With sex trafficking and exploitation an ongoing problem in the United States and globally, it’s important to realize who is most vulnerable and how it can affect their health.

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Since 2010, the United States has observed National Human Trafficking Prevention Month each January.

The U.S. government estimates that more than 27.6 million people are subjected to human trafficking, sex trafficking, or forced labor globally, and this isn’t a thing of the past.

Women and girls — especially those from Black communities — and LGBTQ+ people are most vulnerable to sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a type of human trafficking defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”

The National Human Sex Trafficking Hotline furthers this definition to specify the use of “force, fraud, or coercion.” But, according to the hotline, if a person is under the age of 18, engaging in commercial sex under any circumstances is considered sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking remains a prevalent issue.

Sex trafficking can affect anyone, but women and girls are most likely to experience it:

  • According to the United Nations, 71% of people affected by human trafficking are women and girls.
  • A 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found that 94% of suspected sex trafficking survivors in the previous 2 years were women and girls.
  • Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2019 showed that 62% of people arrested for prostitution were women and around 71% of juveniles arrested for prostitution were girls.

Exploitation of BIPOC women and girls

More specifically, Women and Girls of Color are the most likely to experience human trafficking and sex trafficking in the United States:

  • In 2019, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families reported that 73% of referrals for trafficking in the previous year were for Children of Color.
  • In 2016, the National Congress of American Indians reported that Native women made up only 10% of the population but represented 40% of people who were sex trafficked.
  • According to DOJ data from 2011, an estimated 24% of people exposed to sex trafficking in the previous 2 years were of Latin descent.

Black women and girls are the most vulnerable, experiencing skewed rates of exploitation and arrest:

  • According to DOJ data from 2011, an estimated 40% of people exploited by sex trafficking in the United States in the previous 2 years were Black women.
  • Black girls are more likely to be trafficked at a younger age.
  • In King County, Washington, while Black girls make up only 1.1% of the population, 52% of child sex trafficking survivors are Black and 84% of young people affected are female.
  • ​​In Nebraska, while Black people make up only 5% of the population, 50% of individuals sold online for sex are Black.

Why LGBTQ+ youth are high risk

LGBTQ+ people often have less access to resources that are necessary for survival, including consistent employment, health insurance, and stable housing.

Housing instability serves as a major pathway to human trafficking, with forced sexual labor or sex trafficking being the most common form.

Because more than 20% of houseless youth identify as LGBTQ+, research shows that this demographic is more likely to experience situations that leave them vulnerable to trafficking.

These disparities include engaging in sex for survival.

According to the Polaris Project, youth within LGBTQ+ communities are “three to seven times more likely to engage in survival sex to meet basic needs, such as shelter, food, drugs, and toiletries.”

Navigating the legal system

There is a difference between those who willingly engage in sex work, those who use sex for survival, and those who are sexually exploited or trafficked.

Sex work is defined as the exchange of money or goods for sexual or erotic services. With the exception of 10 counties in Nevada, sex work is currently illegal in the United States.

According to the Polaris Project, these current laws could misrepresent a person’s role and leave a survivor of exploitation or coercion incarcerated or without support after leaving an unsafe situation. This has led some advocates to call for total sex work decriminalization.

Because of the disparities within the carceral system, those who are most vulnerable to sex trafficking are also more likely to be criminalized:

  • A 2012 study found that 85% of men who used the internet to purchase sex were white.
  • In Pennsylvania in 2019, 70% of prostitution arrests were related to selling sex, and only 30% were related to paying for sex.
  • In 2019, almost 51% of all children arrested for sex work were Black.

When it comes to accessing help, LGBTQ+ survivors have concerns about whether anti-trafficking services are LGBTQ+-friendly, and some advocates are calling for total sex work decriminalization.

The Center for American Progress found that LGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented in detention for sex work-related offenses and report higher levels of police misconduct, which could add to their distrust of police and hesitancy to ask for help.

Sex trafficking poses significant risks to a survivor’s health, such as:

  • infectious disease exposure (with LGBTQ+ folks reporting higher levels of exposure to HIV)
  • repeated physical, sexual, or psychological abuse
  • chronic sleep deprivation
  • hazards such as chemical exposure and a lack of proper ventilation and sanitation

Healthcare professionals play an essential role in identifying those who have been exploited.

The American Public Health Association reports that medical professionals often have contact with survivors. Some research suggests that 30% to 87.8% of survivors have contact with healthcare professionals during their exposure to sex trafficking.

Mental health impact

A 2018 study of survivors of sex and labor trafficking found that 71% were dealing with depression and 61% were navigating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with two-thirds of survivors meeting the criteria for complex PTSD.

Additionally, a survey of nearly 200 women who had experienced trafficking in Europe showed that 63% had more than 10 health problems occurring at the same time. In addition, 39% reported suicidal thoughts.

Survey participants also reported symptoms such as:

  • high levels of anxiety
  • hostility
  • chronic pain
  • headaches

Substance use, misuse, and addiction

Data shows that there are connected vulnerabilities for substance misuse and sex trafficking among minors.

For example, a 2020 review of 25 medical records of minors trafficked for sexual exploitation in the United States found that 92% had used drugs or alcohol and that 20% said addiction or drugs were involved in their recruitment.

Additionally, in a small 2018 study of 51 children who had been trafficked in the United Kingdom, 18% had a history of substance misuse.

Sex trafficking remains a prevalent problem throughout the world, leading to physical, mental, and emotional health concerns.

Anyone can find themselves involved, but studies show that those from marginalized groups are most vulnerable to being forced or coerced into sexual slavery.

Despite a lack of accessible resources, these same groups are at risk of being criminalized for engaging in sex for survival or for surviving coercion.

Advocates in the field have varying opinions on how to approach policy surrounding sex work and trafficking. However, they find common ground around the necessity of keeping our communities safe — particularly Black and LGBTQ+ communities that are facing housing insecurity.

For more information and resources on sex trafficking, visit The Irina Project or The Polaris Project.

If you have information about a trafficking situation, you can contact the US National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or help@humantraffickinghotline.org.

Eleanor Noyce (she/her) is a London-based journalist covering LGBTQIA culture, disability, and sex. She is currently the Junior Staff Writer at DIVA Magazine, the leading publication for LGBTQIA women and non-binary people, and has bylines in The Independent, Metro, i-D, Refinery29, Stylist, Giddy, and more. She holds a 2:1 in BA Politics from the University of Leeds, having specialized in LGBTQIA identity and gender politics. You can find her on Twitter.