Who are Sex Traffickers, and Why Do They Exploit Other Humans?

By September 10, 2019 February 20th, 2020 No Comments

In a worldview of slavery, society generally agrees that it is inhumane and degrading, and most people are astonished that there have been times in history where slavery was accepted as normal and acceptable.

Somehow, still, many people are unintentionally or unconsciously accepting of a form of modern-day slavery: human sex trafficking. While people claim to be opposed to human sex trafficking, what many don’t know is that the demand for human sex trafficking is fueled by pornography and the porn industry.

But before we get to that more in-depth, let’s cover the basics. Who are traffickers, who are trafficking victims, and why does sex trafficking even happen in the first place?

Podcast - Figures - Light

The definition of sex trafficking

In the year 2000, in response to reports of international human trafficking, one of the broadest bipartisan coalitions in history came together to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or the TVPA. [1] The landmark legislation identified “severe forms” of human trafficking, imposed harsh criminal penalties for offenders, and provided support systems for the victims. [2]

The TVPA defines sex trafficking as a situation in which “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” [3]

Related: By The Numbers: How Porn And Sex Trafficking Are Closely Connected

By identifying the practices that constitute human trafficking, the TVPA brought attention to all instances of trafficking, regardless of where the victims were from or the context in which they were being exploited.

But there’s more. Look again at the TVPA’s definition of sex trafficking: “a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion.”

That last word, coercion, is important. It means that a commercial sex act can be sex trafficking, even if no one was physically assaulted, even if no one was tricked or defrauded. Trafficking doesn’t have to look like the movie “Taken,” where the victim is kidnapped and transported, because all it takes is coercion. The moment a victim is coerced or intimidated into a commercial sex act against his or her will, sex trafficking has occurred, even if they walk away with a paycheck in their hands.

People Are Not Products - Black

Who are traffickers?

According to anti-trafficking organization The Polaris Project, traffickers (both labor and sex trafficking) can be lone individuals or extensive criminal networks. Pimps, gangs, family members, labor brokers, employers of domestic servants, small business owners, and large factory owners have all been found guilty of human trafficking. Their common thread is a willingness to exploit other human beings for profit.

Sex traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will, according to the Polaris Project. Under U.S. federal law with the TVPA (stated above), any minor under the age of 18 years induced into commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking—regardless of whether or not the trafficker used force, fraud, or coercion.

RelatedThis New App Helps You Stop Sex Trafficking While You Travel

And if you think men are the only ones who traffic and exploit vulnerable people, you might be surprised. Increasingly, women traffic other women, too.

According to Business Insider, it’s estimated that globally, some 62% of suspected traffickers are men, while 38% are women, according to a 2015 study from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

This is a pretty high number considering how, on average globally, the share of women suspected of any crime is 18%, the study said. But many of these female traffickers were formerly trafficked themselves.

Why do they traffic?

The short answer? Money.

Sex trafficking can be extremely lucrative, especially in areas where opportunities for education and legitimate employment may be limited. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the greatest numbers of traffickers are from Asia, followed by Central and Southeastern Europe, and Western Europe. Crime groups involved in the sex trafficking of women and girls are also often involved in the transnational trafficking of drugs and firearms, and frequently use violence as a means of carrying out their activities.

People Are Not Products - White

Who can be a victim of trafficking?

Adult women make up the largest group of sex trafficking victims, followed by girls, although a small percentage of men and boys are trafficked into the sex industry as well. While it is indisputable that the vast majority of survivors of commercial sexual exploitation are female (likely around 98%, according to the International Labour Organization), the other 2% add up to about 400,000 men and boys as victims, too.

According to the female-empowerment organization Soroptimist, any of the poorest and most unstable countries have the highest incidences of human trafficking, and extreme poverty is a common bond among trafficking victims.

Where economic alternatives do not exist, women and girls are more vulnerable to being tricked and coerced into sexual servitude. Increased unemployment and the loss of job security have undermined women’s incomes and economic position. A stalled gender wage gap, as well as an increase in women’s part-time and informal sector work, push women into poorly-paid jobs and long-term and hidden unemployment, which leaves women vulnerable to sex traffickers.

Who purchases people who are trafficked?

Also according to Soroptimist, developing nations are the biggest fuelers of trafficking, contrary to what general society believes.

The vast majority of sex buyers are men (though the rates of women who buy sex have increased), and they come from all sectors of society. There is no one profile that encapsulates the “typical” client. The fact is, those who purchase trafficked women are both rich and poor, from all different cultures. Sadly, many are married men who have children, and in some cases, as was reported in one New York Times article, men have sex with trafficking victims in lieu of abusing their own children.

Related: 5 Ways You Can Help Fight Human Sex Trafficking In Your Daily Life

One reason for the proliferation of sex trafficking, reports Soroptimist, is because in many parts of the world there is little to no perceived stigma to purchasing sexual favors for money, and prostitution is viewed as a victimless crime. Because women are culturally and socially devalued in so many societies around the world, there is usually little conflict with the purchasing of women and girls for sexual services. And in developed countries in particular, there is a commonly held misconception that all women choose to enter the commercial sex trade willingly.

Normalizing Abuse Isnt Normal

What does this have to do with porn?

This is the reality of what the porn industry fuels (and fantasizes): real people being sexually abused and exploited at the hands of family members, traffickers, and pimps. Each click to porn content directly fuels the demand for sex traffickers to make money by selling videos and images of their sex slaves to porn sites. But what about major porn studios and porn sites—aren’t they completely separate from the sexual exploitation issue?

Absolutely not.

After all, when someone is sex trafficked, there are undoubtedly videos and images taken of them for commercial purposes, like advertising them online. But sometimes, these images and videos end up on popular sites. And unfortunately, the more the mainstream adult entertainment industry flourishes, the bigger the opposing globalized black market for porn will become, and the more difficult it becomes to differentiate whether content is from a trafficked individual or not.

Not to mention that the higher the demand for porn, even porn that was produced in professional studios (which, newsflash, also abuse their performers), the more sex traffickers will want to profit from that lucrative porn demand, and the more they’ll exploit vulnerable people to get there. After all, considering the numbers, it’s big business to do so.

Brain Heart World

How you can help

Stopping the demand starts with us shining a light on the realities of what’s happening around us.

Learn to recognize the signs of trafficking, and know what local law enforcement agency to call if you see something. Get involved with local anti-trafficking organizations by seeing which ones are in your specific area. Together, our voices make a difference, and together, we can end sexual exploitation and slavery.

If you’re interested in working directly with sex trafficking survivors, HELP International and FTND are offering an all-expense paid volunteer trip to Nepal to the grand-prize winner of our #StopTheDemand campaign. Our Co-Founder and President Clay Olsen is volunteering at the Nepal Shelter in June, and the #StopTheDemand campaign winner will work alongside our Executive Director Natale McAneney during the 11-day August volunteer trip being given away.


[1] Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) Of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106–386, Section 102(A), 114 Stat. 1464.
[2] Trafficking Victims Protection Act. (2009, November 29). Retrieved From Https://Fightslaverynow.Org/Why-Fight-There-Are-27-Million-Reasons/The-Law-And-Trafficking/Trafficking-Victims-Protection-Act/Trafficking-Victims-Protection-Act/
[3] Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) Of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106–386, Section 102(A), 114 Stat. 1464.
Send this to a friend