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Changing societal perceptions of sex trafficking in the United States

North America, Featured

by Hanna Nussair

Hollywood movies. Private islands. Organized crime. Awareness of sex trafficking has grown tenfold in recent decades. But despite its heightened recognition, the number of sex trafficking survivors has not decreased—reports even suggest that the issue is on the rise. 

I first learned about sex trafficking while watching the film Taken as a teenager. In the years following, I became deeply involved in the movement to combat sex trafficking. I have spoken with law enforcement on the issue, and worked side-by-side with service providers, legal services, and anti-sex trafficking educators. Why do I believe progress is so stagnant? Media depictions of sex trafficking have created spun-out misconceptions and turned the issue into a public conspiracy, leaving out the most common survivors—BIPOC women, migrants, unhoused individuals, youth in the child welfare system and members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

That’s not to say large-scale sex trafficking scandals are insignificant. There are hundreds of true, and horrifying, examples of sex trafficking involving powerful people, and those cases deserve to be recognized. However, these instances represent a small fraction of the problem. Media portrayals of sex trafficking often center on the “ideal victim”, characterized as a young, white cisgender woman kidnapped into a large criminal circuit. 

Sex trafficking scandals have also led to a rise in disinformation, and alt-right theories like “QAnon” and “PizzaGate” have tied anti-sex trafficking efforts to right-wing groups—many of which hold nationalist, white-centric, anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ+ stances. The underlying causes of sex trafficking, like systemic poverty, domestic violence and the stigmatization of marginalized groups, are being ignored in prevention efforts. 

The real statistics on sex trafficking

An estimated 240,000 and 325,000 people are forced into sexual slavery in the United States every year according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. Reports by the US National Human Trafficking Resource Center note that around 85 percent are women, girls and gender-diverse people. Bias and discrimination towards marginalized women in systems like the US job and housing market can be used to the advantage of traffickers. 

Sex trafficking is also an issue of racial justice. Even though Black people make up only about 14 percent of the US population, reports estimate that up to 40 percent of sex trafficking victims in the country are Black. Indigenous women are another group disproportionately impacted; in South Dakota, 40 percent of reported sex trafficking survivors were Native women although they only represent 8 percent of the population. 

Youth experiencing poverty and homelessness, especially those identifying as LGBTQ+, are highly vulnerable. A study by the Polaris Project found that LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness are 3-7 times more likely to engage in survival sex to meet basic needs, such as shelter, food, drugs, and toiletries. 

In contradiction to prominent sex trafficking narratives, perpetrators of sex trafficking are almost never strangers or kidnappers. In 2020, 81 percent of sex trafficking who called into the National Human Trafficking Hotline were recruited by a family member or intimate partner. 

How prevention initiatives can be shifted

Combating sex trafficking requires us to shift our perception of what sex trafficking looks like and begin looking at the problem through a human rights lens rather than a criminal justice lens. The leading US federal law on trafficking, The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, and subsequent human trafficking legislation, lacks a focus on system-wide changes that can deter sex trafficking. Some possible reforms could include:

  • Systemic poverty-reduction efforts aimed at assisting marginalized women, girls and gender-diverse people;
  • Reforms to national immigration systems that protect vulnerable women from instances of gender-based violence;
  • Psychological services and assistance for homeless and runaway youth;
  • Increasing access to health care facilities—especially reproductive care—which are the most common places for gender-based violence to be identified;
  • Community-based educational programs aimed at groups most vulnerable to sex trafficking;
  • Working in tandem with prevention efforts on other forms of gender-based violence such as domestic and intimate partner violence, forced marriages and psychological and economic violence. 

Public support for anti-sex trafficking organizations working on systems-wide efforts is crucial. In 2021, a coalition group of survivor leaders and the Human Trafficking Legal Center created a survey for BIPOC survivors on racism within the anti-trafficking movement. In early 2022, the National Survivor Network brought survey recommendations—including a focus on poverty reduction and child maltreatment—to the United States government. You can learn more about their work here.

In addition to Hanna Nussair’s current role at Global Rights for Women as social media consultant, she works for Girl Up, a girl-centered leadership development initiative at the United Nations Foundation.