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Traffickers: Why Do We Still Know So Little?
November 1, 2018

Traffickers, once arrested and convicted for their offenses, are in some respects much easier to reach than their victims, and they’re certainly easier to reach than johns. They play a key role in the fact that trafficking happens. And yet, while there has been study after study about victims and how they became victims, and plenty of discussion about what motivates johns, we know almost nothing about traffickers and how they became one.

A six year analysis of sex traffickers of minors, done in partnership between Arizona State University, Office of Sex Trafficking Research and the McCain Institute for International Leadership, has provided a significant contribution to our understanding. From it we know things like:

  • The average age of sex traffickers is 28.5 years old, and they’re getting younger over time
  • About a quarter of sex traffickers are women (and about half of them were victims turned trafficker)
  • About 1 in 5 were involved in gang activity
  • About a quarter had history of criminal activity, most commonly violent crimes
  • Solo sex traffickers are far more likely to be a parent or other kind of caretaker of the child victim, and often would have a prior history of crimes against children
  • And quite a bit about recruitment tactics (see full report for details)

Traffickers and Their Motivations

Traffickers don’t exist in a vaccum—something must lead them down that path, just as victims are lead down the path. While this study is crucial in exanding our understanding, it still doesn’t tell us much about what motivates a trafficker and how they talk themselves into becoming one. Is it purely financial? Is it about power? Does it stem from their own pedophilia, or some other kind of psychological issue regarding children?

Some may get roped into it by gang activity, some have a history of violence, some (like female traffickers) might have been initiated by their own victimization, and yet some are actually caretakers of children. What motivates them?

Understanding what motivates traffickers seems like a key piece of the puzzle in understanding how to combat and more directly prevent trafficking. If it’s financial, for example, it shows all the more reason we need to invest in education, training for legitimate jobs, and building robust economies in which all people can take part to help people find legal pathways to a sustainable income on which to live. The other motivations suggest we need to do a lot more to deal with mental health issues as a society to help spot potential victimizers and get them the help they need before they hurt others or themselves. This is not to suggest that people with mental health issues are violent—most are not. But people who do have violent tendencies could almost certainly beneft from early intervention and help.

To truly combat this problem, we need all the understanding and all the strategies we can muster. Traffickers are a part we cannot neglect.

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