The Victim Cycle of Sex Trafficking

How does someone become a victim of a trafficker? It is easy to assume type of crime will not happen to you or your young person, however, this type of predator is usually very smooth, and their intentions can be difficult to detect.

There is a general cycle that each victim experiences within this crime and while it will never be identical in each situation, having a general understanding may help you recognize red flags and respond to situations that you would not have normally questioned.

Recruited into Sex Trafficking

A predator looks for a vulnerability within a victim that can be exploited. This can occur either in-person or online. A predator that assesses and recruits potential victims in-person will often spend time at locations youth hang out (i.e., schools, malls, coffee shops, parks) looking for vulnerabilities within the young people that are there. A common one is low self-esteem; a predator can easily spot these traits by simply watching how a young girl reacts when he calls her beautiful. If she lowers her head or shows signs of insecurity, she is potentially a good target.

  • The number one place predators find their victims is on social media sites. [1]

The amount of information we freely offer to the world about ourselves makes it easier for traffickers to find their next victim without ever leaving the couch. Traffickers troll social sites, gaming apps and other internet forums to try and spot vulnerabilities they can exploit later.

A statement such as “my parents are the worst” or “I’m so over school” allows the predator to connect, relate and offer a solution to the victim. Some predators will send out a hundred direct messages a day just hoping for a handful of responses. These messages might include something along the lines of “wow you are beautiful” or “I have a problem. Can you help me?”

By instilling confidence in our young people, we can start to protect them from the predators that recruit in-person. Behaviors such as making eye contact, keeping your head up and being direct when you speak are all deterrents to a trafficker. In the online space, teaching a young person to never post their frustrations, emotions or their heart on the internet will make them less of a target. Also, the importance of bringing messages from strangers instead of responding allows the message to be reported and the young person to be protected.

  • Studies consistently report that 50-90% of child sex trafficking victims have been involved in the child welfare system. [1]

Youth in the runaway, homeless or foster care population are extremely vulnerable to this this type of predator. One in six runaway youth are likely to become a victim of sex trafficking. [2] This is evidence of what is referred to as survival sex or the act of trading your body for a sexual act for a basic human need (i.e., food, clothing, shelter). This is still a form of child exploitation.

Groomed for the Sex Industry

This is the stage when a trafficker builds a relationship with their victim, they gain their trust and often times make an emotional connection. This allows the pimp to manipulate and control them better in the future. There is no single form of force, fraud or coercion used by predators. Each trafficker has their own style to gain the necessary power and control required to manipulate an individual into doing what they want.

  • 85% of victims reported developing a close relationship with their trafficker. [1]

This portrays the Romeo Pimp tactic of manipulating and nurturing a relationship with their victim. The Romeo Pimp will manipulate their victim into believing they are truly in a romantic relationship, this is done by buying the victim gifts, taking them out to eat and spoiling them in some form. This tactic creates a bond between victim and trafficker and often the victim believes they are selling themselves because it is how they contribute to the relationship.

The second general type of trafficker that these predators fall into is referred to as a Gorilla Pimp. These predators use fear and violence to gain control and power over their victims. A victim will do what they are told based on the fear of what will happen if they do not comply. The last form is a CEO pimp. This predator uses the promise of a job to manipulate or control their victim. These jobs are generally ones promising stardom in the modeling or music industries.

  • 17% of kids have shared their own Self-Generated – Child Sexual Abuse Material (SG-CSAM). [3]

A 6% increase from 2019. Traffickers can use the grooming process to build a relationship with their victim. If they are able to get the child to send them explicit images this allows sextortion to take place. Sextortion is a threat to expose sexual images in order to make a person do something. The young person experiences shame with already having sent the image and fear of that image being seen by others so they are likely to do what they are told to prevent this from happening, even if what they are told to do is far worse.


Introduced into Sex Trafficking

The next phase of the cycle is what a victim is exploited for the first time, this is referred to as the breaking. For some this can be very violent, including gang rapes. For others it may be giving an illicit massage to one of the predator’s friends. Shame is often used to maintain power and control. Statements like: “You are just a whore now” “No one will believe you” “Your family won’t love you anymore” “You are the one committing a crime” may be used.

It is during this stage that a Romeo Pimp may start to introduce violence and fear tactics into their relationship with the victim.

If recovery of a victim is not made prior to this breaking phase it becomes much more difficult.


Automatic and Maintenance Phases of the Sex Trafficking Cycle

Once a victim has reached this phase they are basically running on autopilot, continuing to comply to avoid whatever their trafficker has threatened them with. This could include fear of violence, fear of their family being harmed or feeling that they no longer have worth. The amount of extensive, complex trauma the victim has experienced up to this point changes the way they make decisions.  At this point the victim has accepted that this is now their life, and they are often simply in survival mode.

  • 75% of victims reported being advertised online while being exploited after 2004. [1]

The use of technology has allowed traffickers to engage with buyers at a more frequent and widespread capacity. A predator can easily advertise online through various escort sites.

  • One in four victims surveyed reported that when advertised online they saw more than 10 buyers per day. [1]

This is better said as 10 rapes per day, imagine the trauma associated with one unwanted sexual encounter and multiply that by 10 each day. This allows the trauma to compound over time and continues to keep the victim in survival mode, where the only things that are important are safety (doing what the trafficker says to avoid being hurt), food and sleep. Traffickers often use food and sleep as control tactics as well.

  • A recent study found that human trafficking survivors have an alarming higher-than-average rate of suicidal thoughts with 23% of survivors having attempted suicide compared with 3% of the population with no prior domestic violence exposure. [4]


How can I help stop the cycle of sex trafficking?

We strive to break this cycle in the beginning stages, so no victim ever experiences the enormous trauma associated with trafficking. Predators behind bars prevents future victims. Become a Guardian and help us protect America’s children.

To learn more about the indicators of trafficking go here.




Reference for the victim cycle of sex trafficking as a whole [5].



[1] Thorn (2018, January). Survivor Insights: The Role of Technology in Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking [PDF].

[2] National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. (2021). Child Sex Trafficking. Retrieved from

[3] Thorn (2021). Self-Generated Child Sexual Abuse Material: Youth Attitudes and Experiences in 2020 [PDF].

[4] Shero (2017, September). The Connection Between Suicide and Human Trafficking. Retrieved from

[5] Nelson – Garrett, Esther – Founder and CEO Safety Compass