The Facts: What is Sex Trafficking and How Widespread Is It?


Sadly, forced human slavery is not new to our country or the world.  More than two hundred years ago, British member of Parliament William Wilberforce tirelessly crusaded to protect innocent humans from forced bondage. His efforts led first to Britain's abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and finally to a prohibition on slavery in 1833.

In the United States, slavery ended with President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Unfortunately, that was not the end of slavery in our country. By the beginning of the 20thcentury, President Theodore Roosevelt warned against the "white slave trade," which involved the abduction and forced prostitution of young women and girls. This kind of sexual servitude, now referred to as sex trafficking, continues in the United States – and globally – to this day.

What is Sex Trafficking?

Sex trafficking, one specific type of human trafficking, occurs when people are forced or coerced into the commercial sex trade against their will.  Adults or children can be victims of sex trafficking.  Child sex trafficking includes any child involved in commercial sex.  Sex traffickers frequently target vulnerable people with histories of abuse and then use violence, threats, lies, false promises, debt bondage, or other forms of control and manipulation to keep victims trapped.

Sex trafficking happens within the larger commercial sex trade (prostitution, pornography), often at much larger rates than most people realize or understand.  Sex trafficking has been found in venues scattered across the overall sex industry, including residential brothels, hostess clubs, online escort services, fake massage businesses, strip clubs, and street prostitution.

Internationally, a common scheme to seduce women is to promise them jobs overseas as waitresses or domestic servants. Once out of the country and away from their family, traffickers take victims' passports and subject them to beatings or rape to force them into their new "job."

While the dark world of international sex trafficking is becoming a hot topic in our culture, many people remain unaware that sex trafficking isn't just an international problem.  Sex trafficking is happening in our own backyards – whether you live in rural America or in a big city, you might be surprised to find that it’s happening in your neighborhoods and communities.  The commercial exploitation of children is a particularly growing problem in the U.S.

How Widespread is Sex Trafficking?

Sexual exploitation harms millions of women and children around the world each year.

International sex trafficking occurs across national borders, requiring global cooperation to investigate, prosecute and convict sex traffickers and rescue traffic victims. The international nature of sex trafficking makes it extremely difficult to know how many people are actually being trafficked.  Here is some information to understand the breadth of this crime, internationally and domestically.


United States

While the dark world of international sex trafficking is becoming more well known, many people remain unaware that sex trafficking isn't just an international problem.  It happens in your neighborhoods, communities, at local truck stops – often masquerading as prostitution. 

The following information from Shared Hope International helps shed some light on the problem of domestic sex trafficking:

  • Human Trafficking in the U.S. is a 9.8 billion dollar industry.
  • Over 1.68 million American children run away each year
  • Up to 90% of victims are under the control of a pimp
  • Pimps commonly sell girls for $400 an hour or more
  • Kids are especially susceptible to the deception and manipulation of traffickers. Traffickers recruit at locations that commonly attract youth; like schools, malls, parks, even protective shelters and group homes.
  • Boys and girls can be victims

U.S. Federal Law Against Sex Trafficking

The issue of domestic minor sex trafficking – the commercial sexual exploitation of children of under the age of 18 in the United States – is a growing problem. In order to be equipped to help fight the crime of domestic minor sex trafficking, we need to understand what it is from a legal standpoint. 

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the federal law that deals with human trafficking for minors and adults, defines the crime of human trafficking as:

The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act where such an act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age, or

The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery."

In order to separate trafficking from sexual assault, molestation or rape, the commercial aspect must be taken into consideration. The term "commercial sex act" is defined by the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act as the giving or receiving of anything of value (money, drugs, shelter, food, clothes, etc.) to any person in exchange for a sex act.

The age of the victim is a critical issue when it comes to identifying and prosecuting minor sex trafficking. In this case, there is no requirement to prove force, fraud or coercion was used to secure the victim's actions. The law recognizes the effect of psychological manipulation by the trafficker, as well as the effect of threat of harm which traffickers/pimps use to maintain control over their young victims.