All posts in “Resources on Slavery”

Back to School? Watch for Signs of Sex Trafficking Among Students

Signs of Sex Trafficking in U.S. Students

Whether you’re heading back to school this month as a student, teacher, or administrator, you have a unique opportunity in the fight against sex trafficking.

Because likely, there are exploited and trafficked youth in your halls and classrooms.

You may have a certain image in your mind of what sex trafficking looks like in the United States. In your own city. In your neighborhood. Whether you envision dramatic kidnappings and locked doors, or transactions on a dark street corner, you may not realize that sex trafficking is happening quietly and discreetly around you.
The key factor of trafficking in the U.S. is vulnerability. While it is true that any child or youth can become a trafficking victim, traffickers tend to prey on those with certain risk factors. According to a 2013 report from Covenant House, risk factors for sex trafficking include:
  • homelessness;
  • prior childhood abuse;
  • the lack of any caring, supportive adult in a youth’s life; and
  • the lack of education or any means to earn an income.

Additional risk factors may include being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), and having a history of being in the foster care system or justice system.1

You may not witness trafficking around you in the ways you would expect — kids being forced into unmarked vans or money changing hands — but there are signs you can look for in the kids and teens who you spend time with every day.

Signs of Sex Trafficking in Students2

  • unexplained school absences
  • an abrupt change in attire, behavior, or relationships
  • the presence of an older “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”
  • travel with an older male who is not a guardian
  • the sudden presence of expensive material possessions
  • chronic running away
  • homelessness
  • signs of psychological coercion, such as depression, anxiety, and/or an overly submissive attitude
  • lack of control over his/her schedule, money, and/or proof of identification
  • signs of physical trauma, including bruises, cuts, burns, and/or scars
  • tattoos or other branding marks
  • poor health, as evidenced by sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition, and/or serious dental problems
  • substance abuse or addictions, or selling drugs
  • Coached/rehearsed responses to questions
  • Uncharacteristically promiscuous behavior and/or references to sexual situations or terminology that are beyond age-specific norms

I see the signs. Now what?

Find out what your school or organization’s protocol is so that you know how to respond if you notice signs that a student is trafficked. If your organization doesn’t have protocol, here are ways to take action, depending on your situation:
  • In the case of an immediate emergency, call your local police department or emergency access number.
  • To report suspected human trafficking crimes or to get help from law enforcement, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or submit a tip online at
  • To report sexually exploited or abused minors, call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) hotline at 1-800-THE-LOST, or report incidents at

Want to take action right now? One trafficking risk factor is something we can all help prevent. Youth who don’t have a supportive, caring adult in their lives are more at risk to be exploited for sex. Whether you have one child in your life or 30, you can be a supportive and caring adult to a vulnerable child who needs you. The impact may seem small in the moment, but you could be saving a life.

The Exodus Road is expanding rescue work into the U.S. this year to help find and free those who have been exploited and trafficked. Learn more about our expansion to the Americas

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1Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, 2013, p. 78
2National Center for Homeless Education, “Sex Trafficking of Minors: What Schools Need to Know to Recognize and Respond to the Trafficking of Students,” 2014. and Department of Education, “Human Trafficking of Children in the United States: A Fact Sheet for Schools,” 2013.

Prostitution vs. Human Trafficking: Understanding Exploitation

Human trafficking vs. prostitution: why it matters

Is that sex worker a “prostitute” or a victim of human trafficking?

It’s complicated. But you can know one thing for sure: She is exploited.

Poi is 24. Born in a poor, rural village in Thailand, she was married at 17 and has five children. After her husband left their family, it was up to Poi to provide for herself and her children. Without an education or job opportunities, Poi reluctantly goes into the city and starts to prostitute at a bar. She sends the small amount she receives to her children. It isn’t the life she would choose for herself, but she doesn’t see another way.

Kaya is 15. Also poor and uneducated, she wants to help her family survive after a bad crop leaves them in terrible debt. A man from her village says he can get her a job as a maid in the nearby city. She gets in a taxi, is transported across borders to a country where she doesn’t speak the language, and is then sold into a brothel where she is forced to have sex with 10-15 men every night. Her virginity is sold for $20. She has no money and no passport to get back home.

Poi and Kaya are both affected by poverty and social exploitation. Both have been given few choices and opportunities in life. But Poi is a willing participant in the sex industry and Kaya is a victim of human trafficking.* They both need help finding their way out, and they both need compassion. But their situation is not the same.

