Sexual crimes are prevalent domestically and globally, and sex trafficking — people brokering other humans for sex — is no exception. Data suggest about 4.5 million people are currently trafficked, 945,000 of whom are children. Across the U.S., over 40% of cases investigated between 2008 and 2010 involved minors.
The problem is widespread, but research has identified several common risk factors for domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST): age, ethnicity, sexuality and housing status. These risk factors are briefly elucidated here, and guide our recommendations for future research, practice and policy.
Trafficking is defined as “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” Further, a commercial sex act is “induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age,” so age is a critical aspect of DMST.
In fact, DMST victims are often young. Carla Higginbotham, an assistant U.S. attorney specializing in prosecuting juvenile sex trafficking, sees cases for girls as young as 11. Former Police Sgt. Ron Chalmers confirms that women rescued in Reno, Nevada are 20 years old on average, though police also frequently pick up girls around age 16 — some as young as 12.
A Nevada study found 13% of online advertisements for sex workers state the worker is under age 21. Ads often emphasize workers’ youth, such as the headline “New girl here. Cute, sweet, young – 18.” An analysis of Backpage ads found 19% of advertised workers were likely under age 21. Backpage’s minimum posting age is 18, so this figure is likely low.
However, older sex workers might underestimate their age on Backpage ads to seem younger, which also suggests younger age is correlated with higher demand. A study of young hospital patients found an even younger average age of DMST victims: 15.7 years old. The higher prices charged for younger girls supports the desirability of youth: Women under age 25 have much higher prices than women over age 25, and the relationship between age and price weakens after age 30.
Of 30 studies on ethnicity as a DMST risk factor, four suggest victimization is positively correlated with being white. However, several other studies found Black youth to be at higher risk, and some studies found no differences between groups. A more recent survey of adult sex workers, some of whom were trafficked as children, found trafficked respondents were over twice as likely to be nonwhite. The study of hospital patients found over half the trafficked children were Black, and less than 30% were white. This study included only 27 children, but the data trend shows higher DMST risk for ethnic minorities.
Early studies of Native American women suggest they are disproportionately victimized by trafficking too. Additionally, research by Canadian scholars consistently finds strong links between trafficking and First Nation status for Canadian women and girls. Canadian First Nation women and girls also are more likely to run away, be impoverished and face homelessness, which might indirectly increase victimization likelihood.
Sexuality and gender identity
Nonheterosexuality is another risk factor: Nonheterosexual youth are more likely to be trafficked than cisgender, heterosexual youth, though some studies suggest no differences in risk based on gender or sexuality. Researchers in one large study interviewed 641 youth who utilize Covenant House International’s (CHI) shelters and resources around the U.S. and Canada. Of the youth interviewed, 124 (19%) were DMST victims, 24% of LGBTQ youth were victims and 12% of heterosexual youth were victims. In fact, half the LGBTQ youth in the study were involved in the sex trade — as victims or consenting working adults — prior to the interview.
LGBTQ youth might be disposed toward entering the sex trade as victims or workers because they face discrimination in other areas. If they cannot find housing or work, they are more likely to use “survival sex” as income. Moreover, LGBTQ youth make up a disproportionate amount of homeless youth and are at higher risk of sexual exploitation than other homeless youth. Even within homeless youth populations, LGBTQ youth are more likely to encounter DMST than heterosexual youth.
Running away and homelessness are two common risk factors for DMST. A survey of adults engaged in sex work reported respondents who ran away as minors (63%) were more likely to have been trafficked than minors who did not run away (27%). Running away is a risk factor itself, but also strengthens the positive relationship between childhood sexual abuse (CSA) and DMST.
Of the interviewees in Oakland, California (a CHI study site) who reported previously doing sex work, 100% were homeless at the time. Like many LGBTQ youth, some homeless youth turn to sex work to survive. Homeless youth also tend to have high rates of other risk factors like unemployment, CSA and family poverty. They are more likely to face job and housing discrimination. Ultimately, some perceive survival sex as a viable option to meet basic needs.
Foster care is a related risk factor. Foster youth typically have more stable housing than homeless youth, but they face similar challenges and often turn to sex work or are trafficked. Some foster youth run away and become homeless, whereas others might become homeless when they turn 18 and age out of the system. In the CHI study, nearly a quarter (21%) of interviewees were fostered prior to becoming homeless. Overall, environmental factors such as housing status appear more predictive of DMST than demographic factors.
Future research directions
Several potential DMST risk factors remain relatively unstudied. For instance, little research exists on risk differences between cisgender, transgender and nonbinary youth. Early research finds no group differences, but research in other fields finds transgender people face much more discrimination than cisgender people. Likewise, early research suggests Native Americans are at high risk of DMST, but it is yet unclear if they are at higher risk than other minorities, or if minority groups generally are at higher risk than white youth.
Future research also must investigate foster care and DMST risk. Research noted above suggests foster care might be a proxy for CSA or running away, but we need data on foster care as a direct predictor of DMST risk. Foster care might be a protective factor — rather than a risk factor — in this context by providing novel social support networks. For example, because youth are at greater risk of DMST when they have a family member in the sex trade or a friend who has purchased sex acts, perhaps another social network via foster care could mitigate DMST risk.
There also could be fruitful avenues for research on DMST technology. Technology plays an ever-growing role in the consumer side of the sex trade. Additional studies of how providers use technology, as well as how technology can aid investigation, could translate into meaningful policy.
Practice and policy implication
Practice and policy changes emerge from current and future research. For instance, women and girls leaving sex work need housing. Because homelessness is comorbid with other DMST predictors, addressing housing could tackle multiple issues. Existing housing options also might lack resources to help girls freed from trafficking. Housing devoted to this population could reduce the potency of homelessness and other risk factors.
In addition, a foster care aging out program could help serve girls who are near their 18th birthdays. Because evidence suggests a large sector of aged-out foster youth turn to survival sex, a program that eases this transition and provides social support, job training and temporary housing for former foster youth could reduce the problem. Social support could come through other avenues, too and positive social support could proactively reduce DMST likelihood and offer examples of alternative life courses.
In sum, DMST is common, and numerous factors can increase DMST risk including age, ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity, and housing status. Age has a strong negative association with sex work involvement, and ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity are weaker predictive factors. Homelessness, running away, and foster care increase DMST victimization likelihood.
Though the problem is widespread, it is not unsolvable. Further research must examine understudied groups, foster care and social support, and technology use for DMST prevention. With more research, evidence-based practice and policy can be developed to address the needs of this vulnerable population, such as specialized housing and a foster care/aging out transition program.
Sarah A. Moody, M.A., is a doctoral student in interdisciplinary social psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. She studies social psychological processes and their effects on legal decision-making.
Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., is director of the judicial studies graduate degree program and associate professor of judicial studies, communication studies and social psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno.