« Back to Blog

What We Know About How Child Sex Trafficking Happens

What most people think they know about child sex trafficking generally involves stories – young girls and boys being kidnapped by strangers, forced into windowless vans, then driven to another city or state where they are kept drugged and chained in a brothel. 

While situations like these do exist, they are more of an exception than the rule. A study analyzing press releases and online media reports from over a nine year period found that fewer than 10 percent of cases involved kidnapping. The rest were far more complicated, far less “Hollywood.” The danger of these misconceptions is that while we are on high alert for windowless vans and teaching our children about stranger danger, we may well be missing out on what is really going on. There is still a tremendous amount to learn about human trafficking in the United States and far more data and research is needed. But what we do know is a great deal about how victims – particularly young people – are lured into trafficking situations. The information below summarizes some of the best available research about how trafficking actually happens, so you can help to keep your families and communities safe.

Traffickers tend to prey on people who are economically or socially vulnerable such as youth who are living in poverty, or on the streets, or experience physical or sexual abuse, or addiction. They pose as a friend, offering to meals, gifts, or just a sympathetic ear. In some cases, traffickers may use another young person to befriend and recruit their victims. This recruitment can happen in public places such as malls or sporting events, as well as online, through social media sites, or through false advertisements or promises about job opportunities that might appeal to young people, such as modeling or acting. Although runaway and homeless youth are particularly vulnerable, there are also several examples of victims who were groomed and recruited while living at home and even attending school.

Using these methods, over time the trafficker is no longer a stranger, but someone the victim knows and even trusts. With this trust in place, traffickers don’t need to kidnap their victims.  They can convince them to show up willingly. This perceived choice in the beginning often results in feelings of shame, guilt, or self-blame for victims and survivors who later try to leave their traffickers.

It is also not uncommon for parents and family members to sell children for sex in exchange for money, drugs, or something of value. In these situations, the trafficker is already someone with proximity to the victim and knows enough about the victim to even isolate and manipulate them. 

Being aware of and focusing on the ways in which traffickers gradually lure their victims is critical in recognizing and even preventing situations of sex trafficking. 

Below are some suggestions for ways you can help protect your child or a child you may know:


  • Deshpandre, N., & Nour, N. (2013). Sex trafficking of women and girls. Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 6, pp. 22-27.
  • Horn, K., Woods, S. (2013). Trauma and its aftermath for commercially sexually exploited women as told by front-line service providers. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 34, pp. 75-81. 
  • Kotrla, K. (2010). Domestic minor sex trafficking in the United States. Social Work, 55, pp. 181-187.
  • Kotrla, K. & Wommack, B. A. (2011). Sex trafficking of minors in the US: Implications for policy, prevention, and research. Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk, 2(1, 5). Retrieved from

More Blog Posts

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