How To Spot a Victim of Sexual Trafficking

How To Spot a Victim of Sexual Trafficking

NOT for sale human trafficking by Ira Gelb

Image by Ira Gelb at Flickr Commons

Forced prostitution happens in the US, not just in third world countries. It happens in suburban neighborhoods with well-manicured lawns where smiling dads push mowers and wave at you. It happens in cities, at truck stops, in businesses, in residences, and in our nation’s capital—one prostitution track used to be six blocks from the White House in Washington, DC (according to the film “3 a.m. Girls”).

Not sure if it’s there anymore. Tracks shift around, partially as a response to what law enforcement’s doing.

The commonly-cited age for a girl to be sexually trafficked for the first time is between 12 and 13. They are all races, and all nationalities (yes, including US citizens).

It’s not easy to cite statistics and numbers here. A lot of different research turns up different results. What is certain is that we have only begun to grasp what an extensive problem human trafficking is. According to the UN (and author Benjamin Skinner, and countless other sources that repeat the information), there are more slaves today than at any other time in human history, and nearly 80% of those slaves are sex slaves.


So how do we know if we see someone who is being trafficked?

Here’s a list of things to look out for, but it’s by no means definitive. A victim might not show any of these signs. Then again, just because someone exhibits some of these signs, doesn’t mean they’re being trafficked. These are just red flags. I collected these indicators from Polaris Project (which operates the National Human Trafficking Resource Center) and the US Department of State.

  • They seem submissive and fearful.
  • They avoid eye contact.
  • They seem anxious, especially at the mention of law enforcement.
  • They are unable to speak to you alone. Someone always seems to be watching.
  • Their ID is held by their employer or “boyfriend” (who is probably their pimp).
  • Their answers seem scripted and rehearsed.
  • There are signs of physical abuse.
  • They can’t come and go as they please.
  • They live with their employer or “boyfriend.”
  • They don’t have their own money, or are paid very little.
  • They own few personal possessions.
  • They seem unfamiliar with the area or can’t tell you where they’re staying (because they travel around a lot).
  • They’re not sure what time it is.
  • Their story is inconsistent.
  • They work very long or unusual hours.
  • They owe a huge amount of debt that they’re working to pay off.
  • They’re under 18 and providing paid sex. (Sex workers are consenting professional adults. Minors in the sex trade are typically victims, but not all victims are minors.)
  • They live in “high security” conditions—in a house with tinted or barred windows, security cameras, barbed wire, etc.

Okay, so all of those are signs that someone COULD be a trafficking victim.


What should you do if you start seeing red flags?

First of all, it’s probably not a good idea to approach them or try to engage them, or try to get them to go with you—especially if their pimp is watching. The victim could get in trouble or be punished. (And pimps often watch from the shadows, so you might not know they’re there. Err on the side of caution.)

That said, if you have a chance to talk with them, just ask a few indirect questions. It’s not easy to get a trafficking victim to admit to being a trafficking victim (a lot of sources have told me that’s actually the hardest part), so don’t just come out and say, “Are you being forced to have sex for money?”

Instead, ask a few questions associated with the list of red flags I just outlined.

  • “Do you come from the area, or are you from out of town?”
  • “Where are you staying?” or “What part of town are you staying in?” or “Are the beds comfortable where you’re staying?”
  • “Can you give me the time?”
  • “Can you come and go as you please?”
  • “Do you have any money or ID on you?” or “Do you have a couple bucks for the vending machine?”

As much as you might want to step in, don’t.

The best thing to do is to remember as many details as you possibly can, and then contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

Call us at 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to BeFree (233733).


L. Marrick is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. 50% of proceeds from her book Working Girl, a memoir of her time working for a professional escort, go to sex trafficking non-profits. She waxes poetic about swords and the Renaissance Faire at her author blog. She looks all professional-like at her copywriting site. You can connect with her on Facebook and Twitter @LMarrick.

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