Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and its reauthorizations, in the U.S. no youth should be considered a “child prostitute”—minors (children under the age of 18) induced into commercial sex acts are, by definition, victims of human trafficking. Many of these victims are not kidnapped or confined, but lead “double lives,” going to school, living at home, and having apparently “normal” social lives, while concurrently being sold for sex by a trafficker-pimp through a process of manipulation that involves elements of psychological coercion, romancing, blackmail, and even physical violence. They might be sold for sex on weekends or after-school, and the trafficker might be extra cautious about raising the suspicions of parents, guardians, and teachers. In some instances, the trafficker may even be a peer-aged boy/girlfriend.
In this article, we will briefly look at the process by which small-scale traffickers (the majority type of sex trafficker in the U.S.) lure, manipulate, and finally trap their minor victims in their exploitation schemes. Indicators, or “red flags,” can give hints to parents, friends, teachers, and school administrators about the process that a minor under their care might be undergoing. That a minor exhibits one, or even several of the following indicators, does not prove that he/she is a victim of trafficking, but it may warrant a greater vigilance and inquiry by those responsible for the safety and welfare of the minor. It also goes without saying that this list of indicators is not exhaustive. The process by which a minor falls into a sex trafficking scheme can be summarized in the following typical stages:
1) “Grooming,” or “Seasoning” the Minor:  Considering that traffickers always choose the path of least resistance, not every minor is equally at risk. Traffickers will look for vulnerable children of all social/ethnic backgrounds that exhibit specific psychological characteristics that make them more prone to manipulation. In this stage, the trafficker will look for an “open door” by which to start the process of manipulation.  
They will look for children who:
  • Show signs of social exclusion/marginalization from family, friends, or peer romantic relationships, and express intentions online of running away.
  • Have a history of sexual or physical abuse.
  •  They meet either online or in-person, where they evaluate the self-esteem of the minor through psychologically astute questioning, analyzing the minor´s body language, eye contact, and even tone of voice. A common tactic is to compliment a potential victim. If the youth simply thanks the predator while looking at him/her straight in the eyes, then the the minor shows signs of self-valuation, and thus may not be an “easy target.” If, on the other hand, the minor looks down at the ground and either says nothing or rejects the compliment, the predator might infer a self-esteem problem, and may pursue him/her.
  • Escape from home and need basic needs met; the minor risks falling into a trafficking situation via “survival sex” after overstaying his/her welcome at the homes where he/she has been “couch surfing.”

At this point parents/guardians might start to notice the child acting differently:

  • New “friends” emerge who are significantly older and outside the common peer social sphere; random new Facebook “friend requests.”
  • Minor becomes suddenly uninterested in activities/hobbies he/she liked.
  • Minor becomes dejected (more than might be usual), withdrawn, and seeks to be alone and on the phone a lot while talking to just a friend—the trafficker.

2) Isolating the Minor: In this stage, the trafficker has already made inroads into the minor’s confidence. The trafficker will be “investing” in the minor by buying him/her gifts, taking him/her to adult parties, etc. Traffickers look for youths with histories of problems/abuse/neglect. If the trafficker “finds a problem” to latch on to, he/she will psychologically exacerbate that problem, magnify it, and manipulate the child into thinking that he/she is the “solution” to the problem, thereby marginalizing the child from family, friends, and social support structures. Some indicators are:

  • Youth carries unexplained cash and expensive gifts: This may have begun in the previous stage, but is usually intensified in this stage.
  • The lure of transgression: Increased alcohol use/abuse and use of drugs: The trafficker is pushing the minor into either dependency or a sense that with him/her the minor has more freedom (a false freedom dependent on the trafficker).
  •  Unusual rise in interest in/preoccupation with pornography.
  • The youth seems to “check-in” by phone or device to a “friend” constantly.
3)    The Minor Falls into the Trafficking Situation: At a certain point, either after thoroughly romancing the youth, or spending much time/money/gifts on him/her, the trafficker will “ask for a favor” which will be the first commercial sex act the minor does for the trafficker. Having been isolated from his/her former circles, and estranged from his/her parents, the minor will comply, sometimes with an interest in the money the trafficker/pimp promises. The trafficker may have a circle of youths who he/she is trafficking, and this circle will largely replace the minor´s previous social relations. Look for the following:
  • Carries lots of cash: Trafficker may indeed “pay” the minor, sometimes even hundreds of dollars per week (him/herself making SIGNIFICANTLY more).
  • Minor´s “other life” may start to encroach upon school and family time, as “dates” are scheduled by the trafficker at increasingly erratic times.
  • Unusual hours are kept; minor has problems sleeping/has nightmares.
  • Minor may start dressing in an especially hyper-sexualized style.  
  • Minor may be bruised: A trafficker will always prefer psychological manipulation and isolation to outright violence, but he/she may still resort to beatings/slapping.  
  •  Minor may be “branded” with tattoos: Less common if the trafficker wants to keep the minor leading a “double life,” but tattoos do not have to be names, they can be symbols shared by all the minors in that trafficker/pimp’s circle.
  • Minor may always “be able” to physically leave the trafficking situation: The “chains” are usually invisible, and often involve the “love” that the youth may have for the trafficker, threats to the minor’s family, money the trafficker/pimp shares, etc.
If you suspect a trafficking situation, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline: 1-888-373-7888, or text Help at 233733 (BeFree). 
This month’s guest blogger: Christopher Ljundquist, National Outreach and Education Coordinator, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS)