Myths, Facts, and Statistics

Human trafficking is complex and dynamic. It is widespread but exact numbers are hard to come by. It follows patterns, but every situation is also unique. There is so much more to learn, and so much misinformation already out there. Here’s what we really know.

Statistics

In 2019, Polaris worked on 11,500 situations of human trafficking reported to the Polaris-operated U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline. These situations involved 22,326 individual survivors; nearly 4,384 traffickers and 1,912 suspicious businesses. Human trafficking is notoriously underreported. Shocking as these numbers are, they are likely only a fraction of the actual problem.

 

2019 Statistics

Locations of human trafficking situations in the United States in 2019.

Human Trafficking Facts

Who is vulnerable?

Human trafficking can happen to anyone but some people are more vulnerable than others. Significant risk factors include recent migration or relocation, substance use, mental health concerns, involvement with the child welfare system and being a runaway or homeless youth. Often, traffickers identify and leverage their victims’ vulnerabilities in order to create dependency.

Who are the traffickers?

Perpetrators of human trafficking span all racial, ethnic, and gender demographics and are as diverse as survivors. Some use their privilege, wealth, and power as a means of control while others experience the same socio-economic oppression as their victims. They include individuals, business owners, members of a gang or network, parents or family members of victims, intimate partners, owners of farms or restaurants, and powerful corporate executives and government representatives.

How do traffickers control victims?

Traffickers employ a variety of control tactics, the most common include physical and emotional abuse and threats, isolation from friends and family, and economic abuse. They make promises aimed at addressing the needs of their target in order to impose control. As a result, victims become trapped and fear leaving for myriad reasons, including psychological trauma, shame, emotional attachment, or physical threats to themselves or their family.

Who are the survivors?

Victims and survivors of human trafficking represent every race and ethnicity but some forms of trafficking are more likely to affect specific ethnic groups.

Human Trafficking Myths

Myth

It’s always or usually a violent crime.

Reality
The most pervasive myth about human trafficking is that it often involves kidnapping or physically forcing someone into a situation. In reality, most traffickers use psychological means such as, tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor.

Myth

All human trafficking involves sex.

Reality
Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to get another person to provide labor or commercial sex. Worldwide, experts believe there are more situations of labor trafficking than of sex trafficking, but there is much wider awareness of sex trafficking in the U.S. than of labor trafficking.

Myth

Traffickers target victims they don’t know.

 

Reality
Many survivors have been trafficked by romantic partners, including spouses, and by family members, including parents.

Myth

Only undocumented foreign nationals get trafficked in the United States.

Reality
Polaris has worked on thousands of cases of trafficking involving foreign national survivors who are legally living and/or working in the United States. These include survivors of both sex and labor trafficking.

Myth

Only women and girls can be victims and survivors of sex trafficking.

Reality
One study estimates that as many as half of sex trafficking victims and survivors are male. Advocates believe that percentage may be even higher but that male victims are far less likely to be identified. LGBTQ boys and young men are seen as particularly vulnerable to trafficking.

Myth

Human trafficking only happens in illegal or underground industries.

 

Reality
Human trafficking cases have been reported and prosecuted in industries including restaurants, cleaning services, construction, factories and more.

Myth

Human trafficking involves moving, traveling or transporting a person across state or national borders.

Reality
Human trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, which involves illegal border crossings. In fact, the crime of human trafficking does not require any movement whatsoever. Survivors can be recruited and trafficked in their own home towns, even their own homes.

Myth

If the trafficked person consented to be in their initial situation, then it cannot be human trafficking or against their will because they “knew better.”

Reality
Initial consent to commercial sex or a labor setting prior to acts of force, fraud, or coercion (or if the victim is a minor in a sex trafficking situation) is not relevant to the crime, nor is payment.

Myth

People being trafficked are physically unable to leave their situations/locked in/held against their will.

 

Reality
That is sometimes the case. More often, however, people in trafficking situations stay for reasons that are more complicated. Some lack the basic necessities to physically get out – such as transportation or a safe place to live. Some are afraid for their safety. Some have been so effectively manipulated that they do not identify at that point as being under the control of another person.

Myth

Labor trafficking is only or primarily a problem in developing countries.

Reality
Labor trafficking occurs in the United States and in other developed countries but is reported at lower rates than sex trafficking.

Myth

All commercial sex is human trafficking.

Reality
All commercial sex involving a minor is legally considered human trafficking. Commercial sex involving an adult is human trafficking if the person providing commercial sex is doing so against his or her will as a result of force, fraud or coercion.

Myth

People in active trafficking situations always want help getting out.

 

Reality
Every trafficking situation is unique and self-identification as a trafficking victim or survivor happens along a continuum. Fear, isolation, guilt, shame, misplaced loyalty and expert manipulation are among the many factors that may keep a person from seeking help or identifying as a victim even if they are, in fact, being actively trafficked.

Child Sex Trafficking

In complex and frightening times, it’s natural that the world seems like a more dangerous place for our children than ever before. Understanding the realities of child sex trafficking will help you to not only keep your own children safe, but to become an effective advocate for the safety of all children and families in your community. 

Human Trafficking Rumors

Your social media feed fills up with terrifying stories of children being snatched off the streets by traffickers, packaged in shipping crates or auctioned off online and sold to the highest bidder. Sometimes these stories are spread by well-meaning people who are truly concerned. Other times, they are being put forward by organizations and individuals with other agendas.

#SaveTheChildren Questions and Answers

Beginning in the summer of 2020, complex child sex trafficking schemes began circulating online and igniting the use of #SaveTheChildren. The barrage of misinformation, hashtags and online chatter has left many people who care deeply about this issue confused about what to believe, and how to help.

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