Sexual trafficking in the United States: a domestic problem with transnational dimensions.

Author:Hodge, David R.

The social work profession is committed to social justice, particularly on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals. This commitment is enumerated in the profession's Code of Ethics (NASW, 2000) and its educational standards (Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, 2001). As avowed in the NASW policy statement International Policy on Human Rights (NASW, 2003), "social workers must advocate for the rights of vulnerable people" and work to eliminate practices "that put any person's human rights in grave jeopardy" (pp. 212-213).

Given the profession's value stance, it is perhaps surprising that the social work literature has featured little discussion of one of the most prominent contemporary human rights abuses--the modern-day slave trade or human trafficking (Struhsaker Schatz & Furman, 2002). Trafficking entails the trade in human beings who are subsequently exploited for their organs, labor, or other services (United Nations, 2000). Over the course of the past decade, the global trade in human beings has increased significantly. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC] (2005), human trafficking has reached epidemic proportions.

The largest subset of human trafficking is sexual trafficking--the trafficking of young women and children for prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation (Curtol, Decarli, Di Nicola, & Savona, 2004). Among those trafficked internationally, estimates indicate that approximately 50 percent are children and 70 percent to 80 percent are female (U.S. Department of State, 2004). Among females, roughly 70 percent are trafficked for prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation (U.S. Department of State, 2004). In addition to representing the largest component of human trafficking, sexual trafficking has grown dramatically over the past decade (Flowers, 2001; Kelly, 2004; Monzini, 2004; Struhsaker Schatz & Furman, 2002).

This article seeks to increase readers' awareness and knowledge of sexual trafficking in the United States. Toward this end, the transnational nature of the problem is reviewed along with the role that organized crime plays in engineering the flow of young women and girls around the world. As part of this process, common strategies used to recruit and transport young women and children are discussed along with methods of initiation and exploitation in the sex industry. The article concludes by reviewing relevant policy responses, such as the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, and suggesting some steps that might be taken to protect victims, prosecute traffickers, and prevent future occurrences of victimization. First, however, sexual trafficking is defined and domestic prevalence rates are discussed.


Sexual trafficking has been defined in numerous ways (Aronowitz, 2004). The United States government defines sex trafficking as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act" (P.L. 106-386: [section] 103 (9)). A commercial sexual act is defined as any sex act in which anything of value is given or received by any person (P.L. 106-386: [section] 103 (3)).

The State Department estimates that approximately 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States annually (U.S. Department of State, 2004). An additional number are trafficked within the United States, although the government indicates that trends in international trafficking are easier to estimate than are trends in domestic trafficking.

Although the U.S. government estimates may be more conservative than those provided by some organizations, it is important to qualify the results. Estimating the number of individuals trafficked is difficult (Curtol et al., 2004). Many rape victims do not report their victimization, and victims of trafficking may be even more reluctant to contact authorities (McDonald, 2004). Many factors may foster this reluctance. For instance, victims may believe that social services providers will not take their claims seriously, that the police will charge them for some offense, or that the authorities are unable to protect them from traffickers' reprisals (Hughes & Denisova, 2001). Indeed, in some nations, police collude with traffickers, returning those who escape to their former exploiters in the sex or prostitution industry.

Consequently, because of the complexity involved in making accurate assessments, prevalence estimates vary considerably (Flowers, 2001; McDonald, 2004; Monzini, 2004). Similarly, as part of the shadow economy, our understanding of trafficking practices is still in its infancy. It is important to emphasize, however, that no one questions the existence of the problem (McDonald, 2004). Rather, the debate concerns the magnitude of the problem and the extent to which it is growing.


By definition, individuals trafficked into the United States originate from other nations. Accordingly, it is difficult to understand sexual trafficking in the United States apart from the wider global context. Each year, some 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders, some of whom wind up in the United States (U.S. Department of State, 2004). Since the 1990s, sexual trafficking has become increasingly transnational in character (Erez, Ibarra, & McDonald, 2004). Young girls may be recruited in the Ukraine and trafficked through Russia, Germany, France, and Canada before ending up in the United States (Estes & Weiner, 2001).


The transnational movement in human beings is facilitated by criminal networks. According to some estimates, human trafficking is the fastest growing area of organized crime (United Nations, 2002). In a number of cases, the high profits and low risk have led existing crime syndicates to become involved in trafficking. In addition, formerly decentralized, loosely organized groups have evolved into complex, organized networks of recruiters, transporters, and pimps (Monzini, 2004). Small, independent operators still exist, perhaps particularly in the United States (Raymond & Hughes, 2001). Organized crime, however, has increasingly dominated sexual trafficking.

The sale of trafficked young women and girls is very profitable (Zimmerman et al., 2003). After narcotics and arms sales, trafficking is estimated to be the largest source of revenue for organized crime (U.S. Department of State, 2004). A girl might be kidnapped from a village in Nepal, trafficked to India and sold for $1,000 (UNODC, 2005) and then trafficked to the United States and sold for $20,000 (UNODC, 2004) or more (Estes & Weiner, 2001).

Furthermore, women sold into the prostitution industry earn profits for their pimps for a number of years, unlike the profits earned from narcotics, which are sold and used once. The vast majority of revenue generated by trafficked women remains in the hands of pimps (UNODC, 2004). Many trafficked women retain little or none of the money they earn in the sex industry (Monzini, 2004; Zimmerman et al., 2003).


The UNODC has attempted to quantify general patterns in international trafficking, mapping the flow from point of origin to point of destination (Monzini, 2004). In descending order, victims tend to be recruited most prominently from Asia, the former Soviet Union, Africa, Eastern Europe, and, to a lesser extent, Latin America. As this list implies, originating countries tend to be relatively unstable politically or economically disadvantaged.

Such environmental factors make it easier for traffickers to recruit and transport women and children (Hughes & Denisova, 2001). For instance, in nations with weak institutions, officials can be bribed. Forged passports and travel documents for children can be obtained with relative ease (Monzini, 2004).

Within these environments, traffickers often seek out the most vulnerable individuals. In addition to women living in poverty (Kelly, 2004), traffickers have targeted orphans and women with physical disabilities (Hughes, 2004a), young children (Flowers, 2001), those who are innumerate (Beyrer, 2001), illiterate (Aghatise, 2004), and socially deprived (Okonofua, Ogbomwan, Alutu, Kufre, & Eghosa, 2004). Such characteristics make it easier for traffickers to recruit, transport, and subsequently exploit women in destination countries.

United Nations data indicate that after Italy the primary destination nation is the United States, followed by Germany and the Netherlands (Monzini, 2004). Destination countries tend to be wealthy industrialized nations that meet one of at least two criteria: (1) prostitution is legalized or broadly tolerated or (2) large sex industries exist (Hughes, 2000a). Prostitution is legal in Germany and the Netherlands (Hughes, 2000a) for example, and the child pornography industry in the United States is one of the biggest in the world (Flowers, 2001).

It is demand in the sex industry that traffickers seek to supply (Hughes & Denisova, 2001). Few women choose to work in the sex industry when other options exist...

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