Survivor Insights:
The Role of Technology
in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking

Survivor insights keep our work grounded in the complexity of real experiences so that the best interventions can be developed to defend children from sexual abuse. Through research, we gain insights and monitor trends in the role of technology in child sex trafficking. With the help of 24 survivor organizations and 260 survivors, we have new knowledge on what domestic minor sex trafficking [DMST] looks like today.

What we learned from survivors in our 2014 research allowed us to build a tool that has changed lives.

Spotlight

We built Spotlight because we learned many child victims of sex trafficking were being sold online, and that many of them were writing their own ads. If that were true, it seemed plausible that an ad written by a child victim would use different language than that of an adult. We were right. Using natural language processing and machine learning we started with one insight and have built a product that keeps getting better.

8,345

officers actively using Spotlight

31,197

victims of trafficking identified

9,380

child victims of trafficking identified

Learn More

New Insights

Online advertising is increasing.

The insights provided by survivors show that advertising online is highly correlated with more buyers per day, regardless of geographic location. Of the survivors who entered the life in the past decade, 75% reported being advertised online. The number was only 38% for survivors who entered the life prior to 2004. While online advertising is increasing, there has been a decrease in street advertising — 61% of those who entered the life in or after 2004 were advertised on the street, compared to 78% of participants who entered the life prior to 2004.

Reinforcing our findings from 2014, a majority of respondents who were advertised online shared that they wrote their ads themselves. These ads included a variety of keywords provided by their traffickers to signal that they are underage. The most common platform for online advertising was Backpage.

Interaction with buyers

A majority of survivors said that they communicated with the buyers themselves, but those that entered the life between 14 to 17 are much more likely to communicate with the buyers themselves than those that entered when they were 13 or younger. This is a strong indication that when a trafficker is communicating with the buyers, the age of the victim is likely to be younger than 14 years old.

the nature of trafficking

The need for human connection, and the vulnerabilities that arise in the absence thereof, are central to the recruitment, control, and recovery of child trafficking survivors. Use of technology is likely to continue to increase; however, technology is unlikely to fully extinguish the human element of child sex trafficking.

How young are victims?

While the most frequently reported age of entry was 15, the average age of entry was 14 (because of the broad spectrum of experiences). It is critical to understand the physical, emotional, and mental maturity of this particular age group in order to develop effective prevention, intervention, and rehabilitation strategies.

Survivors reported entering the life from as young as infancy through age 17 and 1 in 6 were forced into the life before the age of 12.

How do victims know their trafficker?

In some cases children may be born into sex trafficking, or be forced into it as a toddler. Sex trafficking of those that are younger than 10 years old when they entered the life is perpetrated almost exclusively by family members, often a father or stepfather.

One survivor underscored that being trafficked by a family member made escape seem impossible: “I could never escape. I never have anyone to turn to. I didn’t have a choice. I was born into this.”

How do victims know their trafficker?

In some cases children may be born into sex trafficking, or be forced into it as a toddler. Sex trafficking of those that are younger than 10 years old when they entered the life is perpetrated almost exclusively by family members, often a father or stepfather.

Survivor insights underscored that being trafficked by a family member made escape seem impossible: “I could never escape. I never have anyone to turn to. I didn’t have a choice. I was born into this.”

For a long time I did not realize that I was trafficked, I thought that because he gave me a choice to stay or go and I chose to stay, that it made it my fault and my responsibility.

I felt like a slave working for someone, getting beat and not getting paid, not having control over my own life.

I was groomed very well at the beginning and then my abuser switched on me in a very mean and cruel way and at that time I thought that I loved him and then it came to the point where I was deathly afraid of him.

I didn’t have the money for the things I needed and I didn’t want to be in a foster home.

I felt that selling myself was all that I was worth because I had been sexually abused.

Survivor Organizations

We are incredibly thankful to the following organizations for providing invaluable insights from survivors in their community. Their services provide much needed resources to aid in recovery for survivors and to reduce vulnerabilities. These organizations that play a crucial role in preventing continued abuse are often underfunded and understaffed. Take a moment to learn more about their great work and show them some love.