How To Identify (And Rescue) A Victim Of Sex Trafficking

By May 19, 2017 February 20th, 2020 No Comments
Selections from this post were originally posted on TIME Magazine.

The pornography industry works hard to keep up a glamorous image, but behind the camera is a reality of violence, drugs, and human trafficking.

With some editing and off-screen coercion, pornographers can make it look like what’s happening onscreen is being enjoyed. But the un-cut version is a different story. Porn actors are constantly threatened and emotionally and verbally abused by agents and directors to force them into doing things they don’t want to do. [2]

“You’re viewed as an object and not as a human with a spirit,” wrote Jersey Jaxin, a former porn star that left the industry in 2007. “People do drugs because they can’t deal with the way they are being treated. Seventy-five percent [of porn performers] and rising are using drugs. Have to numb themselves. There are specific doctors in this industry that if you go in for a common cold they’ll give you Vicodin, Viagra, anything you want because all they care about is the money. You are a number. You’re bruised. You have black eyes. You’re ripped. You’re torn. You have your insides coming out.” [3]

But while this coercion and abuse in the porn industry exist, there is an even darker side to the issue. The unfortunate reality is that lots of pornography features victims of human sex trafficking.

How And Why Trafficking Happens

Sex trafficking takes place in nearly every country. Approaches to defining it and ending it have changed, while the steady stream of enslaved women and children have not completely subsided. While there are ghastly situations in which young girls’ virginity is sold off by their debt-stricken parents in Cambodia, the reality is that western countries are by no means immune to the trade.

Obviously, human trafficking is an underground business, making firm statistics hard to come by. But the facts in cases that come to light are chilling. For example, in 2011, two Miami men were found guilty of spending five years luring women into a human trafficking trap. They would advertise modeling roles, then when women came to try out, they would drug them, kidnap them, rape them, videotape the violence, and sell it to pornography stores and businesses across the country. [5]

Related: This New App Helps You Fight Sex Trafficking While You Travel

That same year a couple in Missouri was charged with forcing a mentally handicapped girl to produce porn for them by beating, whipping, suffocating, electrocuting, drowning, mutilating, and choking her until she agreed. One of the photos they forced her to make ended up on the front cover of a porn publication owned by Hustler Magazine Group. [6]

Those cases are just the tip of the iceberg; many more like them exist, and for each victim discovered, countless others suffer in silence. [7]

Still others are victimized by being forced into prostitution. Runaways, girls who have fallen for the wrong guy and naive women who have traveled from another country on the promise of a legitimate job can get trapped in prostitution rings anywhere.

Where Are Local Anti-Trafficking Resources?

The Polaris Project, which works to combat slavery of all kinds released this helpful map, which identifies the local trafficking-fighting agencies all over the world.

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Hotels Are Trafficking Hotspots

One front in this battle has been the hotel industry. Traffickers and pornographers like to use hotels since they can get in, make some money, and then move on before they attract too much attention. Neighbors tend to take a dim view of brothels and report them to the authorities. “It happens in hotels that are five star hotels and it happens in the sleaziest, slummiest rent by the hour hotels,” says Tammy Lee Stanoch, VP of corporate affairs for a large hotel chain.

Perhaps because of this, some hoteliers were early activists in the anti-trafficking cause, including Marilyn Carlson Nelson, the former chairman of the chain (which owns a bunch of hotels including the Park Plaza, Country Inns and Suites and all the different types of Radisson). Initially, this was against the advice of their legal teams, who were leery of highlighting any illegal activity that was taking place within the hotels’ walls, but now many hotel chains, including Hilton, have signed on to the ECPAT Code of Conduct.

“These women and children are being victimized in hotels, and whether they’re our hotels or our competitors, we’re going to take a stance on it,” says Stanoch. “Hotels need to be part of the solution because unfortunately, that’s where many of these crimes happen.”

Many hotels now train their employees to watch for red flags, and the people learning new trafficking-spotting protocol share some of what they’ve learned:

One of the key times is at check-in.

Paying with cash is obviously a cause for concern, especially if the reservation was originally made with a credit card. When an older man or woman checks in with younger women who don’t appear to be his or her children—they speak a different language, they’re distant from him, they look dazed or afraid, or if they’re made up to look older than they really are—that often means the women are not there willingly. A bunch of guys checking in with two young Latvian women alarmed this hotel employee, who went called the cops on them and broke up a trafficking ring. And then there’s the luggage clue; legitimate travelers usually bring a bunch of bags with them.

For hotels, the next line of defense after a vigilant front desk clerk is the in-house security team.

Sometimes traffickers will check in to the room and only much later smuggle the girls and the johns into the hotel through a side door. “Very few women are being paraded by the front desk,” says Stanoch. Hotels have put in very sophisticated camera equipment, but that doesn’t mean they catch everything. Rooms which are being used by traffickers typically have a lot of men coming and going, and sometimes have men congregating outside the door, in the lobby or in the parking lot.

FBI San Antonio Special Agent Michelle Lee told local media after an undercover sting in June that traffickers often use two rooms. “One room is the working hotel room and the other room is where everyone else usually stays and they have just a few, very limited belongings.” Stanoch notes that the hotel staff moves pretty fast, once their suspicions have been raised.

The hotel housekeepers are key players.

