Sex-Trafficking: How Common It Really Is and How to Spot It at Your School

Awareness Month Reminder - Sex Trafficking Happens

Every January we take the time to focus on the ever-important subject of sex trafficking so that you can stay aware and keep your friends and peers safe from its grasp. Yet every January, it’s clear that we still need to answer this question: is sex trafficking really a problem in my country? The answer is yes. Just because you haven’t spotted it in your school or community doesn’t mean it’s not there, whether you live in a city center or the rural outskirts.

In an article from 2017, Exodus Road reported that over 200,000 children and teenagers are victims of sex trafficking each year in the United States. And since sex trafficking is so tricky to identify, it’s a fair assumption that plenty more cases went unreported or even unnoticed. Plus, experts are convinced that the pandemic has only made the problem worse. Long story short: trafficking is happening near you, perhaps even in your very own school. It’s going to take your eyes, ears, compassion, and bravery to stop it.

Trafficking Is Hard to Spot on Purpose

It’s estimated that human trafficking is a $150 billion industry each year, so it’s no wonder that traffickers are experts in the art of concealing their business and teaching their victims to stay under the radar. If they get caught, they stand to lose a lot of money, so their crimes are very well hidden. The person who sits next to you in homeroom, takes the same train as you do, or works the same after-school job could be keeping a secret that their life depends on. Victims of ongoing trafficking are often isolated from the rest of the world, sometimes physically, but more often by the lies or threats they hear from their abuser causing them to keep their secret and making them difficult to identify. These days, the vast majority of traffickers’ recruitment process, called “grooming,” is conducted online, and some victims are trafficked solely online via the sale of pornographic images. So, while you may imagine that victims are locked away in a basement somewhere, many are actually with you every day being coerced to do things on-line every night.

Many organizations are working on technology that can trace and identify all online traffickers. Yet it’s estimated that a mere 1% of trafficking victims are identified by law enforcement, let alone their abusers. The trafficking industry absolutely thrives on this level of anonymity.

Learn to Spot Potential Trafficking at School

It’s our job, then, to learn how to identify trafficking situations, especially in schools, regardless of how difficult a task that might be. How? By learning more about how trafficking works. As a student yourself, you get a closer look at the daily activities of your peers than anyone else, so your observations are a valuable asset to identifying potential trafficking situations.

  • Understand who’s at the highest risk. While anyone can fall victim to trafficking, the most vulnerable communities are your peers of color and LGBTQ+, especially if they’ve ever been part of the foster care system. Other vulnerability factors are poverty, addiction, a history of abuse or violence, and not having a stable living situation. If you know anyone who’s run away from home, experiences homelessness, or shows signs of serious neglect, they’re at risk to be targeted by predators. By understanding who’s at risk, you can be more aware of the well-being of those around you.
  • Understand the process and power dynamics. Traffickers are sneaky and very often good storytellers. They often lure young people into a trap by making grand promises, usually by pledging to give them better food, shelter, or safety than they have at home. Keep an ear open for stories like these: a girl in your class has left home to move in with a much older boyfriend, a guy on your team can suddenly afford expensive clothes or equipment, one of your classmates has an online relationship with a person who says they can give them a job as a model, etc.
  • Know the signs. According to recent data, 75% of sex trafficking survivors report being sold online, which is often where grooming begins, so if you notice that a classmate’s been spending more time online, that could be a red flag that they’re being pulled into a trafficking scheme. Other red flags might be noticing that someone is often absent but has no explanation as to why they missed school, noticing someone is repeatedly dressed inappropriately for the weather (perhaps skimpy or revealing), noticing that someone is in poor health or regularly attends school with new bruises, noticing that a classmate struggles to make eye contact or can’t keep their story straight about where they live or who they live with, or noticing that a classmate is extremely private about their phone or has two phones. It’s also a red flag if a student is either addicted to or selling drugs to the other students, as whoever is supplying them with those substances could be a trafficker or pimp.
  • Understand how traffickers use social media. Here's an example of how a trafficker could use social media to groom a victim. They scroll social media looking for young people who look vulnerable for one reason or another (often looking for the risk factors mentioned above). Perhaps a student shares on social media a problem with their parents or friends, etc. The trafficker sends them a direct message building them up. They start to communicate. Then one night the student posts a picture at a home football game. The trafficker sees it and reaches out saying something like, "Hey! I see you are at the game tonight. I'm right in the neighborhood. We should meet. Come out to the parking lot." And the manipulation begins. Gifts, meals, love, care...whatever they need. Pretty soon the trafficker has used them and they are under their control.
  • Listen to the stories. Educate yourself. Every trafficking situation is unique, and traffickers get more creative every day. By listening to the stories of real sex-trafficking survivors like Christopher Bates and Hazel Fasthorse, you can be aware of your surroundings, the risks that face you and your peers, and the potential victims around you.

What Can You Do to Stop Trafficking?

So you know a lot more about sex trafficking than you did a few hundred words ago. Great! What now? Awareness is a good step, but how can you actually help? There are a few important ways you can equip yourself to make a difference, both at your school and in the larger fight to end human trafficking.

  • Know how to report. If you notice signs of trafficking at school, do not approach or engage with the suspected victim directly. Talking to them could aggravate their trafficker and possibly result in further violence against the victim. Instead, tell a teacher and have them call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 to report the details of your suspicions. If, however, you witness an active human trafficking incident directly, it’s appropriate to call 911 immediately.
  • Advocate and spread awareness. Make sure your friends, faculty, and administration understand how widespread and ongoing this really is and encourage them to become familiar with the signs. The more people on the lookout for trafficking, the more likely victims and their traffickers can be identified.
  • Center survivors’ voices. Stories are powerful tools when it comes to fighting injustice! Do what you can to give a platform to the stories survivors are sharing. Only they can truly fathom and communicate what the world of trafficking holds and how it can be stopped.
  • Consider inviting organizations to do a presentation at your school. For example, you could invite an organization like our partner, Unchained.  They also offer professional training for school staff and volunteer opportunities for those looking to dive deeper into the fight against human trafficking, including ways you can support survivors. The Polaris Project also offers several options for those who want to take action.

Most importantly, don’t let January be the only time you think about the problem of human trafficking. It’s great that we take this time each year to call attention to the problem but remember - victims of trafficking are being deprived of their freedom 365 days out of the year. At TheHopeLine, we believe Jesus Christ died so that we might all be free of sin and shame, which unequivocally includes freedom from the exploitation of human trafficking. Let’s continue to fight for that freedom!

Does sex trafficking really happen in the United States? Learn more about sex trafficking myths and how to identify a potential victim.

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