helps earn their trust.
- 71% of traffickers have more than one victim. On average each has 3.6 victims.
- Traffickers can operate both independently or within a gang as an organized crime network. A trafficker could be male or female, and often appears as a ‘regular’ individual.
Sources: Thorn Survivor Insights 2018; thorn.org; National Center for Missing & Exploited Children; polaris.org.
- 1 in 3 runaway children is approached by a trafficker within 48 hours. Less than 10% of cases involve an actual abduction or kidnapping (which would warrant an Amber Alert).
- Most children who are trafficked for sex get to know and trust their traffickers over a period of time. They are the children’s family members, so-called ‘friends’ or friends-of-friends, or romantic partners.
- Recruitment can happen in public places such as malls or sporting events and also online through social media sites or false postings for modeling and acting jobs.
- Sex trafficking most commonly happens through escort services, illicit massage or health & beauty businesses, and pornography.
- 81% of victims have met buyers at hotels, 59% in houses, 53% in cars.
- Many traffickers use a “lover-boy” tactic to recruit girls and boys from middle and high schools. He presents himself as a boyfriend and woos the girl or boy with gifts, promises of fulfilled dreams, protection, adventure – whatever he or she seems to crave. After earning their trust, they will be forced into prostitution.
- The trafficking process takes less than a month for approximately 42% of those targeted and less than four months for another 28%.
- 61% are asked to recruit other children for the trafficker.
Sources: polarisproject.org; Thorn Survivor Insights 2018; sharedhope.org.
- Victims are abused psychologically and physically: 49% report rape; 83% physical abuse, 62% substance abuse, 85% verbal abuse.
- How much a victim works depends on whether s/he believes the trafficker is a boyfriend – Boyfriend model: 60% report 1-3 buyers/day, 20% 4-7 buyers/day and 20% >8 per day. Trafficker model: 19% 1-3 buyers/day, 33% 4-7 buyers/day, 48% >8 buyers/day.
- Very few areoffered help: 84% report wanting help; 44% say they never received an offer for help; and 67% report not knowing who to call.
Sources: Thorn Survivor Insights 2018; interviews with rescued victims; US Department of Justice.
The Persistence of the Problem
- It happens in every neighborhood across America.
- In the Bay Area, survivors have been rescued in San Jose, Menlo Park, Alameda, Concord, Oakland, Santa Rosa, Watsonville, Gilroy, Palo Alto, Martinez, San Rafael, Walnut Creek, Los Altos, San Francisco, Redwood City, Santa Cruz, San Mateo, Roseville, Berkeley, Danville, San Bruno, Pittsburgh, Elk Grove, Santa Clara, Vacaville, San Leandro, Dos Palos, Dublin, Pleasant Hill, Ukiah, Yuba City, Hayward, San Bruno…
- Sex trafficking cases in Alameda County increased 262% during 2020 shelter-in-place orders.
Sources: Media search; Alameda County District Attorney Office; polarisproject.org.
- Law enforcement is underfunded and prioritizes 911 calls and emergency situations.
- Police have a hard time determining the level of threat. When a groomed victim voluntarily gets in someone’s car, it is not recorded as an abduction or kidnapping.
- It takes a lot of time and resources to investigate runaways and missing persons proactively. Hotline tips become irrelevant quickly.
- Psychological coercion, physical threats, shame, and potential for public humiliation influence whether a victim prosecutes. Without a victim, a District Attorney has no crime.
At Special Operations, our undercover private investigators gather evidence to elevate cases from ‘runaway child’ to ‘crime victim’. We gather evidence from within the community to tip law enforcement about traffickers and help with the rescue. We ensure survivors are placed in a safe location and are on a path of restoration and healing. When victims feel empowered to testify, the trafficker goes to prison. When the trafficker business model is disrupted, the community is safer.