Recognizing Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking is not something you can see happening across a crowded room. It is not a crime that occurs in an instant, like a kidnapping or carjacking, that a bystander can witness and report. In fact, many people in active sex trafficking situations do not recognize themselves as being victims because they have been expertly groomed by a trafficker to believe they have chosen to participate in commercial sex. Understanding how sex trafficking really works can help families and communities to recognize vulnerable people before they become victims and provide survivors with the support they need to break free, heal and move on with their lives.


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

Men and boys are also victimized by sex traffickers. LGBTQ boys and young men are seen as particularly vulnerable to trafficking.


All commercial sex is human trafficking.

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.


People in active trafficking situations always want help getting out.


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.

Common Sex Trafficking Red Flags

Red Flags

  • They want to stop participating in selling or trading sex but feel scared or unable to leave
  • They disclose that they were reluctant to engage in selling sex but that someone pressured them into it
  • They live where they work or are transported by guards between home and workplace
  • They are children who live with or are supported by or dependent on a family member with a substance abuse problem or who is abusive in other ways
  • They have a pimp or manager in the sex trade
  • They work in an industry where it may be common to be pressured into performing sex acts for money, such as a strip club, illicit cantina, go-go bar, or illicit massage business
  • They have an older, or simply controlling parent, guardian, romantic partner or “sponsor” who will not allow you to meet or speak with the person alone or monitors their movements, spending and/or communications

Sex Trafficking Examples

Read real sex trafficking situations that we hear about most frequently on the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline to help you to understand and recognize possible sex trafficking in your own life.

Love and Trafficking

In the wrong hands, love is a powerful weapon of exploitation. Read survivors’ stories and learn the difference between what love isn’t and what trafficking is. Understand what grooming is, a common system technique employed by traffickers.

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. 

Sex Trafficking Training

Interested in learning more about sex trafficking? Take our free introductory course, Human Trafficking 101, to learn what human trafficking really is, how it happens, and how you can be part of the solution.

Additional Resources

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