The Facts About Sexual Exploitation

What is Commercial Sexual Exploitation?

Commercial sexual exploitation is a global problem that could be happening right in your neighborhood. The commercial sex industry victimizes women, girls and boys.

Commercial sexual exploitation occurs when individuals buy, trade, or sell sexual acts.

Human trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act. Children (including underaged teens) who are involved in the commercial sex industry are viewed as victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons, which is human trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age. A commercial sex act is any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.

How does someone become a victim?

Pimps and traffickers target vulnerable women and children and lure them into prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation using psychological manipulation, drugs, and/or violence. They may be vulnerable to such a person who promises to meet his or her emotional and physical needs. A trafficker/pimp’s main purpose is to exploit them for monetary gain. Often traffickers/pimps will create a seemingly loving and caring relationship with their victim in order to establish trust and allegiance. This manipulative relationship tries to ensure the youth will remain loyal to the exploiter even in the face of severe victimization. These relationships may begin online before progressing to a real-life encounter.


Pimps are predators who seek out vulnerable victims, particularly runaways or children experiencing trouble at home. They know these children have emotional and physical needs they perceive are not being met and use this to their advantage. Pimps find victims at a variety of venues such as in social-networking websites, shopping malls, and schools; on local streets; or at bus stations. While pimps often target children outside of their family, a family member may also prostitute a child.


Pimps are willing to invest a great deal of time and effort in their victim to break down a victim’s natural resistance and suspicion – buying them gifts, providing a place to stay, promising a loving relationship – before revealing their true intent. Frequently victims do not realize the deceptive nature of their trafficker’s interest in them, viewing their pimp as a caretaker and/or boyfriend.


A pimp’s use of psychological manipulation (causing the child to truly believe the pimp loves and cares for his or her well-being) coupled with physical control (threats, violence, or drug addiction) can make a victim feel trapped and powerless. This “trauma bond” is difficult to break and long-term treatment and counseling for victims is required.

The Latest Statistics

Despite the seriousness of the problem, the incidence of commercial sexual exploitation is difficult to measure.
There are many challenges in providing conclusive empirical research to define the scope of the problem, b
elow are significant findings from past studies.  


of victims have a history of sexual abuse


children in North America who are at risk each year


is the average age of entry into human trafficking


of child victims are under control of a pimp

Barriers for Reaching Victims

Psychology of Victimization

Pimps may use force, fraud, or coercion to virtually enslave their victims. Young victims have been controlled by threats of violence to their family; pornographic images taken and used for blackmail or stigmatization; physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Some may be gang-raped to desensitize them to sexual activity prior to victimizing them in prostitution. Victims are taught to not trust law enforcement and may have experienced negative encounters with law-enforcement officers. They often remain with pimps out of fear of being physically harmed, having another victim endure physical harm, or a threat to their family members. Pimps have been convicted of plotting to murder cooperative victim witnesses and for the homicide of victims, further instilling fear.

Trauma Bonding 

Common among youth/younger victims exploited for commercial sex. The victim experiences a strong link to the pimp/exploiter based in what they perceive as an incredibly intense or important relationship, but one in which there has been an exploitation of trust or power. Emotional bonding is a learned tactic for survival and can be common between the exploited and the exploiter. Advocacy groups working directly with this population note reframing the trauma bond with a pimp/exploiter can take months of therapy and/or residential treatment. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is very common among those exposed to human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation and may be characterized by such symptoms as anxiety, depression, insomnia, irritability, flashbacks, emotional numbing, and hyper-alertness. Victims of commercial sexual exploitation often have unique needs given the frequent nature of multiple acts of sexual exploitation or violence, by multiple offenders, over potentially a sustained period of time.

If you suspect a case of commercial child sexual exploitation or human trafficking of children

Contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children® at 1-800-843-5678 or visit, or contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) at 1-888-373-7888.
For additional information and resources about Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children and Human Trafficking, please visit the Innocence Lost National Initiative at

For more information about recognizing the signs: