Addressing child sex trafficking takes a very particular set of skills. However, depictions in films like Taken don’t hold up when we start talking about what sex trafficking actually looks like.
There are certainly victims being forcibly held against their will in the world, but the vast majority of coercion into sex trafficking occurs over months and years, with controllers building trust and psychological leverage in order to exploit their victims.
While it can happen to anyone, there are some communities in the United States that are more vulnerable to becoming victims of child sex trafficking.
In this fight, knowledge is power.
Let’s bring the conversation into the light by looking at the communities most vulnerable to child sex trafficking. In doing so we can better address the issue, empower more victims to become survivors, and prevent vulnerable minors from becoming victims in the first place.
Native American & Indigenous communities
While Native Americans make up only 11% percent of New Mexico’s population, they account for over 25% of human trafficking victims, according to The Guardian.
A lack of infrastructure around dealing with sex trafficking cases on reservations or in states with significant Native American populations often leads to Native American women and girls becoming vulnerable targets of exploitation.
According to a 16-month long study conducted in New Mexico, “indigenous women and girls are the least recognized and least protected population in a state that struggles to address the problem.”
Work is being done to raise awareness around this vulnerable community, but it still needs to be elevated and addressed at a much higher level.
African American & Latino Youth
African American and Latino minors are also overrepresented when it comes to sex trafficking.
African American youth account for over 40% of all commercial sex act arrests of minors, while Hispanic or Latino/a youth account for nearly 20%, according to the FBI.
These groups are also disproportionately represented in human trafficking courts—special courts for human trafficking cases that take into account the needs of victim-defendants and strategies for preventing further exploitation.
Over 91% of girls appearing in the Los Angeles STAR human trafficking court are African American or Latina.
Child Welfare & Foster Care
Studies consistently report that 50-90% of child sex trafficking victims have been involved in the child welfare system, such as the foster care system.
Instability with adult role models can create a void for children that a trafficker leverages to create trust and ultimately exploit their victims. Those who enter the foster system can be particularly vulnerable.
As one survivor put it: “Nobody wanted me. This set me up to be vulnerable and needy.” Those in foster care have often been removed from abusive or negligent settings, which immediately makes them highly vulnerable targets for predatory traffickers.
As Polaris points out, “LGBTQ youth face higher rates of discrimination, violence, and economic instability than their non-LGBTQ peers.”
Family rejection, lack of support systems, and financial challenges each offer heightened opportunities for traffickers to step in and exploit LGBTQ+ youth. Traffickers can target these vulnerabilities to fill the role as a trusted adult, as well as offer perceived economic incentives that LGBTQ* youth may feel they won’t be offered elsewhere.
Add to the mix that those identifying as LGBTQ+ are greatly overrepresented among homeless youth, at nearly 40% despite only 7% of the general population identifying as LGBTQ+.
Homeless LGBTQ+ youth are three to seven times more likely to engage in survival sex—exchanging sexual acts for basic needs like food and shelter—compared to non-LGBTQ+ homeless youth.
Homeless & Runaways
The instability of homelessness presents a clear opening for traffickers to offer safe haven, money, or drugs in exchange for sexual exploitation. A recent study found that one fifth of homeless youth surveyed in the U.S. and Canada are victims of human trafficking.
Runaways can face similar vulnerabilities, with 1 in 7 identified as likely sex trafficking victims, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Like those in foster care, runaways are often leaving unstable home situations only to find themselves fighting for basic needs. This creates all the heightened vulnerabilities—lack of stability, a desire for affection, financial challenges, and more—that lead to predatory trafficking.
Building tools to eliminate child sex trafficking
While technology has made it easier for traffickers to exploit these communities, it can also be pointed towards defending children from these crimes.
Thorn’s Spotlight tool has directly led to the identification of nearly 15,000 child victims of sex trafficking, and we’re working with partners like Microsoft and Roblox to identify possible grooming—a tactic used by online predators to coerce children into exploitation—in text chats on popular games and other platforms frequented by minors.
Shining a light on this conversation helps us to arm the right people with the right tools at the right time. Together we’re building a better world.
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