Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation: a Guide for Parents

Key Facts
  • Human trafficking is a crime involving the recruitment, transportation, purchase, and/or harboring of anyone by use of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of commercial sexual acts (sex trafficking) or forced employment (labor trafficking).
  • Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), refers specifically to victims under 18 years old, whose bodies or images are bought and sold for sexual purposes.
  • The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 5 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation around the world.
  • Sex trafficking is a lucrative industry making an estimated $99 billion a year.
  • About 2 million children are exploited every year in the global commercial sex trade.

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a crime involving the recruitment, transportation, purchase, and/or harboring of anyone by use of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of commercial sexual acts (sex trafficking) or forced employment (labor trafficking). “Commercial” means that there is an exchange of something of value – often this is money but it can also be food, a place to sleep, drugs, clothing, jewelry, or other items. Sexual acts might include physical acts (oral, anal, or vaginal sex) or the exchange of sexual photos/videos, dancing or stripping, sexual massage, or any other situation where someone is profiting off the use of someone else’s body in a sexual manner. In the United States and most other countries it is illegal to exploit a person in this way.

What is commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC)?

Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), refers specifically to victims under 18 years old, whose bodies are bought and sold for sexual purposes. CSEC is a form of human trafficking. In the past, CSEC was referred to as “teen prostitution,” but this term is no longer used because calling it “prostitution” sends a message that the victim is involved willingly in the sexual act, is old enough and mature enough to consent, and has control over their experience. We know this is NOT the case for victims of exploitation.

How does someone become a victim of CSEC or trafficking?

There is no one way that someone becomes a victim of this crime but there are a few common ways that traffickers or exploiters, sometimes called “pimps”, get their victims involved in exploitation.

Many people assume that CSEC victims are kidnapped or taken by force, and the media has reinforced this by showing similar stories on TV and in movies. This does happen sometimes, but more often young people are recruited in to the commercial sex industry by someone they meet who acts like a friend or romantic partner.

The exploiter might start out treating them well but over time start to act in more and more harmful ways, ask them to do things that make them uncomfortable or put them in danger, and eventually ask them to engage in a commercial sex act. This is a process called “grooming”, where the exploiter gains the victim’s trust and then exploits them, often using threats to keep them from seeking help. These can include physical threats, threats to harm or to exploit a family member, or threats to expose what the young person is now involved with.

However, not all exploitation involves these coercive measures. Exploiters may manipulate the young person emotionally to have them believe that they deserve what’s happening, that this is the only thing they’re good at, or that they have no other options. Some victims are involved in exploitative relationships with someone who is offering to meet their basic needs such as food and shelter in exchange for sexual acts.

It is also important to note that some victims are exploited online without ever meeting the exploiter, or are initially exploited online before later meeting their exploiter in person.

What are the signs that someone is a victim of CSEC or trafficking?

It can be challenging to know whether or not someone is a victim of CSEC or trafficking. However, there are several things you can look out for if you’re worried that your child or someone else is being trafficked or exploited.

  1. Changes in behavior- They’re acting different then they usually do.
  2. Missing/absent- They go missing or leave home without an explanation.
  3. Someone has their attention-, They are in a new relationship with someone much older.
  4. New found money or items- They have new things that they can’t afford.
  5. Bad habits-, They start to use alcohol/drugs or use more than they did before.
  6. They simply change-, They stop doing things they used to enjoy such as spending time with friends or going to school.

There can also be physical signs: such as injuries they can’t explain, sexual health issues, clothes that are very different than what they usually wear, or new tattoos they don’t want to talk about.

Finally, there may be changes in the person’s emotional state. They might act scared a lot of the time, be secretive when they used to be more open, seem tired, or just not like themselves. Not everyone will have obvious signs that they are involved in exploitation or trafficking, but there will often be some changes that could mean something dangerous is going on.

Where does human trafficking exist?

Human trafficking takes place all over the world, not just in impoverished countries as popular media would have you believe. Unfortunately the reality is that human trafficking happens everywhere that there are people willing to purchase sex. This means it happens in big cities, small towns, fancy hotels, run-down motels and apartments, office buildings, people’s homes, and more and more it is happening online as well. Access to the internet brings a lot of wonderful opportunities but it also brings occasions to take advantage of vulnerable people. Exploiters may find victims online and exploit them via photos, videos, livestream, or by introducing them to people who want to meet them in person to purchase sex.

Who is impacted by human trafficking? Sex trafficking?

People who recruit others for the purpose of trafficking do not discriminate, targeting children, teens, and adults worldwide. However, exploiters do often target groups of people who are already vulnerable.

A significant risk factor for exploitation is the experience of having already been mistreated as a child. Some young people may have been taught from a young age that they are not worthy of love, or may not know what a healthy relationship looks like. Young people who have been sexually abused are especially vulnerable as exploiters may learn about their trauma and use it to manipulate them in to believing that they deserve what is happening. Young people who are involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems are disproportionately victimized by this crime, especially those who may go missing from group care settings or otherwise become homeless.

Marginalized groups are also especially vulnerable to exploitation. In the U.S. more than half of identified victims under 18 are youth of color. Young people who identify as LGBTQ+ are at increased risk for exploitation and exploiters may use their status against them by threatening to expose them if they don’t comply. This is also true for those who are undocumented immigrants or who do not speak a country’s primary language. Exploiters may also target young people who are living in poverty, knowing that the promise of access to money that they or their family need can keep victims from seeking help.

Action Steps:

How can I protect my children against human trafficking?

While becoming involved in human trafficking is never the victim’s fault, here are some tips on ways parents can keep their children safe.

  1. Educate yourself, by simply reading this guide, you are learning about exploitation and the behavior of traffickers. This helps you pinpoint important signs if and when someone tries to manipulate your child. You can read more about human trafficking using the resources at the bottom of this guide.
  2. Teach your children about what to look for in a healthy relationship!
  3. Encourage safe behaviors online, such as teaching your children to avoid sharing personal information and photos of themselves. This alone can help protect them against online exploitation. Be aware of what apps and games your children are using, and know that many apps and games have a chat feature where adults may be trying to communicate with them.
If you believe that your child may be involved and/or a victim of human trafficking, it is important that you contact local authorities immediately. Depending on where you live this likely means contacting the police or possibly child protective services. This does not mean that you have done anything wrong as a parent! Many states will use child protective services to investigate any adult who is causing harm to a child – in this case an exploiter or trafficker. It is also important to contact your child’s health care provider so that your child can have a medical evaluation. This is especially important if you are aware of any harm being done to their body.  Resources and supports vary a lot by state/country so look online for agencies in your area that support trafficking survivors. The resources below are a great place to start.