Sex trafficking in the US: 4 questions answered

New England Patriots CEO Robert Kraft’s criminal charges in a suspected sex trafficking case in southern Florida draw new attention to this serious problem.

Sex trafficking, as the federal government defines it, is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act” by means of “force, fraud, or coercion.” This is a form of modern-day slavery. Found in massage parlors, escort services, residential brothels and street prostitution, some might be victims for weeks and others for years.

As someone who studies human trafficking, I feel that it’s important for the public to understand how it manifests in the U.S. today. While there’s still a great deal that is unknown about sex trafficking, research studies and nonprofits have been able to gather telling data on this industry’s victims and perpetrators.

Where does sex trafficking happen?

Sex trafficking tends to occur in motels and impoverished neighborhoods along the interstate highway system as well as in major urban centers. Some of the busiest corridors of the interstate include I-5 in the West, I-95 in the East and I-80, stretching from coast to coast.

Interstate highway map of the continental U.S. Stacey Lynn Payne/shutterstock.com
The nonprofit Polaris operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which takes tips on sex and labor trafficking. Although the Polaris data are not from a random-sample survey, they shed light on types of sex trafficking in the U.S. In 2017, Polaris received more than 6,000 hotline tips about sex trafficking across America. Among these data, the top venues for sex trafficking included illicit massage parlors, hotels and motels, and residential brothels.

The National Association of Truck Stop Operators has partnered with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign. The National Association of Truck Stop Operators offers trainings to help truckers, truck stop owners and employees identify the signs of human trafficking, such as malnourishment, lack of eye contact and disorientation.

Hotel chains like Marriott are training their employees as well.

Who are the victims?

Reliable data on the number of sex trafficking victims in the U.S. are hard to come by.

In the U.S., studies show that most victims of sex trafficking are women and young girls. They are, on average, 19 years old.

Risk factors for sex trafficking include a history of child abuse, substance abuse, poverty, involvement in child protective services, involvement in juvenile detention and prior sexual exploitation.

Runaway and homeless youth are especially at risk for sex trafficking. A study conducted in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Phoenix found that 14 percent of homeless youth identified themselves as victims of sex trafficking. Among these sex trafficking victims, 33 percent identified as LGBTQ.