Human trafficking occurs all around the world, and in each and every one of the 50 United States. It is estimated that there are over 40 million global victims and hundreds of thousands in the United States.
While the United Nations reports that 71% of victims are women and girls, trafficking occurs in all communities, from rural, to suburban, to urban, and across age groups, genders, ethnicities, and educational backgrounds. But there are some specific vulnerabilities that put individuals at a higher risk of becoming victims.
Runaway and homeless youth
Researchers studying prostitution in Chicago found that 56% of prostituted women were initially runaway youth. This is most likely due to the lack of a supportive network coupled with unfamiliar environments. Traffickers often pick up these youth at transportation centers, shelters, and other public spaces and pretend to be their boyfriend to manipulate them into performing commercial sex acts.
Foreign individuals who come to or are brought to the United States are at a higher risk of exploitation. Traffickers in these situations begin by offering to help their victims come to the United States. But, after requiring expensive travel fees, the victim becomes indebted to the trafficker beyond anything they are able to earn at an average job. Traffickers use the victim’s unfamiliarity with the environment, laws, language, and culture to control and manipulate them. As the number of refugees and migrants grows, there are more individuals at risk of exploitation.
Victims of past violence and trauma
Individuals who have suffered from past abuse or trauma are more vulnerable to exploitation in part due to a normalization of abuse or feelings of shame and unworthiness. These include victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, war, and discrimination.
Disabilities and mental health
Individuals with mental health issues or disabilities may have a diminished capacity to consent or assess a dangerous situation. Traffickers use this in order to manipulate them.
Traffickers may use drugs and addiction to maintain control of their victims. By getting their victims hooked on drugs and maintaining their dependency, they are able to coerce them into forced sex.
Poor and marginalized communities are often targeted by traffickers who offer their victims false opportunities to earn money or improve their situation. These victims are often in financial despair and would do anything to provide for their families.
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Ashleen Knutsen is a science writer and editor in Los Angeles. After a decade of experience in engineering and research, she decided to pursue a career in science communications to not only spark women and girls’ interest in STEM, but to let them know that they too can change the world.