Traffickers can be someone a person knows, such as a neighbor, family member, friend, acquaintance, or a friend of a friend. A trafficker can also be a stranger and target a person online or in a public space such as a store, mall, or park; the trafficker could be someone in the community.
There are many tactics that traffickers use to lure youth and often target them by offering attention, food, clothes, housing, friendship, and promises of a better future. Traffickers can deceive youth into increasingly harmful situations. After building a relationship with the youth (a.k.a. “grooming”), the trafficker will manipulate or force the youth to engage in sexual activities by threatening them or their loved ones. Sometimes traffickers use a younger person/peer to recruit others and persuade them to become involved.
Individuals are more vulnerable to being trafficked and exploited if they face stigma and discrimination in society. This includes youth who are homeless, runaway, have been kicked out, or identify as LGBTQ+ and youth who have experienced prior abuse and maltreatment.
In cases where a youth is not being forced or manipulated by another person to engage in sexual acts for something of value, the person providing money or resources is considered the “trafficker” under the law.
There are several red flags or warning signs that a young person is experiencing sex trafficking. Some indicators:
- Possession of money, clothing, shoes, electronics, or other items of value that the youth cannot afford or that is out of the ordinary for them to have
- Sexually explicit pictures of themselves online
- Someone calling, texting, or tracking them frequently
- Has an older significant other or has acquaintances that the young person is unwilling to provide information about
- Has a history of running away or “leaving town” without providing information as to where they are going
- Going to hotels/motels for parties
- Has unexplained injuries such as bruises, cuts, or frequent sexually transmitted infections
- Has new tattoos that are not explained or are unusual
- Is affiliated with a gang
- Has friends or acquaintances involved in the commercial sex industry (i.e., exotic dancing, sex work, pornography)
For a full list of indicators, see the Department of Children and Families Wisconsin Child Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Indicator and Response Guide.
It is important to engage with youth in a nonjudgmental way as they have likely been traumatized. Be aware that they may not respond to offers of assistance in a way that is expected.
In many cases, youth who have been trafficked have been groomed by the trafficker, which results in the youth feeling trust, loyalty, and even love for the trafficker. If the trafficker has used force or coercion, the youth may have fear that harm will come to themselves or to someone they love. Further, if the young person is dependent on the trafficker for housing, food, or other resources, they will weigh their options, and if they have not felt supported by people, organizations, or systems in the past, they may deny that they’ve been harmed or trafficked.
In these situations, a young person may resist help and may not consider themselves a “victim” of trafficking. In fact, youth may not understand what “trafficking” means and/or not use that term at all. Instead, youth may say they are “doing what they need to do” or that “someone is helping pay” for something of value. If a young person is removed from the situation, they may even go back to the trafficker.
Again, it is important to offer support in a nonjudgmental and informed way and consider contacting an advocate or other professional who has expertise working with young people who have experienced sex trafficking.