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Sex Trafficking Is Still Happening – and May Be More Violent Than Ever

Please note: Despite the challenges described below, there are still ways the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline can help finding safe ways to escape abusers and shelter in place. 

From drug sales to murder, news media have begun reporting a noticeable dip in virtually all kinds of criminal activity worldwide, but sex trafficking usually takes place over a long period of time, not as single incidents. So a quantitative analysis – whether there is more or less sex trafficking as a result of COVID-19 – is impossible. What information we do have – and what we know about how sex trafficking operates – does, however, suggest that people in trafficking situations and in prostitution are likely facing worse violence and abuse than ever. At the same time, Polaris has been reaching out to service providers as part of our operations of the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline and heard from many that they are operating at significantly reduced capacity – meaning there is less help available.  Additionally, other disturbing trends have surfaced as sex trafficking – always a dynamic industry – morphs to meet the demands of the moment with new and different ways to exploit people in vulnerable positions. 

Among those, we have heard about is an incredibly disturbing trend toward landlords pressuring cash-strapped renters to trade sexual services in return for not being made homeless. Make no mistake: this is human trafficking – using coercion in the form of threats of eviction to pressure another person into sexual activity. 

Anecdotally, we have heard from survivors that trafficking victims are now being forced to participate in remote, web-based sexual activity or pornography and that the marketplace for those activities has grown. It’s important to remind buyers of these materials that a person on a webcam or in a pornographic video is as likely to be a trafficking victim as a person selling sex in any other environment. 

As for sexual services, survivors and service providers have reported that street-based and in-call sex buying has slowed down, but certainly has not stopped. 

Polaris’s own analysis of online communities of frequent sex buyers shows similarly that the most prolific buyers are still buying despite the health threat to themselves and others. Some have indicated that they see the lack of other buyers in the marketplace as an opportunity to negotiate for lower prices because people in the sex trade have even less bargaining power than ever. 

That “negotiating power” also raises concerns that people in trafficking situations will face additional pressure from their pimps/traffickers to engage in risky in-person sexual activity, such as more aggressive sex acts or “dates” with buyers they suspect are violent. 

Meanwhile, these same trafficked people have fewer avenues for escape than ever before. The Trafficking Hotline remains fully operational and is still connecting people in need to support and services around the country. Those services, however – particularly emergency shelter – have become even more difficult to find than they have been in the past. While there have virtually never been enough beds for those who need them in safe environments, now those resources have shrunk further. Few shelters are taking new clients as they try to maintain healthy environments for those already there. 

Even transportation, to get away from abusers to minimally available shelters, is more difficult because of the shutdown of countless airline routes, bus and train lines. 

Intake services, case management, and drop-in services have shut down or, as possible, moved online. That means people who live with their abusers and are not yet ready or able to physically escape have no way to communicate with outside help other than electronically – a dangerous proposition if they share a home with their traffickers. 

That gives people in active trafficking situations virtually no safe place to receive support as they try to come up with a plan. 

All that said, the Trafficking Hotline has resources that can help people – even those sheltering in place with their abusers – find transportation, support and safe, healthy places to stay. If you or someone you know is an abusive situation, please contact us by texting BeFree (233733) or call 1-888-373-7888.


  1. Sex buying is still happening – and because trafficked people in prostitution have less bargaining power than ever, it is likely to put them in ever more dangerous positions. 
  2. Forms of trafficking are increasing or emerging – such as landlords pressuring tenants for sex in lieu of rent.
  3. Remote, web-based sexual services and pornography may also be trafficking – which means trafficking hasn’t necessarily slowed down just because in-person commercial sex may be happening less frequently.
  4. Services are available to help people get away from their traffickers and shelter in place safely.

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