You may think human sex trafficking only happens in faraway countries outside of your own, but did you know that sex trafficking cases were reported in every state in the U.S. in 2017?

Jillian Gilchrest, Chair of Connecticut’s Trafficking in Persons Council, puts it this way:

“People think it’s not happening here, or that if it is happening, victims are foreign born individuals. But these are young women and men in our communities.”

Related: More Than 120 Missing Kids Found Safe In Michigan Human Trafficking Sting

How to identify victims and next steps to take when they’re found is important for every person to know, because trafficking can happen anywhere. Let’s get started with the basics.

Q: Who are victims of sex trafficking?

By one definition, sex trafficking is a “modern-day form of slavery in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under the age of 18 years.” [1]

This means that sex trafficking not only includes sex trafficking rings, but any instance in which an individual is forced, tricked, or pressured into performing a commercial sex act or any scenario in which the individual involved is below legal age.

By this definition, sex trafficking victims can include “consenting” individuals in porn.

Q: What puts someone at risk for sex trafficking?

Taina Bien-Aime, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking In Women, says consuming porn can be a risk factor, and that it’s used to groom victims by normalizing the abuse they endure.

“Pornography gives the message to girls that you have to submit to a very high level of violence, and have a tolerance for violence and dehumanization. They look at it as sex as opposed to violence, as consent as opposed to coercion, threat, abuse, or worse.”

Socioeconomic factors can also play a role. The Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University sees many runaway and homeless youth exploited through domestic minor sex trafficking.

Related: Did You Know Men And Boys Can Be Victims Of Sex Trafficking, Too?

Melissa Farley, clinical psychologist and Executive Director of Prostitution Research & Education explains that “forced” doesn’t just mean at gunpoint or that you have shackles on your ankles—people can be forced into sex trafficking simply by a need to pay rent.

Porn performers can be trafficked into the industry, and even consenting performers are at risk of becoming trafficking victims by being forced, lied to, or pressured into doing more than they’re comfortable with on camera.

Q: How can I identify a sex trafficking victim?

Jessie A. Boye-Doe, director of the JCCA and the Gateways program, describes these warning signs that someone, most often a girl, is being trafficked for sex:

Tattoos of someone’s name or multiple girls sharing the same tattoo can be a mark of “belonging” to the same trafficker. One woman’s pimp branded her with tattoos of money bags on their upper thighs and dollar signs on her pelvic region. Others have the words “property of” or “for life” tattooed with their trafficker’s names.

Related: Where Are Human Trafficking Hotspots, And How Can Victims Be Identified?

Victims may have expensive material objects they couldn’t otherwise afford. They may also disappear for long periods of time and return with clothing, hair, and fingernails not fitting for their age.

There may also be behavioral and social changes, like withdrawal from peer groups or the sudden appearance of a much older boyfriend or a dominating maternal figure.

Click here for Polaris’ quick list of sex trafficking victim identifiers.

Q: How can I identify a pimp/sex trafficker?

Sex traffickers don’t fit one stereotype—they can be male or female, old or young.

Shamere McKenzie, CEO of the Sungate Foundation and sex trafficking survivor, describes the day she met her trafficker as nothing out of the ordinary.

“My trafficker was someone I met when crossing the street. He didn’t say, ‘I’m the big bad pimp, you’re going to come with me. I’m going to beat you and abuse you and do all these things to you.’ He was very nice in his approach. I had no idea he was a trafficker until I shared with him that I needed money to go back to school and he said, ‘I’ll help you.’”

Related: Who Are Sex Traffickers, And Why Do They Exploit Other Humans?

For many victims, their trafficker is someone they love and trust. Kevin Malone, Co-founder of the United States Institute Against Human Trafficking, describers traffickers this way:

“He grooms her, tells her he loves her, builds a connection and a dependence on him. Then he says, ‘If you love me, you’ll not only sleep with me, you’ll take care of my friends.’”

A trafficker could also be a porn director who tricks, threatens, or manipulates a performer to do more than they originally agreed upon. Some traffickers even act as directors or talent agents who lure their victims by modeling opportunities or other schemes, then force them to make pornographic films.

Q: What role does porn play in human sex trafficking?

Pornography commodifies people as objects to be consumed. Accepting that other humans can be purchased via the internet, a magazine, or a movie lessens the extremes of purchasing someone in real time.

Related: By The Numbers: Is The Porn Industry Connected To Sex Trafficking?

People who consume porn often think they’re doing it passively in the privacy of their own home. But Mahri Irvine, Adjunct Professional Lecturer at American University’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, says there’s something trafficking victims want society to know.

“When people watch porn, they think that everyone has consented to it and they’re all adult, paid actors. But what survivors want all porn consumers to know is that when you’re watching pornography, you actually have no way of knowing if you’re watching someone being raped or voluntarily engaging in that act.”

Karen Countryman-Roswurm, Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State, University, interviewed 258 young people who had been trafficked. Each said that porn was used to normalize and desensitize them to the sexual acts they would experience, that porn was made of them while they were enslaved, and that those pornographic images were used as advertising for their sexual abuse.

Q: What is life like for sex trafficking victims after they’re rescued?

Victims of sex trafficking may suffer from PTSD, mental illness, sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction, self-harm, or difficulty bonding with others in a healthy way.

Treatment is tailored to the individual’s needs by trained professionals at the appropriate time. Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy may be used in a victim’s recovery plan.

Related: What Happens To Sex Trafficking Survivors After They’re Rescued?

The goal is to help victims resist the possible tendency to return to trafficking, and live a healthy, fulfilling life. Victims of sex trafficking are not irreversibly damaged—healing is possible.

Help stop this global issue

Sex trafficking is a symptom of a problem—a supply in response to a demand. If individuals can work together to not only identify and respond to scenarios of sex trafficking but cut off the demand for sexual exploitation as a whole by considering these facts before consuming porn, we can truly all do our part to make a difference.

[1] Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) Of 2000. Pub. L. No. 106-386, Section 103 (8) (A).

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