Signs and Stages of Exploitation

Pay attention to signs like these

While you can’t always be sure what is happening in someone’s life, the following signs might indicate someone is being sexually exploited. Think of these signs as clues to check out, not as proof of anything.


Possessions that do not seem to match income, and regularly having new things (e.g., expensive items when there is little or no income)

Having two phones - one may not have a SIM card. Anxiety about checking phone at regular intervals

No identification


Personal grooming and aesthetics (e.g., styled hair and manicured nails)

Signs of physical violence (e.g., bruises)

Being branded or tattooed


Withdrawal from or dramatic change in friends/peer group

Long term “boyfriend” that friends or family have never met

Hints of unequal power in romantic relationship


Signs of emotional abuse
Easy to startle
Difficulty regulating emotions
Trouble sleeping
Running away
Substance use


Use of slang related to the sex trade

Frequency and timing of "meetings” or
“appointments” (e.g., noon, evening)

Same person providing transport,
often unknown to family or friends

Stages of sexual exploitation

There are many stages of sexual exploitation. These stages can happen very fast or over a long time. They might not happen in this order, and some stages might not happen at all.  Victims often don’t realize that they are being trafficked or what stage of trafficking they are in.

Knowing about the various stages can help you to meet and support a young person “where they are at.” Click below to learn more about each of the stages:

Sex traffickers prey on vulnerable young people. Promises of love, belonging, and a better future can be especially enticing for young people with unmet needs. Although anyone can be targeted, young people facing poverty, physical or mental illness, and other social and emotional struggles are especially vulnerable. Refer back to “Who is targeted in Nova Scotia” to explore some specific risk factors.

A young person who is transitioning into the sex trade might show some or all of the signs listed earlier in “Pay attention to signs like these.” In addition, you might notice the following:

  • They identify more with the culture of the sex trade (particularly with the belief system).
  • They skip school more often.
  • They don’t see the negatives of the sex trade.
  • They rely more on drugs and alcohol.
  • They may be subjected to and/or may cause more violence.
  • They use the language of the sex trade more often.
  • They connect less with their family and mainstream friends, and begin hanging out with entrenched kids.
  • Their online activity increases.

These are some signs that a young person is entrenched in the sex trade:

  • They completely adopt the culture.
  • They don’t see the negatives of the sex trade.
  • They use drugs and/or alcohol daily.
  • Almost everyone they associate with is involved in the sex trade.
  • They are disconnected from their family, unless their family is involved in the sex trade.
  • The level of violence increases (to them or by them), and quickly gets explosive.
  • They seek immediate gratification of their needs.
  • They always have money or objects they can’t explain.
  • They are often on the run and may be gone for weeks at a time with no contact.

These are signs a young person may be transitioning away from the sex trade:

  • They start to see negative aspects of the sex trade and can start to internalize or talk about them.
  • They start to emotionally move away from the sex trade.
  • They stay at their home for longer periods of time.
  • They reconnect with their culture and/or family of origin.
  • Their drug or alcohol use decreases.
  • Their violence decreases.
  • They participate in programming to address their needs.
  • They acquire money in safer, legal ways.

Leaving sexual exploitation can be one of the most difficult things a person does in their lifetime. The person needs access to support programs that are flexible and judgement-free, and their basic day-to-day needs must be met.

There are many barriers to exiting the sex trade. These are linked to how the trafficker has controlled and manipulated them. Exploited people may not come forward and ask for help because:

  • They might not see themselves as an exploited person.
  • They might fear the trafficker will hurt them or someone they love.
  • They are afraid they will get arrested and be prosecuted for illegal activities.
  • They are in love with/care for the trafficker.
  • They have a child.
  • Some needs are being met in The Game that might not be met elsewhere.
  • They fear that if they leave the current situation they will have nowhere else to go.
  • They are dealing with drug and alcohol dependency, and staying with the trafficker is the only way to get drugs and alcohol.

A person might leave The Game for a variety of reasons. The transition out could happen quickly or take time. These are some factors that might influence a young person’s resolve to leave:

  • They feel they want to change their situation of exploitation.
  • They experience a traumatic event.
  • They find a supportive role model.
  • They find meaningful employment.
  • They get housing or social assistance.
  • They become involved in a relationship with an individual who does not want them to be in the exploitative situation.

Staying out of the sex trade is hard once a person has been entrenched in The Life. On average, a person will leave and return seven times before breaking the cycle. As a support person, it is important understand this and continue to support even if they do re-enter.

Re-entry can happen at any stage. These are some of the factors that might contribute to re-entry:

  • They leave a supportive program.
  • They question the decision to leave the sex trade.
  • They experience serious doubt about their current situation and need a new support plan.
  • They see benefits to the trafficking situation.
  • They feel uncomfortable with their ability to cope with this new life.

“It is unfair to ask someone to leave a trafficker if you can’t meet all their needs, because they will go back, and it will be worse.”

-Karly Church,

Survivor of Human Trafficking

Reflection Activity:

  1. What new insights have you learned?
  2. What are you surprised by?
  3. What feels most challenging to you?
  4. What would you like to further explore?