How Traffickers Operate

People who sexually exploit others are difficult to profile because there is no “typical” trafficker. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Although traffickers/pimps are mostly men, there are cases of women and transgender traffickers/pimps. And sometimes it can be a peer.

It is important not to assume who a trafficker is or what they might look like, because you could miss an opportunity to help.

Making contact

Traffickers find their recruits wherever young people spend time. This could be on the streets or public transportation, in shopping malls, libraries, bars or clubs, hotels, residences, schools, youth shelters or drop-ins, group homes, or online spaces - just about anywhere. 

When making contact, traffickers will probe to find out what the young person may need or want and will then prey on these vulnerabilities, meeting whatever physical or emotional needs this person may have. They often use the promise of a lavish lifestyle, a happy future, or false employment opportunities to lure the young person.

Going online

The online world provides traffickers fast and easy access to youth. Traffickers can contact, recruit and build relationships with a youth through social media, dating sites and online gaming. Some traffickers advertise fake or deceptive job opportunities.

Once they have a connection, traffickers may try to control victims by restricting their social media access, by impersonating the victim, by threatening to share intimate images or by spreading lies and rumors online.

One way you can help is to inform children and youth about internet safety and online communication. Learn more at


“Grooming” refers to the strategy of building a relationship with a young person in order to manipulate or exploit them. It is a key method used by traffickers. Grooming for sexual exploitation often involves gradually luring the child or youth away from their current support network until completely separated from friends, family and home. Pimps achieve this by glamorizing the sex trade and focusing on the child’s need for love and belonging. 

Most youth who are being sexually exploited are led to believe they are in a romantic relationship or partnership with their trafficker, and there can be a deep sense of loyalty. At the grooming stage, the pimp meets all the needs of the young person, making them feel special and valued.

"It doesn't take a lot: a good nose for sniffing out vulnerability, a little kindness, a bit of finesse, paying attention to the clues she gives away about her family, her living situation, her needs. Once he's got the hooks in, a few meals, rides in his car, perhaps an outfit or getting her nails done can seal the deal. She thinks he cares. She wants to please him."

- Rachel Lloyd, Girls Like Us, p. 73

Coercion / force

Once the trafficker has the trust of the youth, they control them through coercion, intimidation, and/or force. The relationship between the trafficker and the young person may change, but the trafficker continues to hold power.

Traffickers push the victim’s personal boundaries. The trafficker might tell the victim they need to start working in the sex trade to "pitch in" or to pay back the trafficker for what they spent during the luring and grooming phases

The tactics used by human traffickers to coerce their victims are chillingly similar to the tactics used in wartime torture, cults, and domestic abuse. Amnesty International calls these “the universal tools of torture and control.”

The trafficker begins to desensitize the child/youth to sexual acts. They might also start “treating” them to special rewards—such as shopping, gifts, or cash—following a “date” with a buyer.

These are some of the most common methods of control:

  • instilling fear by forcing the youth to witness physical and/or sexual violence and by threatening to do the same to them
  • controlling basic needs, such as food, sleep, medical attention as well as attention, comfort and other emotional needs
  • threatening to hurt loved ones (for example, younger siblings or pets). Threats can be physical or emotional in nature, for example threatening to share details of the exploitation with family members
  • fueling shame or guilt about what the youth is being forced to do, and threatening to expose the youth to family, friends, or police
  • isolating the youth by creating social disconnection and total dependency on the trafficker, so the young person can’t form relationships that might help them escape. This includes controlling social media access.
  • providing substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.) to keep the youth dependent on the trafficker or to subdue them so they will engage in sexual acts
  • involving the victim in other crimes to create further isolation and fear of the police
  • trauma bonding, where a bond develops between the victim and trafficker through a cycle of violence. In situations where there is more than one victim, the victims can also bond with each other through the shared experience of the trauma they experience or witness.

Exploiting the “debt”

Once the youth is fully in The Game, they believe they are indebted to the trafficker and need to repay what they “owe.” Traffickers sometimes threaten victims’ wellbeing, or the wellbeing of others they care for, such as children, parents, siblings or pets. Traffickers continue to manipulate their victims in ways that mirror the cycle of abuse seen in intimate partner violence.

Peer Recruitment

Someone who is exploited may start to recruit their peers. This can be a way to resist further violence or sometimes as a bargaining chip to get out of The Game. It is important to remember that this is often done as a means of survival and that this person may also need support as a victim.

Domestic Sex Trafficking - A Survivor's Perspective

Karly Church |