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How U.S. Citizens Become Human Trafficking Victims

A frightening look at how traffickers prey upon vulnerable youth.

Human trafficking is commonly referred to as “modern day slavery.” It is important to note that the crime of human trafficking doesn’t always include the transportation of a victim. Exploitation of a victim (whether through force, fraud or coercion) for the purpose of involuntary servitude, debt bondage, or slavery is enough to constitute a trafficking crime. Under U.S. law, any commercial sex act performed by a minor (under age 18) is considered trafficking, whether or not the minor consents (8 U.S.C. § 1101).

People are often surprised to learn that most human trafficking victims are not chained up or even physically held against their will in a situation where they can’t escape. Trafficking victims may have cell phones and may even be allowed free time to attend church, go shopping, and see friends. I am often asked why victims of human trafficking don’t escape if they have the opportunity.

We must remember that many victims of human trafficking are born right here in the United States. They don’t experience many of the challenges that international trafficking victims face, such as limited English, undocumented status or lack of friends or family members in the country. Domestic trafficking victims are legally able to live and work in the United States. They speak English and they know how to call 911. Yet they may stay in abusive situations. Why?

First, we need to understand who the victims of domestic trafficking are. Since trafficking is a crime and victims are often hidden from society, accurate statistics on victims in the United States are difficult to find. Estimates tend to focus on foreign-born victims, not those who were born in the United States.

But most of the time, human trafficking victims in the United States are the most vulnerable at-risk youth—like very young teens or runaways. One estimate claims that between 244,000 and 325,000 American youth are at risk for sexual exploitation, and about 200,000 incidents of sexual exploitation of minors occur each year in the United States (Estes & Weiner, 2001). These figures only include youth, not adults who might also be trafficked in this country.

Domestic trafficking victims are often young girls—as young as 10 or 11 years old—who are desperate to find someone who will love and take care of them. Traffickers are masters at manipulating and exploiting at-risk girls. These traffickers, who can be regarded as pimps, groom their victims, gaining their trust and loyalty by preying upon their vulnerabilities and showering them with praise or even gifts.

Many times, the girls who become victims believe that their trafficker loves them, will stay with them, and even protect them from the law. The victims are eager to believe their traffickers’ assurances that they are a “couple.” Soon, the victims are coerced into having sex with strangers for money that their “boyfriends” keep for themselves.

I conducted an interview with Aaron Bratcher, a filmmaker in Los Angeles, who is working with Michelle Nehme, the director of a new film about human trafficking in the United States called American Love Story. We discussed the ways that traffickers “recruit” young girls into the sex trade. Girls with low self-confidence and self-esteem often become victims. Bratcher related what U.S. Ambassador Swanee Hunt, President of Hunt Alternative Fund, says in the upcoming film American Love Story:

"An FBI agent was interviewing a pimp, and so he said, 'Where do you find your girls?' He said, 'I go to a shopping mall, and I look around for a girl who's by herself. I say, ‘You know, you have really pretty eyes.' And if she looks him back in the face and says, 'Well, thanks!,' he said, 'I just keep going.' And if she looks down at her feet and says, 'No, I don't,' he said, 'I know I've got her.'"

The most important way to prevent traffickers from finding new victims is ensuring that our girls value themselves. It is critical to promote young girls’ self-esteem and to make sure they know about the recruitment strategies of traffickers. We also have to ensure that there are resources and services available to at-risk youth who have already left home. We must let these girls know that there are people who care about them and organizations that can offer help.

Mellissa Withers is an assistant professor of global health at the University of Southern California.