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The Missing Narrative Behind Sex Trafficking Statistics






The International Labor Organization estimates that there are 4.5 million victims of sex trafficking worldwide. Statistics further state that children, women, and men are being sold for sex in cities across the world, indifferent of age, race, ethinicity, gender, nationality, socio-economic class, or education.  

In 2014, the Urban Institute studied the underground commercial sex economy in eight U.S. cities and estimated that this illicit activity generated between $39.9 million and $290 million in revenue depending on the city, with nearly 300,000 youth at risk of being sexually exploited, according to a University of Pennsylvania study

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Strategy to Combat Human Trafficking states, “In 2018, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline was contacted 41,088 times and reported 10,949 cases of human trafficking, a number that has increased annually. In the past five fiscal years, DHS received 6,171 reports to their Tip Line regarding suspected human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. 

As alarming as these statistics are, the challenge is their accuracy. Due to the sensitivity of the crime, early grooming ages, a lack of a central repository for law enforcement to work together, and the speed at which communication evolves based on the digital landscape, the margin of error is significant and the numbers just scratch the surface. Detective Joseph Scaramucci of the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office in Waco, Texas, one of the top consultants for human trafficking within law enforcement, said that the numbers reported by agencies combating human trafficking are often misleading. “They also call people attempting to pay for sex from a minor a trafficker (while it meets many statutes that person is a buyer, not a trafficker). Often numbers can also be misinterpreted because of state laws. Many times sex buyers can be legally classified as a human trafficker, although they have engaged in the purchasing of sex.” 

In this Overwatch brief, analysts partnered with All Things Possible (ATP) to share the reality behind sex trafficking numbers as analysts continue to utilize #OSINTforGood (open-source intelligence for good) to combat the numbers you see above. The brief investigates how individuals are exploited into the lifestyle, the psychology behind it, individuals perpetuating such crimes, and early indicators of grooming.

The Perception of Sex Trafficking / The Missing Narrative to Sex Trafficking

In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was enacted to strengthen the federal government’s ability to combat human traffic. The TVPA recognizes two forms of human trafficking: sex trafficking and forced labor, and defines human traffficking as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act (sex trafficking), in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” Florida statute 787.06 further defines sex trafficking as the “Transporting, soliciting, recruiting, harboring, providing, enticing, maintaining, or obtaining another person for the purpose of exploitation of that person.”

By definition alone, it is not surprising the perception of sex trafficking is visualized like the mood board below:

The video mood board contains the 635 results when searching the key term “sex trafficking.” The majority of images are a female in a non-descriptive setting with a hand raise, ropes around a female’s wrists or money being exchanged. Overwatch and All Things Possible analysts who are subject matter experts on sex trafficking will share this is not an accurate depiction and is a more generalized representation of female victims. Many sex trafficking victims do not consider themselves as victims. 

The Exploitation Cycle

Through intensive manipulation, falsified affection, brutal violence, isolation, and emotional abuse, bad actors aggressively seek to destabilize their victims’ psyches and gain control over them. Our partner, All Things Possible (ATP), illustrates the sex trafficking process, which begins long before a victim is sold for the first time. Below is a graphic created by ATP to explain how traffickers exploit their victims:

Each phase of the exploitation cycle includes brainwashing tactics and techniques often unbeknownst to the predator, rewiring the victim’s brain. According to ATP COO Jeff Tiegs, “…that intermittent reinforcement is creating this imbalance with this individual.”  

The Founder of RubiesLV, Samantha Summers-Rivas, explains that traffickers mentally use psychological tactics to enslave their victims. “We’re not seeing physical chains, but there are emotional, mental, and spiritual chains,” said Summers-Rivas. 

This is why many of the trafficked girls do not identify themselves as victims. Traffickers have an innate ability to connect with victims, identify their needs and establish trust because their backgrounds are often similar to the cultural backgrounds as the victim, and they can be of any gender and age, according to Florida State University’s Human Trafficking Project, sponsored by the Attorney General of the State of Florida.

