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Why LGBTQ Trafficking Cases Are Underreported

Since Polaris began operating the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2007, 31,659 cases of human trafficking have been reported and identified.

Out of the total, only 418 cases have been linked to LGBTQ populations, which accounts for less than 1% of all the cases ever reported. This statistic severely underrepresents the amount of trafficking cases and situations that occur every year involving LGBTQ-identified individuals.  

The low percentage of LGBTQ-related trafficking is not due to a singular reason. It is a complex issue that intersects age, identity, race, gender, and more. A multitude of factors influence how and why LGBTQ individuals can wind up in trafficking situations, and there are just as many factors that keep this population from reaching out for help.

Fear of Discrimination, Prejudice, and Violence

One of the biggest obstacles that prevents people from reporting LGBTQ-related human trafficking cases is the social stigma against these populations. LGBTQ-identified individuals can face discrimination and prejudice based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, physical appearance, and adherence to gender norms. To protect against these injustices and violence, LGBTQ-identified individuals often stay closeted – keeping their identities a secret.

By reporting a trafficking instance, they may fear that their LGBTQ-identity may be exposed.

This especially occurs with LGBTQ youth, who typically rely on the emotional support and resources provided by their families. If “outed,” these resources and bonds may be threatened or withheld, and they may even experience violence against them by abusive or intolerant family members. It’s important to note that trans women of color experience disproportionately high rates of violence against them, especially in the commercial sex trade.

Another factor keeping LGBTQ individuals from contacting the Hotline is a fear of being discriminated against by service providers. Too often, LGBTQ individuals, especially youth, are mistreated by those that are supposed to help them, like parents, teachers, foster parents, social workers, and more. This can lead to distrust in the systems that have been put in place to help them, even if they have nowhere else to turn — especially if there is a risk of them having to return to an abusive household. Some individuals may have already tried to receive help but had a bad experience — not every organization or service provider is LGBTQ-inclusive, and even some that claim to be fall short of being truly inclusive.

Poor Relationships with Law Enforcement

An unfortunate reality that may limit the number of LGBTQ-related trafficking cases is these populations’ often-poor relationship with law enforcement.

Many LGBTQ-identified individuals report experiencing discrimination, prejudice, and even violence against them by law enforcement. The 2015 Transgender Survey Report details high levels of mistreatment of transgender individuals by local police.

“In the past year, of respondents who interacted with police or law enforcement officers who thought or knew they were transgender, more than half (58%) experienced some form of mistreatment.”

Homeless LGBTQ youth also fear mistreatment by law enforcement. In the Urban Institute’s report, Surviving the Streets of New York, one interviewee said in reference to outdoor vs. online solicitation for sex work, “I felt like the stroll was very dangerous and it was highly populated by the police, whereas you know some . . . I don’t know, like when you work things on the Internet it kind of save you almost from entrapment in some ways.“

Recent studies on homeless youth assisted by Covenant House found that LGBTQ homeless youth are disproportionately-affected by human trafficking: 33.8% of sex trafficked homeless youth identify as LGBTQ. That high statistic is staggering, especially in comparison to the low number of Hotline reports that deal with trafficked, homeless LGBTQ youth.

These realities may contribute to the overall low number of LGBTQ-specific human trafficking cases reported. Many gaps still exist in the data, but key insights into how LGBTQ individuals are trafficked have come to light through the limited number of cases reported since 2007.

Types of Trafficking LGBTQ Victims Encounter

Sex trafficking is the most commonly reported type of trafficking to the Hotline, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that LGBTQ people are labor trafficked as well.

A total of 333 sex trafficking cases have been identified, but the specific details of these crimes are mostly unknown. This is significant and scary: 40%, or 134 cases, of reported sex trafficking for LGBTQ populations are unspecified.

However, the limited data does show that internet-based commercial sex (30 cases), escort/delivery service (29 cases), and street-based commercial sex (25 cases) are some types of sex trafficking occurring for LGBTQ people.

Labor trafficking is also accounted for, with 31 LGBTQ-specific cases. Domestic work has been reported to the Hotline the most frequently with 9 reported cases, but, most labor cases are unspecified in trafficking typology.

Methods of control have been identified by the Hotline and the Hotline’s Gender, Romance, and Sexual Minorities working group, as well. High numbers of emotional abuse, economic abuse, isolation, physical and sexual abuse, and monitoring/stalking are frequently reported by potential victims via the Hotline.

How to Help

Gaps in data create obstacles in prevention and support efforts by service providers, government, and other stakeholders, which makes it incredibly difficult for LGBTQ victims to receive the help and resources they need to escape their trafficking situations and rebuild their lives. That’s why it’s absolutely critical that we take steps to increase the willingness and ability for LGBTQ trafficking victims to reach out for help and feel safe and comfortable doing so.

Educating others and sharing resources about human trafficking is a productive first step. It is crucial to be able to identify a trafficking situation and know how to respond appropriately. Breaking Barriers is a resource for service providers and criminal justice professionals that provides tips on how to improve services to LGBTQ trafficking victims.

More resources on reaching out for help and staying safe for LGBTQ youth can be found on the Polaris website.

Another way to help is to create welcoming, inclusive spaces in your community. While creating these spaces, it is very important to listen to LGBTQ voices and to not invalidate their experiences.

Finally, become an advocate for LGBTQ youth. Support legislation and LGBTQ-specific community centers that provide resources and assistance to them.

Through these efforts, we strive to create an environment where LGBTQ trafficking victims and survivors feel comfortable enough to open up about their trafficking experience and feel empowered to reach out for help.

Image: Flickr


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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.