When beginning the conversation about human trafficking, specifically sex trafficking, there are three myths that need be dispelled early on. First, the myth that human trafficking is an international crime, requiring a border crossing. Secondly, that all trafficking starts with kidnapping. Finally, that human trafficking only happens to girls.

In reality, within Canada, human trafficking is often a relational crime and many survivors have reported their trafficker as being a friend, family member or an intimate partner. Human trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation more often than not involves persons that call Canada home. Even though the majority of human trafficking cases reported to police involve female and female identified survivors, men and boys can also be trafficked too.

Survivors, advocates and allies have noted trends regarding how trafficking happens in Canada and how traffickers skillfully operate to maintain power and control. It is important to note that experiences of victims and survivors differ and not every trafficking situation looks the same; trafficking of persons from outside of Canada and into Canada can look different, as does forced labour and trafficking perpetrated by a parent/guardian. For clarity purposes, this post will be referring primarily to domestic sex trafficking [trafficking that happens within Canada’s borders for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation] perpetrated by someone other than a parent/guardian.

*This post looks at a person’s experience through the different stages of trafficking; when the person may identify as a victim, as a survivor, or neither. Exploitation is not linear and it’s best to avoid labelling someone’s experience as such. Throughout this post we use the term individual or potential victim to refer to a person being lured, groomed or recruited for trafficking or being trafficked. Every individual experience with trafficking is unique and this post may not be reflective of those individual experiences.

Anti-trafficking advocates and experiential persons have described domestic sex trafficking as occurring in stages. Although the number of stages and time spent in each stage can vary depending on each individual’s experience, the patterns are often transferrable. The first stage is often referred to as ‘luring’. In this stage a trafficker pays close attention to the people around them, online or in person, in order to identify who they might be able to establish a relationship with, for the purpose of exploitation. A trafficker may look for someone that appears disconnected from their peer groups or loved ones, or is perhaps going through a difficult circumstance in their life. The trafficker may then initiate conversation with the individual, in-person or online and will collect as much information as possible about them and those around them.  Traffickers know how to tap into the emotional well-being of an individual early on in a relationship, creating strong connections. The trafficker will really seek to understand that individuals’ experiences.

At this point, the trafficker will start to transition into another stage of the relationship, known as ‘grooming’. Based on conversations between the trafficker and the individual, the trafficker works to offer them everything they want or need in that moment; this could be invites to parties, a place to belong, a home, access to drugs or alcohol, financial security or even promises of the life their victim dreams of. The trafficker may start using the information they have learned in order to promote a certain set of actions which are not aligned with the values of the individual and boundaries they had established prior to the relationship. Often the relationship between the trafficker and the potential victim is being established with some secrecy as ‘other people would not understand’. The trafficker is working to create isolation and distance; and may encourage the individual to withdraw from others in their life. This may look like monopolizing their time or creating conflict between the potential victim and any loved ones.

The trafficker may then start to use coercion and manipulation, involving more overt tactics, such as withdrawing parts of the dream they had initially presented (relationship, basic needs, substances, money) in order to get their way. To encourage the individual to participate in commercial sex acts, the trafficker may also present a debt they claim the victim has accumulated or they may claim the debt was pre-existing but is the only barrier between the individual and their future dreams. The trafficker may also use violence, shame, intimidation or blackmail using sexual imagery or sexual abuse imagery in an effort to get their way.

At this point, the individual may feel out of options, this is the start of the exploitation stage. The trafficker may initially ask the individual to participate in commercial sex acts as a ‘short term’ or even a ‘one-time favour’. The trafficker will often perpetrate economic abuse by taking the earnings of the victim and potentially implementing quotas for earnings. Intimidation and threats may also be used by the trafficker, for example, the trafficker may threaten to hurt the individual or their loved ones to ensure control of the individual and prevent them from speaking out. However, physical violence may not always be experienced as the individual may believe that this is temporary and that they are working together to achieve a shared goal.

These stages can be navigated very quickly, in a matter of hours, or they can take several weeks or months to go through. These stages also are not linear: a trafficker could appear to go back to who they were in the grooming stage, after having been exploitative. As a result, the process can create a lot of confusing feelings for the individual towards or about the trafficker. The individual may feel like they had a sense of “choice” which has the potential to create feelings of shame and prevent disclosure. The isolation instilled by the trafficker also deepens as the exploitation occurs, often heightening a sense of hopelessness for what the individual could return to if they did leave the trafficker. The individual may also still see the trafficker as someone they love and care deeply for, and severing the bond between themselves and trafficker could feel like betrayal.

The process of trafficking is methodical and planned to maximize control, create division, avoid legal action, and ensure financial gain. Trafficking is complex and responses to trafficking need to be well versed in this complexity. If you have experienced trafficking or are providing care to someone who has, feel free to call the Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-833-900-1010. No matter what your experience is, it is not your fault and the hotline is available to help you to access supports and services, free of judgement.

Additional resources

The power and control wheel, which was adapted by Polaris based on an existing domestic violence tool [Duluths Wheel] is another resource which may help to give clarity about what victims and survivors experience from a trafficker, which can prevent them from feeling able to leave.

Sexual Exploitation And Trafficking Of Children & Youth In Canada: A Prevention and Early Intervention Toolkit for Parents by Children of the Street [BC]






Reposted from the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking website.  With permission.