Traffickers tend to decline cleaning services for days on end. They’re also less likely to tidy up, so the housekeeping staff may find large amounts of condoms and lubricant when they do get in to the room. (Stanoch says people who are having consensual sex generally tend to be neater with their paraphernalia. Who knew? ) Cleaners are also trained to watch out for a large number of computers or cell phones in a room.

Porn use in the room can also be a big indicator of trafficking.

If one room is watching an unusual amount of porn on their hotel TV, that can trigger suspicions especially if it happens in tandem with other signs of trafficking. Not always, of course, especially in Hilton Hotels & Resorts since they officially announced a change in policy recently and removed all on-demand pornographic videos from the in-room entertainment services at all of its properties worldwide.

“We are very sensitive to our guest’s privacy,” says Stanoch. “If something is suspicious in the guest room, in addition to indicators like a room that has been paid for in cash or multiple men coming and going, this may be cause for concern.”

Checking on the contents of another traveler’s room (or their TV habits) is of course frowned upon for regular guests, but there are things any traveler can watch out for: if you’re checking in or in the lobby, do the women being checked in have their own credit cards and forms of identification? Do they look to be in good health? Do they seem disoriented or disheveled? Are their “boyfriends” significantly older? Do the men seem to be preventing the women from moving about freely? There have even been reports of some women having tattoos that mark ownership.

Keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Report anything and everything.

If you’re on the same floor as a room which seems to have a lot of men hanging around outside, or a constant stream of visitors, you might want to let the hotel authorities know. Each of these symptoms on its own could have a perfectly plausible explanation, but if more than one or two of these warning flags are waving, then it might be time to tell hotel management of your concerns.

But Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT USA, suggests that hotel security is your first line of attack, if you notice something suspicious. “It does get more complicated overseas because it depends on the nationality of the perpetrator and what country you are in,” says Smolenski. “We still recommend that if people are in a hotel when they notice something wrong, they should report it to the hotel management.”

Three Things You Can Do RIGHT NOW To Help Fight Sex Trafficking

Porn is commonly made of victims of sex trafficking and put online or sold to distributors. These sex slaves are forced, coerced, and abused into doing porn. For porn viewers at home, there is no way to know the dark origins of where the porn comes from. #StopTheDemand

Here are a few things you can do to fight back and raise awareness:

1) The facts show that porn and sex trafficking are inseparably connected. SHARE this article to raise awareness on how to spot a victim and how to get help for them.
2) Stop the demand, rep the movement. Shop here:
3) Check out the following nonprofit organizations to learn more about how you can get directly involved in the fight against sex trafficking:

Polaris Project
This Washington D.C.-based nonprofit is one of the most recognized organizations in the global fight to eradicate modern slavery. Named after the North Star that guided slaves to freedom in the U.S., Polaris systemically disrupts the human trafficking networks by helping survivors restore their freedom, preventing more victims, and leveraging data and technology to pursue traffickers wherever they operate.

Rescue: Freedom International
Based in Seattle, Washington, this nonprofit has partner sites in 8 countries, that support sex trafficking victims and gives them “anything and everything a survivor needs to experience long-term healing and restoration.” While local partners are working on the ground, Rescue:Freedom is the supply line for that work by providing operational funding, scholarships, training, best practices, infrastructure, and other essential resources.

Operation Underground Railroad
O.U.R. takes a boots-on-the-ground approach to combatting sex trafficking by gathering trained extraction operations specialists to bring an end to child slavery. O.U.R.’s Underground Jump Team consists of former CIA, Navy SEALs, and Special Ops operatives that lead coordinated identification and extraction efforts. These operations are always in conjunction with law enforcement throughout the world.

If you’re in the United States, it would be worthwhile to keep this number handy: 1-888-373-7888 (The National Human Trafficking Hotline).


[1] Amis, M. (2001). A Rough Trade. The Guardian (U.K.), March 17.
[2] Dines, G. (2010). Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality. Boston: Beacon, 70–73; Amis, M. (2001). A Rough Trade. The Guardian (U.K.), March 17.
[3] Lubben, S. Interview with “Jersey Jaxin,”
[4] Peters, R. W., Lederer, L. J., and Kelly, S. (2012). The Slave and the Porn Star: Sexual Trafficking and Pornography. In M. Mattar and J. Braunmiller (Eds.) Journal of Human Rights and Civil Society 5: 1-21.
[5] U.S. Department of Justice. (2012). Two Men Sentenced to Multiple Life Sentences for Enticing Women to South Florida to Engage in Commercial Sex Acts and Distributing Date Rape Pills. Press Release, Feb. 17.
[6] Peters, R. W., Lederer, L. J., and Kelly, S. (2012). The Slave and the Porn Star: Sexual Trafficking and Pornography. In M. Mattar and J. Braunmiller (Eds.) Journal of Human Rights and Civil Society 5: 1-21; U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Missouri. (2010). Woman Tortured as Slave, Victim of Trafficking and Forced Labor. Press Release, September 9.
[7] Peters, R. W., Lederer, L. J., and Kelly, S. (2012). The Slave and the Porn Star: Sexual Trafficking and Pornography. In M. Mattar and J. Braunmiller (Eds.) Journal of Human Rights and Civil Society 5: 1-21.
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