Sex trafficking occurs when individuals are forced, coerced, or defrauded into performing commercial sex acts. Profits go to the traffickers, who usually have some form of hold over their victims, preventing them from seeking help or escaping. Victims of sex trafficking are mostly women and girls, but can be of either sex or any age. This activity is a form of slavery, and often crosses state or international lines.
Traffickers find their victims by picking up runaways, advertising for workers in poverty-stricken countries, and buying them from families or spouses. Captives are forced into prostitution or exhibitions such as pornography, stripping, or live sex shows. Traffickers use psychological intimidation and physical violence to control the victims. Often, victims cooperate because they fear harm will come to their families if they do not.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking. Runaway teens or children living on the streets often become desperate to find a means of support. Traffickers prey on them by promising food, shelter, and education. People from less-developed countries seeking work may end up enslaved by sex trafficking offenders, and forced into prostitution. Without any money or outside connections, they have no means of escape.
Victims of sex trafficking face many dangers. In addition to beatings or torture, they may be starved, forced to work to the point of exhaustion, or to take drugs to which they may become addicted. They may be malnourished and contract sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorreah, syphilis, HIV/AIDS, or other diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis. Victims may be killed by their captors. They are also likely to suffer from psychological problems such as depression, suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic bonding, known as Stockholm syndrome.
Sex tourism is a profitable industry, especially in Central and Southeast Asia, Southern Europe, and parts of the Caribbean and Africa. Travelers from across the world pay handsomely for the chance to have sex with a minor or engage in acts that may be prohibited where they live. Under US federal law, stiff penalties target citizens who travel for the purpose of engaging in sex with a minor or use mail or the Internet to participate in illegal sex trafficking activities. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is responsible for investigating and prosecuting sex traffickers and their customers. Victims in the US, citizens or not, may receive aid and the means to contact their families through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
International cooperation is a necessary step in stopping sex trafficking. In 2000, the United Nations established the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. By 2009, it had been signed by 117 countries. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) carries responsibility for applying this protocol. The Council of Europe also works with the United Nations to help secure protection for victims of sex trafficking and other human rights violations.