Human Sex Trafficking
Are you or someone you care about in human trafficking? Learn to recognize the signs of human trafficking and get help.
If there is immediate danger or if you suspect someone is being trafficked, call 911 or your local police service.
For information and support, contact Canada’s confidential human trafficking hotline: 1-833-900-1010
Human Sex Trafficking in Canada
In Canada, information from community members and police investigations suggest that those who are most likely to be trafficked are Canadian girls and women exploited for sexual purposes.
From Canada's National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, we know that:
"In Canada, human trafficking often takes place in large urban centers, and also occurs in smaller cities and communities, largely for the purpose of sexual exploitation. We know that men, women, and children fall victim to this crime, although women represent the majority of victims in Canada to date. More generally, those who are likely to be at risk include persons who are socially or economically disadvantaged, such as some Aboriginal women, youth and children, migrants and new immigrants, teenaged runaways, children who are in protection, as well as girls and women, who may be lured to large urban centers or who move or migrate there voluntarily."
Signs that Someone may be Being Sex Trafficked
Someone might be a victim of human sex trafficking if they:
- are not allowed to speak for themselves and their activities are controlled by someone else
- are under 18 and involved in prostitution or sex work
- are unpaid or paid very little to work and seem to be treated poorly (long or unusual hours, not allowed breaks, or forced to live in poor conditions)
- are repaying a large debt through labor or sex
- seem fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, nervous, or paranoid (they may avoid eye contact or seem fearful around police)
- show signs of abuse, such as bruising, cigarette burns, or fractures
- have tattooing or branding symbols, particularly names
- don’t have their own belongings or money, and don’t control their own passport or other documents
- seem malnourished or lack medical care
- move frequently and may not know their surroundings well
- have been reported missing
- Someone might be being groomed for sex trafficking if they:
- are withdrawing from family and friends
- are being secretive about their activities
- have a new boyfriend, girlfriend or friend who they won’t introduce to friends and family
- suddenly spend time with an older person or people
- begin staying out more often and later
- are absent from school or there is a decline in school performance
- begin wearing more sexualized clothing
- have new clothing and jewelry that they can’t afford to buy
- suddenly have a new or second cell phone with a secret number
People at Risk of Human Sex Trafficking
Anyone can be at risk of being trafficked, however, there are some risk factors that can make someone more vulnerable.
People who are at higher risk of being sex trafficked are:
- women and girls (though boys, men, and people who are LGBTQI2S are also targeted)
- homeless and marginalized youth
- youth who struggle with self-esteem, bullying, discrimination, poverty, abuse, isolation, and other social or family issues
- Indigenous women and girls
- people with addiction, mental illness, and developmental disabilities
There are cases where none of these risk factors are present. In those cases, traffickers often target very young people, identify and fulfill their needs, and then use that dependence to control and exploit them.
Sex traffickers purposely develop a bond with the person they are trafficking and manipulate them by making them believe they are better off staying than leaving. For this and other reasons, the trafficked person may fear and resist police intervention. This bond is developed in stages, over time.
This is different from sex work, where the person is over 18 and legally able to consent.
How recruitment into sex trafficking can happen
The sex trafficker can be a stranger, someone connected to the victim through social media or someone they know personally. The trafficker may suddenly be very interested in the victim, say nice things, take them out, and spend money on them.
The sex trafficker may act like a generous boyfriend or friend, make the victim feel adored, and spend money on things like lingerie, accessories, and new clothes. They may also try to get the victim to look older or sexier and push their boundaries by trying out risky behaviours, such as trying drugs or alcohol, missing school or other extracurricular activities, and taking sexually explicit photos.
The sex trafficker may try to distance the victim from friends and family and make the victim feel like they are the only person who cares about them. This helps the trafficker assert control.
At some point the sex trafficker will ask the victim to do sexual things with them or others to “repay” them for the money that has been spent on them, to maintain their new lifestyle or to earn money for their future together. The sex trafficker may also tell the victim that the victim owes someone money and something bad will happen to them if they don’t do what the trafficker wants.
The sex trafficker may try to coerce the victim into sex by threatening to expose the things (e.g. explicit photographs) that they’ve done to others. They may also threaten to hurt the victim or someone they care about.
The sex trafficker’s main goal is to control and exploit the victim by forcing them to have sex in exchange for things they need, want, or for money. Traffickers may abuse a relationship of trust, authority, or dependency with the victim in order to exploit them. If the victim tries to say no, the trafficker may threaten to harm them or someone they care about. Often times the victim is not fully aware that coercion and threatening behaviour is happening because they are communicated in covert ways.
When someone is being trafficked, their traffickers often control every aspect of their life, including when they eat and sleep, what they wear, and who they talk to. People who are being trafficked and people who come into contact with them, may not know or understand that a crime is taking place.
This is a broad overview of how sex trafficking may occur. Not all circumstances follow this pattern or include each of these elements.
Domestic Sex Trafficking Cases
Based on RCMP and community findings, and on convictions of human trafficking in Canada, it's known that:
- A large number of human trafficking cases in Canada are related to domestic trafficking of Canadian girls and women for purposes of sexual exploitation.
- Some of the convicted human traffickers (mostly men) are affiliated with street gangs.
- Many girls and women are recruited through the Internet or by an acquaintance.
- Many girls and women are groomed, manipulated, and coerced to perform sexual acts for the benefit of their trafficker.
- Control tactics used by convicted human traffickers include social isolation, forcible confinement, withholding identification documents, imposing strict rules, limitation of movements as well as threats and violence.
Domestic Sex Trafficking of Aboriginal Girls and Women
In both Canada and the U.S., Aboriginal women and girls appear to be uniquely vulnerable to human trafficking due to the long-term impacts of:
- Colonization including the residential schools system, where generations of children were removed from their families and communities.
- “Widespread poverty, low educational attainment, high rates of community and interpersonal violence, high rates of alcohol-related deaths and suicide, poor physical health, and corroded family and community relationships.” (Shattered Hearts)
Legal Protections and Support for Trafficked Persons
One of the biggest hurdles preventing a trafficked person from contacting police or testifying in court is fear for themselves, their family, and friends. The person may also be wary of revealing embarrassing or humiliating details in court. Some may also be afraid of deportation. To help alleviate these fears, the Criminal Code includes laws to protect against threats, intimidation, or harassment by the trafficker when reporting a criminal offence or testifying in court. Anyone who tries to intimidate a trafficked person could go to jail for up to 14 years.
Also, in Canada, people who have been trafficked may be offered a number of supports for testifying in court. In particular, children and vulnerable witnesses may be able to:
- Request a support person, such as a victim services worker, to accompany them to court.
- Apply for an order to exclude the public during their testimony.
- Testify behind a privacy screen.
- Ban the media from publishing their name.