The Superficial Pimp Lifestyle

Individual traffickers, more popularly referred to as “pimps,” are frequently the traffickers in street-based commercial sex scenarios. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a pimp as “a criminal who is associated with, usually exerts control over, and lives off the earnings of one or more prostitutes.” Most of the time, pimping does not entail consenting prostitutes to work for their own financial advantage, despite the widespread impression that it does. Because victims may be sold and resold again, unlike with drugs or fake goods, sex trafficking has significant monetary gains and a business that allows pimps to live a lavish lifestyle filled with material possessions. According to Louise Shelley, Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, “pimps dissipate their large incomes of several hundred thousand of dollars annually on expensive clothes, jewelry, and automobiles rather than saving their money or laundering it into the legitimate economy.” This displayed sense of affluence helps to convince their victims that they can provide them with a flashy celebrity lifestyle, going on to write books, direct films and write songs. 

Although the relationships between these pimps and their victims may differ, they all use the same strategies to find, manage, and take advantage of their victims. Some pimps take advantage of one or a few victims, while others might be in charge of a stable. The consistent theme is pimps forcing victims to recruit, manage, and discipline other victims, which could make them appear to be traffickers.

Tiegs states, “While I have zero sympathy for pimps, some people have arrived at the place where they have a certain level of compassion because many of these pimps were abused also. Many of these pimps, they’re acting out and lashing out because they were physically and sexually abused as young men. I intellectually can go there, but still, as a person, I just can’t excuse it because of the levels that they’re bringing it.”

Trafficking Indicators

Social media has granted greater mobility for traffickers. After reading this brief, you may scroll through social feed and may recognize some critical signs of sex trafficking both through visuals and captions. There are certain words that are said/heard/written, that could indicate being involved or becoming involved in trafficking. Examples of some of this verbiage (not all-inclusive) include: being in the life, or the game, bottom bitch, wifey, wifey-in-law, stable, choose-up fee, exit fee, daddy/king (especially said by multiple girls to one man), two girl special, and girlfriend experience or GFE.

Summers-Rivas said people should keep in mind the following when it comes to verbiage indicators, “These terms have become popular within our culture. A lot of young people use these terms, and they have heard them in the hip hop music that they listen to now and different forms of music, and so they may not understand or know what they’re perpetuating or what they’re putting out there, but they just might, and they might be in the life.”

Along with verbiage indicators of being trafficked, there are numerous physical indicators that anyone can look out for. This includes tattoos and branding on the neck or chest that shows a crown, a name, or a king’s crown. Another is a girl dressed inappropriately for her age or the weather. It could also be a minor with someone at a hotel during school hours or late at night. Oftentimes, a sudden or dramatic change in behavior could be another sign.

** Please note: not all indicators listed above are present in every sex trafficking situation, and the presence or absence of any indicators is not necessarily proof of sex trafficking. **

Our Assessment

Through this assessment, sex trafficking in the United States will continue to rise with digital technology making communication across the world easier and without dedicated resources to centralizated information, these criminal acts will continue to be a flourishing business. Although the statistics are inaccurate, the numbers are significant as traffickers continuously trolling through social media and chatrooms to find potential targets prey on the expressive vulnerabilities on social media, prime for grooming. Read more in our previous Overwatch brief, “Trafficking and Why Grooming on Social Media is a Major Issue“.

Analysts dedicated to #OSINTforGood and organizations like All Things Possible will continue to flourish and enable law enforcement with the resources needed as open-source intelligence (OSINT) becomes a critical skill set. Echo Analytics Group and All Things Possible have seen this success through Skull Games, an effort to bring the OSINT community together. Over the past year, the partnership has conducted 4 Skull Games resulting in identifying 45 girls and 20 persons of interest. The next Skull Games is scheduled the weekend of October 14th. To learn more about open-source intelligence and Skull Games, we invite you to attend our upcoming Open House on Sunday, October 16th from 3:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. RSVP here.


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