What Parents Need to Know About Sex Trafficking

What Parents Need to Know About Sex Trafficking - SavvyMom

Human trafficking is on the rise worldwide. What was once thought of as an offense involving smuggling persons across a border is now known to be a complex, hard-to-detect crime involving the recruiting, harboring, and/or controlling of a person’s movements and freedom by various means. The most common types of trafficking include forced labour and involuntary sex work. To be clear, sex trafficking is different from consensual, adult sex work. Sex trafficking is a crime, and no one can consent to being trafficked.

Much of what we know about human trafficking might have come from the movies; films like Eastern Promises and Taken are stories that take place on the other side of the world and depict rings of young women and girls forced into sexual slavery to pay off an immigration debt.

But human trafficking also exists closer to home, so here’s what parents need to know.

Facts and Statistics About Sex Trafficking:

Here’s what the most recent data from the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies (OACAS) tells us about trafficking:

In 2019, there were 511 cases in Canada reported to the police. More than 96% of identified trafficking cases in Canada since 2005 were domestic, not international. Between 2009 and 2016:

  • two thirds (66%) of cases in Canada were reported in Ontario
  • Almost half of all trafficking cases were reported in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal
  • The majority (95%) of victims/survivors in cases reported to police were female and over a quarter (27%) of victims/survivors in cases reported to police were under the age of 18

As with many crimes of a similar nature, human trafficking is thought to be widely under-reported.

Who’s Affected by Sex Trafficking:

The government of Ontario states that women and children from Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities are at increased risk of being trafficked, along with:

  • women and girls (though boys, men, and people who identify as 2SLGBTQQIA+ are also targeted)
  • homeless and/or marginalized youth
  • youth who struggle with self-esteem, and/or are experiencing bullying, discrimination, poverty, abuse, isolation, and other social or family issues
  • people with addiction, mental illness, or developmental disabilities

The average age of recruitment into sex trafficking is 13.

Cynthia Bland, executive director of Voice Found, a survivor-led organization and resource for victims of sexual abuse, told cbc.ca that most of the individuals she encounters are girls and young women — many between the ages 12 and 19—with victims coming from our local communities and high schools. As for what makes someone vulnerable to being trafficked? “The largest vulnerability is ignorance to the issue, not really understanding what it is,” said Bland.

It’s important to note that sex trafficking does not always involve abduction. Victims often sleep in their own homes making it even more difficult for friends and loved ones to detect a problem.

What Parents Need to Watch Out For:

Sex traffickers purposely develop a bond with the person they are trafficking. The trafficker may engage in ‘grooming’ by making the victim feel special and showering them with gifts. They may also try to get the victim to look older or sexier and push them to experiment with drugs or alcohol and other risky behaviours like missing school and taking sexually explicit photos.

The sex trafficker can be a stranger or someone the victim knows through social media or even personally. Traffickers may leverage a relationship of trust or authority for the purposes of exploitation. He or she may try to isolate the victim from friends and family as a way to assert influence and control.

At some point the trafficker will ask the victim to do sexual things with them or others as “repayment” for what’s been spent on them. The trafficker may try to coerce the victim into sex by threatening to expose the things they’ve done, like take and/or share explicit photographs. (Read more about sextortion in Canada here.) They may also threaten to hurt the victim or someone they care about.

When someone is being trafficked, their traffickers often control every aspect of their life, including when they eat and sleep, what they wear, and who they talk to.

Changes in behaviour, physical appearance, new belongings and relationships with family and friends can be signs that someone might be a victim of human trafficking. Warning signs include:

  • frequent absences from home, sometimes resulting in being reported missing
  • being secretive about their activities
  • staying out later and more often
  • absent from school or decline in academic performance
  • using new or increased methods of transportation, such as taxies or Uber
  • seem fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, nervous or paranoid
  • withdrawing or isolating from family and friends
  • have a new boyfriend, girlfriend, or friend they won’t introduce to friends and family
  • suddenly spend time with an older person or people
  • begin wearing more sexualized clothing
  • have new clothing and jewelry without a way to pay for it
  • show signs of physical abuse or tattooing or branding symbols, particularly names
  • suddenly have a new or second cell phone with a secret number
  • don’t control their own passport or other documents

The Bottom Line:

Sex trafficking, though statistically rare, can and does happen in our own communities and to victims who might have previously been thought of as low risk for trafficking victimization.

Traffickers recruit victims in all of the physical places teens hang out, including malls, bus stops, even in middle and high schools. A primary hunting ground is online, making it even more imperative to know what apps our kids are using and who they’re corresponding with. Keeping electronics in a central location that is visible and easily monitored may help minimize inappropriate online interactions. Children and teens should be reminded to always listen to their inner voice and to never trust anyone who asks them to keep a secret from their parents. Know your kid’s friends and pay attention when new people enter their lives.

Resources for Help and to Learn More:

If you are in immediate danger or suspect someone is being trafficked, call 911 or your local police service.

If you or someone you know needs support or wants to report a potential case of human trafficking, call Canada’s dedicated, confidential, 24/7 human trafficking hotline: (Toll-free: 1-833-900-1010). The hotline connects victims and survivors to law enforcement, emergency shelters, transition housing, long-term supports, counselors, and a range of other trauma-informed services.

The Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline website offers a national directory of social services, education/awareness materials, as well as reports and research products.

To learn more about the human side of sex trafficking, watch the story of one 15-year old’s escape from a sex trafficker here, and check out I Am Jane Doe, a documentary film about the epic battle several US mothers waged on behalf of their daughters who were victims of sex trafficking.


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