• Athena Ives

A Growing Epidemic

Sex Trafficking in the United States

“The difference between a child victim of sex trafficking and an adult victim of sex trafficking is 60 seconds,” she said. “Nothing changed as I turned 18 years old. I was still being victimized. It still was not something I wanted to be doing. I spent the majority of my adult life involved in prostitution, sometimes with a third-party exploiting me and sometimes because I didn’t feel like I had any other options or any other worth in this world” said Nicole Bell, who worked as a prostitute after being trafficked as a teen (Gallucci, 2019).

Most assume that Sex Trafficking is a third world country issue or under the assumption that it doesn’t happen in the US. This assumption couldn’t be more inaccurate! The truth is every community and every home are at risk with the most vulnerable group being children. The United States Department of State recently released its annual Trafficking in Persons report, and the U.S. was in the top three countries for victims of origin. Some studies, like that from the Global Slavery Index in 2018, estimate that on any given day in the U.S., about 400,000 individuals are being trafficked in the commercial sex industry and through forced, unfair labor. Because of the lack of acceptance that human trafficking is a reality in our country, many victims, and the families driven to protect them, adopt the belief that “this could never happen to me” (Woolf, 2019). According to The Department of Health and Human Services, the National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 16,862 potential human trafficking cases and provided 14,419 referrals to services between October 2017 and March 2019 (White House, 2019). According to the Polaris Project, there was a 30% increase from 2016 to 2017, but these stats are likely to be much higher due to under-reporting (Gallucci, 2019). Many victims don’t realize or consider themselves victims of sex trafficking, but they are!

According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “Human trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes on Earth. Right now traffickers are robbing a staggering 24.9 million people of their freedom and basic human dignity—that’s roughly three times the population of New York City. We must band together and build momentum to defeat human trafficking. We must hold the perpetrators of this heinous crime accountable. We must achieve justice for survivors as they rebuild their lives. We must reinvigorate our shared commitment to extinguish human trafficking wherever it exists. There is no time to waste” (U.S. Department of State, 2019).

There are numerous reasons why certain countries and cities have larger rates of trafficking. Some of these reasons include but not limited to war, tourism, socioeconomic status, and natural disasters. According to research patterns have arisen identifying certain trends based on the culture of the country. In Brazil, traffickers exploit victims in forced labor through the guise of religion and cults. Cambodia capitalizes on lack of jobs which leads to many women and girls being forced to leave their homes in rural areas and find work in tourist areas where they are often trafficked for sex in massage parlors, karaoke bars, and beer gardens. Due to Ethiopia’s poverty level, many parents send their children into cities to work as domestic helpers where they are often trafficked into forced labor. The UK is known for using children to traffic drugs. In the U.S. the average age of females entering the sex industry is 12, 60% of sex trafficked victims had spent time in Foster Care, and the average age of girls involved in the sex industry recovered by law enforcement is 14. Yemen is known for trafficking children as child soldiers. According to the UN, there were 843 verified cases of boys as young as 11 years old (Gallucci, 2019).

Survivor Stories

“At 14, Miguel had already worked for years trying to support his family in Honduras. One night, after leaving his job at a local restaurant, two men abducted him, drugged him, and took him to the United States. Once there, they sold him to traffickers who plied him with more drugs and forced him into child sex trafficking where he endured daily sexual assault and threats of harm to his family back in Honduras. Federal law enforcement authorities eventually found Miguel during an operation; however, Miguel experienced further traumatization, bullying, and discrimination after he entered the state foster care system. Today, Miguel is a licensed behavioral psychologist in the United States” (U.S. Department of State, 2019).

