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Impact of Trafficking

Children and adolescents who have been sex trafficked have often experienced a wide range of trauma and adversities prior to, during, and even after being trafficked, resulting in sexual, physical, and emotional injuries and sometimes severe lifelong health, educational, economic, legal, social, relational, sexual and spiritual impacts.

Educational/Economic Impacts

There are significant educational and economic impacts experienced by youth who have been or are being trafficked. Many youth experience the school environment negatively, both academically and socially/interpersonally.

Prior to being trafficked, exploited youth may have significant challenges in the educational setting. That is, educational challenges often precede trafficking and contribute to vulnerability.

  • School absences and disruptions may occur due to placement changes (especially youth involved with child-serving systems), housing instability, caregiver losses, and impairment, etc.
  • Learning disabilities and/or intellectual disabilities may further impact school performance and exacerbate negative experiences of the educational setting.
  • Successive periods of absence and school transitions can have an adverse cumulative effect as students fall behind peers, repeat grades, experience isolation and loss of connection with adults and peers including bullying.
  • Early disruptions in schooling may then contribute to trafficking vulnerability through negatively affecting self-concept and disconnection from formal systems of support and positive peer culture.

While being trafficked, school attendance and performance is often additionally impacted as some youth may cease attendance altogether, especially if being moved geographically by traffickers, and fall substantially behind their peers in grade level. Other youth may continue to attend school while being trafficked but performance and learning may be impacted by significant sleep disruption and fatigue, malnourishment, and inattentiveness.

After youth are identified as having been exploited through trafficking, educational supports and services are often a key priority in service planning. However, as trafficked youth attempt to re-engage in traditional school settings following identification and intervention, they may:

  • Struggle as a result of their histories of disrupted attendance and academic performance
  • Experience (continued) trauma-related difficulties with attention and concentration
  • Face challenges related to feelings of disconnection from peer culture and traditional setting, concerns of shame and judgment, and/or bullying by peers.

Conversely, some youth will thrive in traditional school settings, especially if they are able to attend regularly, and are appropriately supported and adequately assessed to determine educational, learning, and intellectual abilities. Others may thrive in non-traditional or alternative educational programs.

Long-term impacts. Trafficking has significant long-term educational and economic impacts on survivors:

  • Lower rates of high school graduation and college attainment, restricted opportunities to develop vocational and life skills. This restricts achievement, limits economic mobility and employment opportunities, and further contributes to risk of trafficking re-victimization.
  • Limited employment and career pathways specifically due to criminal records – a felony conviction, especially, can impact licensure in many fields and may undermine hiring in any position requiring a criminal background check, including military service. (Even though youth are now less likely to be charged with prostitution as a result of legal reforms, they may have other criminal charges while being trafficked.)

Legal Impacts

Although reform efforts have resulted in significant advancements, trafficked youth trafficked youth may nevertheless experience a range of legal impacts during or after being exploited through child sex trafficking.

  • In some states and local jurisdictions, minors continue to be arrested and incarcerated for prostitution.
  • Even if not charged with prostitution, youth may be charged with other crimes (sometimes in an effort by law enforcement and judges to detain youth for their own safety).
  • Experiences of harassment from peers, adults, or law enforcement
  • Employment-related impacts of a criminal record, as well as social, physical, and relational impacts. Contrary to common belief, juvenile records are not sealed.
  • Loss of autonomy and basic freedoms as a result of incarceration.
  • Separation from children.

Mental Health Impacts

Given the breadth and severity of trauma and adversities often experienced prior to and while being trafficked, youth may experience a range of mental health-related symptoms and difficulties, including:

  • Having trouble paying attention or concentrating
  • Being easily irritated or angered
  • Having trouble falling asleep or sleeping too much, nightmares
  • Experiencing dissociation
  • Getting upset when things happen that remind them of traumatic events (trauma reminders)
  • Having difficulty with emotional identification, expression, and regulation
  • Experiencing intrusive thoughts about their experiences while being trafficked and other traumatic experiences(s)
  • Avoiding thinking or talking about upsetting their experiences, including trafficking
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Alterations in ability to relate with others
  • Dealing with self-blame, guilt, and shame
  • Having problems initiating and sustaining healthy relationships
  • Dealing with depression
  • Experiencing anxiety
  • Engaging in substance use or having dependence problems
  • Experiencing suicidal thoughts and engaging in self-injurious behaviors
  • Changes in sense of self
  • Alterations in the way they view the world

Physical Health Impacts

There are a number of physical health and medical impacts that may be experienced by youth who were trafficked. Traffickers may prevent a youth from seeking medical care until a condition or concern prevents them from being able to work for the trafficker. Traffickers may also control a youth’s identification, immigration or health insurance documents, thus controlling their access to care.

  • Physical violence may result in contusions, lacerations, burns, broken bones, internal injuries, concussions, and other forms of head injury. There may be resultant scarring, branding, and disfiguration, as well as functional limitations.
  • Sexual contact may result in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS. Untreated STIs lead to various health problems including, immune suppression, cancer, or liver damage/failure, pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to infertility and ectopic pregnancy.
  • Unwanted pregnancy may result in forced or elective abortion, miscarriage, maternal complications (teens are at especially high risk) and fetal/newborn complications.
  • Sexual assault can lead to genital and/or anal trauma and rarely, more severe internal injury. It can also lead to other injuries found with sexual assault such as contusions and concussions.
  • Neglect and poor nutrition may result in malnourishment, new medical illness or disease, complications due to or exacerbation of pre-existing chronic medical conditions (e.g. diabetes, asthma) and untreated injuries.
  • Dental complications due to physical violence, inadequate dental hygiene.
  • Substance use problems and medical complications of substance use problems
  • Forced tattoos or branding
  • Chronic pain and/or fatigue

Sexual Impacts

Sex Trafficking may have profound impacts on the sexual health and wellbeing of youth.

  • Experiences and understanding of healthy sexual relationships, including capacity to trust and expectations of mutuality and non-exploitation
  • Problems with sexual function and experience of pleasure
  • Lasting reproductive health challenges
  • Fears and concerns regarding acceptance of current and future sex partners. For more on sexual health, click here.

Social/Relational Impacts

Experiences of sex trafficking can have profound impacts on a youth’s social development and interpersonal relationships.

  • Loss of trust in others
  • Challenges in understanding of healthy relationships free of exploitation, coercion, and harm
  • Concerns about future romantic and sexual relationships
  • Isolation and disconnection from peers and caring adults, often resulting in continued association with others still engaged in commercial sex, with whom they experience belonging free of judgment and stigma

Spiritual Impacts

Trafficking experiences can have profound impacts on a youth’s spiritual well-being - their sense of connection to others, place in the world, belief in a benign or benevolent spiritual presence larger than themselves, purpose or meaning in life. Because trafficking, by its nature, involves exploitation, harm, and exposure to depravity, it can be difficult to maintain a balanced perspective on humanity, hope for the future, and belief in human good.