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Human trafficking

Human trafficking

Human trafficking is a form of slavery.1 It happens when a person is forced or tricked into working in dangerous and illegal conditions or having sexual contact with others against their will. A person who is trafficked may be drugged, locked up, beaten, starved, or made to work for many hours a day. Girls and women are the most common victims of sex trafficking, a type of human trafficking.

How are girls and women trafficked in the United States?

Traffickers control victims by:2

  • Threatening to hurt them or their families
  • Threatening to have them deported
  • Taking away their passports, birth certificates, or ID cards
  • Making them work to pay back money they claim is owed them
  • Giving them drugs in order to create an addiction or control them and then making a them perform sexually to get more drugs
  • Preventing them from having contact with friends, family, or the outside world

Types of work a trafficked person may be forced to do include prostitution or sex work, farm work, cleaning, child care, sweatshop work, and other types of labor.

Sometimes a woman may end up trafficked after being forced to marry someone against her will. In a forced marriage, a woman’s husband and his family have control over her. Not all people who are trafficked are taken across state lines or national borders.

How common is human trafficking in the United States?

Human trafficking happens in every U.S. state.2 In 2016, 7,500 people were trafficked in the United States,3 and up to 800,000 are trafficked worldwide each year. Half of these victims are under 18, and most are girls and women.4

Who is at risk for being trafficked?

Human trafficking victims can be from urban, suburban, or rural areas and can have varying levels of education. In the United States, most human trafficking victims come from within the country, or from Mexico and the Philippines.5

While human trafficking can happen to anyone, some people in the United States are at greater risk. These include:5

  • Runaways and homeless youth
  • Children in the welfare or juvenile justice system
  • American Indians and Alaska Natives
  • Migrant workers
  • People who don’t speak English well
  • People with disabilities
  • People in the LGBTQ community

What are the signs of human trafficking?

Recognizing the signs of human trafficking can be difficult. If a woman or girl shows several of these signs, she may be trafficked:6

  • Appears fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or overly nervous or paranoid
  • Seems very scared if law enforcement is talked about
  • Does not make eye contact
  • Is very underweight
  • Shows signs of physical abuse (e.g., bruising, cuts, restraint marks on the wrists)
  • Has very few or no personal possessions
  • Has someone else in control and insisting on being present or translating
  • Cannot say where she is staying or give you an address
  • Does not know where she is (the country, state, or town or city)
  • Has no sense of time of day or time of year

What is sex trafficking?

Sex trafficking is a type of human trafficking. Sex trafficking is when a child or adult is forced to have sexual contact or engage in sexual activity in exchange for money or favors. In sex trafficking, someone forces or coerces a child or adult to participate in sexual activity in order to get money or other things of value from a person who pays for the sex acts.

Almost all victims of sex trafficking are women or girls.7

What are the effects of sex trafficking?

The physical and mental health effects of sexual trafficking are serious. Studies show that women who have been trafficked for sex have higher levels of fear, are more isolated, and have greater trauma and mental health needs than other victims of crime.8 Women and girls who have been trafficked may also misuse alcohol or drugs as a way to cope with their situation.3

What is the link between sex trafficking and HIV?

Sex trafficking victims are at high risk for getting HIV, among many other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Sex trafficking victims may be forced into prostitution and may be sexually assaulted, including being forced to have unprotected sex with multiple partners, many of whom may also have had unprotected sex with many partners. This increases their risk of getting HIV.

Often, trafficking victims endure the riskiest types of sexual assault, such as violent vaginal and anal rape without a condom, which puts them at higher risk of getting HIV.

How can I help victims of human trafficking?

If you think you have come in contact with a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s Hotline at 888-373-7888. You can also text HELP to BeFree (233733). Hotline staff can help you figure out whether you have seen a victim of human trafficking and can suggest local resources.

Anyone who is brought into the United States for forced labor may be able to get a special visa and other help rebuilding their lives. Learn more about help for trafficked immigrants.

Did we answer your question about human trafficking?

For more information about human trafficking, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or check out the following resources from other organizations:


  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Trafficking in Persons. (2017). What Is Human Trafficking?
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Trafficking in Persons. (2017). Myths and Facts About Human Trafficking.
  3. Deshpande, N.A., Nour, N.M. (2013). Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls. Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology; 6(1): e22-e27.
  4. National Human Trafficking Hotline. (2016). Hotline Statistics.
  5. U.S. Department of State. (2016). Trafficking in Persons Report.
  6. National Human Trafficking Hotline. (n.d.). Recognizing the Signs.
  7. International Labor Organization. (2012). ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour: Results and methodology. Geneva: International Labour Office, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour.
  8. Dovydaitis, T. (2010). Human Trafficking: The Role of the Health Care Provider. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health; 55: 462-467.