“Keisha is a 16-year-old African American female originally from Florida. She was raised by an aunt until she was 10 years old and then placed in the foster care system. At the age of 14, Keisha first ran away from her foster family to avoid sexual harassment from one of her foster family’s relatives. During that time, she met “Mastur D,” a 26-year-old man who offered to help her get back to her biological family. He said he would be able to pay for some of the expenses to get them there, but that she needed to help support them financially by engaging in commercial sex with some of his friends. With no money or other options, Keisha took him up on his offer. He drove her back to Florida but insisted when they arrived that she had not earned enough money to cover their hotel and gas costs. He physically assaulted her and told her she would never see anyone else in her family if she did not engage in sex with other men of his choosing. She felt she had no other choice and continued to earn money for Mastur D to pay him back for the money he paid for her to get back to Florida. Keisha was arrested for solicitation in Florida and after serving time in a juvenile detention center was returned to her foster family and was therefore returned to sexual harassment by her foster family’s relative. Keisha ran away again a year later and called Mastur D to help her get back to Florida. He agreed to help again. She was arrested again. While participating in an outreach group at a detention center, Keisha reached out to a Polaris social worker and told her parts of her story. Polaris immediately stepped in to provide emotional support and additional social services. The social worker helped Keisha talk to her case manager at the detention center about what happened and helped Keisha’s probation officer understand other options for support instead of a detention center and returning to her foster family. Keisha now has an order of protection against Mastur D and was able to leave the detention center and go to an out-of-state residential program for young girls who were victims of sex trafficking. Keisha is doing well in her program and is almost finished with her GED” (Polaris, 2015).

“A man approached Brittany at a mall in her hometown, asked if she was looking for a job, and gave her a business card for a local restaurant he owned. When Brittany called the number on the card, the man confirmed that he was looking for waitresses to start working immediately. Brittany needed the job and asked for the restaurant’s address, but the man told her he would pick her up at the mall where they first met. Instead of going to the restaurant, the man drove her to a nearby hotel and told her that she was going to be a prostitute instead of a waitress. At gunpoint, Brittany was force to drink bottles of vodka and take blue pills that made her dizzy and disoriented. Brittany tried to look for help but was locked in the hotel room without access to a phone. After three days of being beaten, drugged, and forced to have sex with at least 60 men, Brittany managed to escape and asked the first car she saw to call the police. Polaris provided case management services to Brittany, and with time and a strong support system, she was able to enroll in school” (Polaris, 2015).

A message of hope from a Survivor

“I’m living proof that your life can be different. It wasn’t an easy process, but thanks to God, I now have my freedom and my life back. I now have a wonderful relationship with my family, and my traffickers are serving their sentences. I want you to know that there’s hope for you too. So come out of the shadows and speak up. You deserve to be heard. Leave fear behind – you’re no longer alone. None of this is your fault, and the law is on the victims’ side, regardless of your immigration status. I want you to know there’s hope for you too. So, come out of shadows and speak out. You deserve to be heard. Leave fear behind, you are no longer alone. As a community, we must be informed and aware. There are many resources to get information, report this crime or seek help, and you don’t always have to give your name. With just one call, you can make a difference and set an example for others” (Polaris, 2017).

“This is an urgent humanitarian issue. My Administration is committed to leveraging every resource we have to confront this threat, to support the victims and survivors, and to hold traffickers accountable for their heinous crimes.” – President Donald J. Trump

President Trump signed four bills in 2019 that demonstrate the bipartisan commitment to end human trafficking.

• On January 9, 2019, President Trumped signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (S. 1862) which tightens criteria for whether countries are meeting standards for eliminating trafficking.

• The President signed the Abolish Human Trafficking Act, which strengthens programs supporting survivors and resources for combating modern slavery.

• President Trump signed the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act, authorizing $430 million to fight sex and labor trafficking.

• The President signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (S. 1312), establishing new prevention, prosecution, and collaboration initiative to bring human traffickers to justice (White House, 2019).


Gallucci, J. (2019). Fortune. Human Trafficking is an Epidemic in the U.S. It’s Also Big Business. Retrieved from https://fortune.com/2019/04/14/human-sex-trafficking-us-slavery/.

Polaris Project (2015). Blog. From Foster Care to Sex Trafficking. Retrieved from https://polarisproject.org/blog/2015/03/survivor-story-from-foster-care-to-sex-trafficking/.

Polaris Project (2017). Blog. My Story is for You. Retrieved from https://polarisproject.org/blog/2017/11/my-story-is-for-you/.

U.S. Department of State (2019). Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo at the 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019-Trafficking-in-Persons-Report.pdf.

White House (2019). Law & Justice. President Donald J. Trump Has Made it a Priority to Combat the Heinous Crime of Human Trafficking. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-made-priority-combat-heinous-crime-human-trafficking/.

Woolf, B., (2019). Just ask Trafficking Prevention Foundation. Solving an Epidemic: Human Trafficking in America. Retrieved from https://docs.house.gov/meetings/RU/RU02/20191211/110314/HHRG-116-RU02-Wstate-WoolfB-20191211.pdf.