For more than a decade, the start of the new year has meant a push for Sex Trafficking Awareness.
While estimating the total number of cases is difficult because many go unreported, sex trafficking is known to be an ongoing global issue.
How do we move past simple awareness and look toward prevention?
How can we advocate for survivor-centered aftercare?
We spoke with experts in the field about the current state of sex trafficking. Read on to get their perspectives on the answers to those questions.
In discussing human trafficking in all its forms, it’s important to note its complexity.
It is possible to be exposed to multiple forms of trafficking, as Alicia Peters, associate professor of anthropology at the University of New England, recognizes.
“The bifurcation between sex trafficking and labor trafficking is more harmful than useful,” she says.
“There are so many examples of people who are being trafficked for sex and labor. Often, there’s a kind of criminal component in terms of being forced to sell drugs in addition to being trafficked for commercial sex. The two are very intertwined.”
Statistics, while useful in indicating the rough prevalence of sex trafficking cases, don’t always represent each and every case, let alone its individual nuances or complexities.
Many people who have experienced sex trafficking have not been documented or identified by law enforcement.
“When law enforcement is tasked with identifying trafficking, they are looking for a particular kind of victim. It’s not that there aren’t other folks out there, it’s that they’re not being looked for or, as opposed to being treated as a victim, they’re being treated as a criminal,” Peters says.
“Law enforcement doesn’t tend to see BIPOC individuals or LGBTQ individuals as trafficking victims in the same way. There are absolutely trans women who are being trafficked, men who are being trafficked, who are not being identified.”
Likewise, it isn’t possible to project just one image of a survivor’s experience.
Emily Chalke is co-director at Ella’s, a London-based organization working with women who have survived trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Chalke notes that preexisting poverty and abuse can leave individuals vulnerable to sex trafficking. But she has also encountered a number of middle-class women who don’t fit this profile, and many have struggled to acknowledge their own experiences as survivors.
“For these women, sexual abuse has left them vulnerable. For some, powerful networks have lured them in. They’ve felt they’ve not had a voice, and years of abuse have taught them to believe that,” Chalke says.
Policy-wise, human trafficking has been criminalized in the United States since the 13th Amendment — which banned all types of slavery — was passed.
Title 18 of the United States Code dictates that it is a crime to force someone into work against their will. Section 1581 of this code makes it illegal to work in “debt servitude.”
In 2000, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act made it easier to prosecute and sentence traffickers, but it took until 2015 for a dedicated U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking to be inaugurated.
Inaccessibility leading to vulnerability
Peters believes that the United States is “woefully behind” on policy. She says that lagging policies in other areas, including inaccessible
While the U.S. government has technically introduced policies that make it easier to identify and prosecute perpetrators of trafficking, the system is not sufficiently preventing trafficking from occurring in the first place, nor are the documented trafficking and exploitation convictions balanced.
Peters also cites U.S. immigration policy as a major barrier to safety, particularly for undocumented folks.
“If people can’t migrate safely or legally, they are often willing to make riskier choices to get to their desired destination. Having a really restrictive immigration system makes it difficult for people to seek help when they need it to report abuse, whether it’s because of immigration or the criminalization of sex work,” Peters says.
“They see the police not as someone that they can go to report experiencing harm, but as someone who is going to deport them.”
The system isn’t just failing on prevention — aftercare for survivors leaves people vulnerable too.
“Survivors can get connected to an organization and a caseworker who is able to help them look for housing, but if there’s no housing available, which was what made them vulnerable to trafficking in the first place, they’re still vulnerable to trafficking,” Peters says.
Creating survivor-centered aftercare isn’t just about listening to survivor stories.
International legal expert, researcher, and writer Julia Muraszkiewicz, PhD, says, “It’s about understanding those stories are dynamic — there isn’t one universal need for all survivors of sex trafficking. Any service needs to be designed together with the victims as a co-design approach, if not led by the victims themselves.
“You can’t just have a general psychologist in a safe house, because one victim is going to need something to help address substance abuse and another is going to need CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy]. It needs to be tailored and designed for them.”
Muraszkiewicz believes that change needs to be more systemic. She believes decriminalizing sex work is at the heart of facilitating that change.
“One of the first steps that a nation should do is to regulate sex work,” she says. “Make it like any other job and put sex workers as part of the system, so make sure that they pay tax but also that they can receive benefits and health insurance.”
A strong welfare state is also a critical preventive measure, allowing vulnerable communities alternatives to protect them from exploitation.
Journalist and presenter Louise Hulland has been reporting on human trafficking for more than a decade and recently published “Stolen Lives,” a book about the state of human trafficking in Britain.
Hulland notes that keeping up with the latest techniques that traffickers use is key.
“There needs to be a holistic approach — tougher laws globally and consistent implementation of them, cross-border collaboration, keeping up with the continually changing tactics employed by criminal gangs,” she says.
Education is also important, whether that means reaching young men before they fall prey to organized crime groups or educating those who purchase sex.
Because of the continued presence of sex trafficking, it’s important to understand how trafficking permeates society.
On a day-to-day basis, this can look like:
- tracing the items we buy back through the supply chain to ensure that they are not connected to exploitation or trafficking
- searching for ethnically produced porn
- doing our part in facilitating awareness, which can mean having difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations
Of course, sex trafficking is a large issue that no one person can solve. It needs to be addressed from several angles, including awareness and continued, person-centered support for survivors.
Chalke emphasizes the importance of aftercare for survivors but reminds us that it isn’t just about removing people from their situation — it’s about prevention, and that has to be more long-term.
“The reason that people can get into this situation is poverty, climate change, all of these huge world issues,” Chalke says. “It’s not simply that people need to be rescued and then that’s it. We need to look at where, as the West, we are contributing to making people vulnerable.”
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.