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3 Misconceptions About Sex Trafficking

By Jonah Broberg, Communications Intern at Source

Human sex trafficking.  It’s one of the ugliest, most non-partisan issues out there.  Of course, a complex issue like this has no single solution. Here are 3 common misconceptions about sex trafficking, and why they need to be properly understood in order to fix the problem.

1)     Chloroform, Kidnapping, and Chains 

Sex trafficking in America rarely looks like the nightmare we see in movies.  We all have a picture in our minds of someone lost in a back alley, suddenly grabbed, suffocated with chloroform, and thrown in the back of a van, only to wake up bound by straps or duct tape or handcuffs.  

While this is a reality many have suffered through, traffickers usually employ a much less risky and more effective method: grooming.  Grooming typically involves building trust and taking exploiting vulnerabilities. A trafficker might be a family member, or try to take the place of one, gaining the victim’s trust while brainwashing her to see the world in a certain way: she must be willing to seduce men in order to provide for her “family.”  The trafficked are kept in line through psychological and physical abuse, not by chains or duct tape.

A kidnapped girl might kick and scream and run away, but a groomed girl will willfully roam the streets, trying to get enough money to please her trafficker while trying to recruit other victims.

Targeting, Tricking, Turning, Traumatizing

“There is nothing physically stopping most victim survivors from calling for help,” Dave Pinto says in a talk about the psychological tactics involved in sex trafficking.  Pinto goes on to explain the steps involved: Targeting, Tricking, Turning, Traumatizing.

When traffickers pick their targets, they look for the most vulnerable.  Who’s that? Usually children. Almost every child, especially during puberty, is extremely insecure.  Generally, traffickers will target children who lack good relationships with parents or friends. According to dosomething.org, “The average age a teen enters the sex trade in the U.S. is 12 to 14-year-old. Many victims are runaway girls who were sexually abused as children.”  At this age, the brain has only just learned to deal abstractly, and is still highly susceptible to psychological abuse and brainwashing. Traffickers aren’t looking for pretty girls.  They’re looking for the insecure ones, the ones desperate for attention.

The next step is Tricking.  The trafficker establishes trust, being charming and flattering while fulfilling whatever might be missing in the victim’s life, whether that be a place to stay, food, or family.  In many instances, the trafficker establishes a “daddy” relationship, or becomes her boyfriend.

Then comes Turning.  This is where control is introduced.  The trafficker starts dictating what the victim can and can’t wear, where they can or can’t go, and what they can or can’t do.  He might start buying them things in exchange for sex, introducing the idea of sex for money.

The Traumatizing stage is where the victim’s spirit gets broken.  According to Pinto, victim survivors tell us that once a victim has had sex for any other reason than wanting to be physically intimate with the buyer, their self-esteem drops rapidly.  The trafficker can impose a quota: “come back with a thousand dollars.” The penalty for not coming back might be a beating, but it might also be a threat to beat a friend, or even something as simple as a silent treatment.  Remember, the trafficker has become the fulfillment of the victim’s emotional needs.

In short, victims of trafficking are often able to call for help or run away, but they choose not to because they’re afraid and confused.  They’re bound by psychological chains rather than physical ones.

2)     Shut down the sites! 

It’s the age of the internet, and a huge resource for sex traffickers has been the ability to advertise victims online.  Backpage was one such site, one of the most popular of its kind in America. In April of 2018, after a long legal battle, Backpage was shut down, to the immediate celebration of much of the anti-trafficking community.  However, shutting down a site doesn’t eliminate demand.

According to Source’s Director of Anti-trafficking, Maria Eddy, the shutting down of Backpage has made it much more difficult for law enforcement and anti-trafficking organizations to use it to find and recover victims.  The ads that would have been posted on Backpage have gone farther underground, to sites that are much more accessible to the trafficker and buyer than to law enforcement.

“To think that [the shutdown of Backpage] solved all sex trafficking online is very innocent thinking,” said Maria Eddy.  “It’s very naive thinking. It just pushes it to different sites. That’s what happens. We were using backpage as a resource to connect with women who are posting online.”  The new sites that victims are being sold on are darker and more difficult to use. Either that, or they’re pushed out on the street, which can be even more dangerous.

“Law enforcement also had a good working relationship with Backpage,” Maria explained.  When US law enforcement sent subpoenas, Backpage would send back whatever material was requested.  “Now, these websites are overseas, and they don’t respond to US subpoenas.”

3)     Won’t legalization solve it?

Among some European countries, such as Germany and The Netherlands, legalized prostitution is the law of the land.  With prostitution regulated and controlled by the government, many believe that the illegal trafficking of sex will cease to be necessary or profitable for the perpetrators.  However, a 2012 study asserts that, “On average, countries where prostitution is legal experience larger reported human trafficking inflows.”  The industry of prostitution is inseverable from sex trafficking, and the increased demand resulting from legalization only expands the profit to be made by illegal sex traffickers.

So, what’s the ideal legislation when it comes to prostitution?  To Maria Eddy, it’s the Nordic model.  Sweden and Norway have decriminalized those who are prostituted while still making purchasing sex a criminal offense. This ensures the buyer is the criminal, not the prostituted person.  “Without the demand, there wouldn’t be any women in prostitution,” said Maria.

The motivation behind complete legalization is often a desire to keep women safe, to know where they are so they can get health-checkups and are less likely to be trafficked.  However, Maria grew up in the Netherlands, and from what she observes, legalization often has the opposite effect: “I know in my country [the Netherlands], I think it was in 2000 that they legalized prostitution, and it’s actually done the opposite,” she explained, “where it has increased trafficking because they can’t find enough women who want to be legally in prostitution.  So, it’s actually pushed things more underground.”


While awareness has definitely improved in the last decade, these misconceptions certainly need to be addressed before the problem is resolved.  We have to understand what sex trafficking is so that we can know how to fight it and ultimately end it.

SOURCE MN INC. P.O. BOX 8212 MINNEAPOLIS, MN 55408 612.822.5200