If the sex industry were a continuum, on one side are adult men and women who are knowing and willing participants in prostitution. Whether through direct exploitation, because of poverty or abuse, or by choice, they use prostitution as a means for income. On the other end of the spectrum are human trafficking victims — those forced into the sex industry against their will by some measure of force, fraud, or coercion. And then, there’s a broad expanse of gray where the line between choice and force, between the sex industry and human trafficking, is indistinguishable. 

The spectrum of exploitation shows the gray area where the differences between prostitution and human trafficking blur.

Elements of Sex Trafficking1

Act: Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons;

Means: Threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim;

Purpose: Prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, or slavery.

Elements of Prostitution2

Act: Sexual act or contact with another person in return for giving or receiving a fee or a thing of value;

Means: To invite, entice, offer, persuade, or agree to engage in prostitution.

The Differences

Human Trafficking

In recent years, human trafficking has become a more common topic, from presidential councils to celebrities drawing red Xs on their hands one day each year.

Accurate estimates on the number of people enslaved today are nearly impossible because of the hidden nature of the crime. Some estimate the global number to be near 50 million,3 while 20.9 million people are estimated to be in sexual slavery alone.4

But whatever the exact numbers are, it is true that at this moment there are people who are physically locked behind closed doors, who are threatened with their family’s safety, and who are paying off debts by servicing men in brothels or working without pay.

Human trafficking forcefully converts a human being to a commodity. One person profits by stripping rights and dignity from another person. There is no element of choice for the trafficked person; he or she is a product in a multi-billion dollar industry.

Willing Participants in Prostitution

Prostitution is another oftentimes difficult reality for millions globally. Many women, particularly those living in impoverished areas, turn to prostitution because there are very little economic opportunities elsewhere. An uneducated woman can make fast money, she is under pressure to provide for her family, and she lives within widespread cultural acceptance of the sex industry. Prostitution quickly becomes a viable option — sometimes seemingly the only one.

One study of prostituted women in nine countries found that 70-95 percent of the women were physically assaulted, 60-75 percent were raped, and 89 percent of the women told researchers that they urgently wanted to escape prostitution.5 Even if individuals choose this profession, globally it’s a dangerous one full of exploitive and demeaning circumstances.

The Gray Area in Between

This conversation is not one or the other, however. Along the continuum of sexual exploitation, there are individuals who choose prostitution as a means of income, but are controlled and threatened by a pimp. There are minors who sell themselves by choice but are technically classified as human trafficking victims because of their age. And there are others who on the outside appear to be “willing prostitutes” but who are actually paying off a debt to the brothel — sometimes understanding and even agreeing to the debt repayment structure.

Labels in these scenarios are nothing less than complicated and oftentimes vary according to the local law. It’s important to understand that while sexual exploitation plays a role in each phase along the continuum, it does show up in different degrees.

Commercial sexual exploitation needs to be stopped. To affect change, we need to respond to the specific needs of both people caught in prostitution (even by choice) and people who are victims of human trafficking– and all those in between. But different problems need different solutions.

Our Response

The Exodus Road does not fight prostitution; we fight human trafficking. On the Sexual Exploitation continuum above, we focus on those on the far right side of the line. We focus on intervention, which means that we find and free victims of human trafficking alongside local authorities. We use advanced technology to build cases, we have investigators in brothels and bars, and we conduct rescue missions.

Every number we report as a “rescue” is an individual who was by definition a victim of human trafficking, and is now brought to safety. We help arrest traffickers and our social workers help survivors transition to freedom.

Our teams are not looking for women and men who are willingly staying in prostitution, but rather those who cannot walk away from their situations and who are classified under the law as actual “human trafficking victims.” We believe this laser focus of activity has strategic impact on the larger criminal systems of global human trafficking.

The world needs quality, committed people and organizations reaching out to those working in the sex industry — no matter where they fall in the spectrum of exploitation.

At The Exodus Road, we are committed to helping police find and free true victims of human trafficking.

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*Prostitution and human trafficking laws vary among different countries, and there are nuances to these distinctions. For example, minors are considered human trafficking victims even if they willingly participate in prostitution. In some places all individuals in prostitution are considered sex trafficking victims, regardless of how they got there or if they “chose” it. While we speak from our experience in the United States and the countries where we work, we understand that this conversation is a complicated one.

1From the 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, ratified by 154 countries.

2From the 2014 U.S. Department of Justice Model State Provisions on Pimping, Pandering, and Prostitution.

3From the 2016 Global Slavery Index Report.

4From International Labour Organization, ILO global estimate of forced labour: results and methodology (2012) p. 13.

5From Farley, Melissa et al. “Prostitution and Trafficking in Nine Countries: An Update on Violence and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Journal of Trauma Practice, Vol. 2, No. 3/4: 33-74, 2003.