What is Sex Trafficking?


Photo Credit:  www.star-telegram.com

Photo Credit: www.star-telegram.com

Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.
— Benjamin Franklin

Dressember’s goal is a world without slavery or human trafficking, but let’s dive a little deeper into a specific type of trafficking that a lot of our grant partners are working to fight: sex trafficking.

A21 defines sex trafficking as: “forcing, deceiving, or coercing a person to perform a commercial sex act.” According to a report by the United Nations (UN), the majority of victims of sexual exploitation are female. Another UN report revealed that, in a study of trafficking across 52 countries, 72% of the exploitation was sexual.  

Both adults and children can be found engaging in commercial sex acts. As we explore this issue further, it is important to note that not all sex work is considered human trafficking except in cases where force, fraud, or coercion are present. It is also important to note that children under the age of 18 are automatically defined as victims of sex trafficking regardless of whether force, fraud, or coercion is present.


The majority of victims of sexual exploitation are female.

In a study of trafficking across 52 countries, 72% of the exploitation was sexual.

There are many factors concerning how people are trafficked, and what kind of environment they are being trafficked. But the most important thing to remember is that no matter who is being trafficked or where they are, the trafficker is, in some way, manipulating the victims into providing sex for money.

Below are types of sex trafficking according to National Human Trafficking Hotline. Keep in mind that these are not the only forms of sex trafficking, but have been widely identified as common settings within which commercial sex is provided.

Bars and Clubs

Certain bars or clubs may “employ” victims of sex trafficking who work as dancers or hostesses, and are forced to provide commercial sex to customers. In some cases, a bar might offer specials where a customer can buy a beer with an up-charge that includes commercial sex. Victims, in this case, tend to be adult women, particularly immigrants appealing to a certain customer demographic. They may be working under the threat of deportation, or within a ring of organized crime.


Victims trafficked in to bars/clubs, tend to be adult female immigrants.

Many are working under the threat of deportation, or within an organized crime ring.

Fake Massage Parlors, also known as, Illicit Massage Businesses (IMB)

From the outside, these brothels look like legitimate massage, acupuncture, or therapeutic spas. The workers inside may even provide these spa services if an unassuming customer walks in and does not realize it’s a brothel. Women who work in these brothels typically live on-site where they provide sex to 6-10 customers per day, seven days a week. Victims often come from a foreign country, recruited with the promise of a better life overseas and a legitimate job that could provide money for their family back home. They may be documented or undocumented, working under the pressure of debt or deportation threats.


Commercial sex businesses operating out of hotels are advertised online, through escort services or through word of mouth. Hotels are a common venue because of their quick and easy access for customers, ability to pay for the facility in cash, and lack of building maintenance costs. Oftentimes, hotel management is unaware of the services being provided on premises. It is common for victims to have formed a romantic relationship with the pimp. Performing commercial sex in this case can occur as a result of manipulation within the relationship. This kind of sex trafficking is an example of how commercial sex has moved underground, away from the typical “streetwalker” stereotype.


Hotels offer quick & easy access for customers of sex traffickers.

Residential Brothels

These brothels operate out of homes, apartments, trailers, or condos where victims live on-site. Traffickers relocate victims often to avoid detection by the community, and to ensure that their victims are unfamiliar with their surroundings. The pimp has often lured victims in through a romantic relationship, and may intentionally seek out women of a certain cultural background to cater to a neighborhood with a predominant demographic. (For example: victims are often Latino women working within a predominantly Latino neighborhood).

There are many different life circumstances and situations that increase a potential victims’ susceptibility to traffickers. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Prior Violence and Assault

    When an individual has experienced sexual assault, they are at a higher risk of being trafficked for commercial sex, because they may have normalized the act or are unaware of alternative opportunities.

  • Immigration Status

    Recruiters and traffickers lure victims in with the promise of a job in a new country, and keep them working with threats of deportation. Some enter the country with fraudulent visas or are smuggled across borders.

  • Homelessness

    Runaway and homeless youth are often introduced to commercial sex because they do not have a place to stay. Research done in New York City by Covenant House revealed that 48% of interviewed homeless youth have been exposed to sex trafficking.

  • LGBTQ+ Youth

    According to the Center for American Progress, children who are homeless and identify as LGBTQ+ are at a greater risk for sex trafficking, because social discrimination and isolation may push them into dangerous situations. LGBTQ+ youth comprise 20-40% of trafficked minors in the U.S.

  • Economic Hardship

    Traffickers target people in financial trouble who need to provide for themselves or their families and believe they have no other way to make money.


48% of homeless youth interviewed by the Covenant House were exposed to sex trafficking.

You can read more about the warning signs of sex trafficking here. If you or someone you know suspects sex trafficking, visit the Human Trafficking Hotline to file a report or talk to someone.

Sex trafficking is a serious reality for millions worldwide. But the more we educate ourselves on the subject, the more we are equipped to make a change. All week long, we will be digging deeper into this issue, so keep an eye out for more articles covering detailed information on sex trafficking.


It is not too late to be a part of the impact!

Right now, thousands of people around the world are taking on the creative challenge of wearing a dress or tie in the month of December. The reason? To bring freedom to the 40+ million around the world still trapped in slavery. Your donation or participation in Dressember 2018 is part of a movement to end human trafficking for good.

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About the Author

Anna Stephens.png

Anna Stephens is a native Texan pursuing her Master's of Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science at Lund University in Sweden. She has participated in Dressember for 3 years, and plans to continue using fashion as a platform for awareness and eradication of human trafficking. In her spare time, you can find her drinking iced coffee, looking for dogs to pet, or exploring Swedish nature with her friends.