Sex Trafficking in the African American Community is a Human Rights Violation 

The epidemic of sex trafficking is a global issue that impacts all kinds of people. But too often, some people are disproportionately targeted for this kind of exploitation, specifically, Black communities. 

It is reported that 40% of sex trafficking victims in the U.S. are Black, despite Black people making up only 13.6% of the U.S. population. This significant statistic points to a disturbing trend of disproportionate racial discrimination in sex trafficking.  

This racial significance in sex trafficking is, in part, due to the society that we live in and the history that we have on this continent; specifically, regarding the Black slave trade. Since the beginning of colonization, human trafficking has existed and been profitable in North America. As our society has developed from this dark period in our history, it is easy to believe that slavery, and human trafficking are no longer an issue, and that our history does not influence our treatment of Black communities. However, this is not the case. While there is an overwhelming general rejection of slavery and sex trafficking, the history and false beliefs surrounding racial minorities continue to influence the modern prostitution marketplace.  

Discriminatory Treatment of Black Women and Girls Who Are Victimized in the Prostitution Marketplace

The racial tensions that still exist in our society contribute to the unjust treatment of Black women and girls who are victimized in the prostitution marketplace. 

In a study done by the Urban Institute, traffickers reported that they believed they would receive less jail time for trafficking Black women as opposed to their white counterparts. The traffickers’ ideology mimics society’s view of Black women as well as historical slavery. Black female slaves were routinely and systematically raped by their white owners, and thus Black female bodies were exoticized and seen as exploitable. In today’s society, the exoticization and hypersexualization of Black women and girls remains a serious problem. From the way they are portrayed on television and sung about in popular music, there is a fixation on the body type of Black women and their sex appeal.

Studies have also shown that adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls. This is known as “Adultification”, and it results in Black girls being sexualized at an earlier age and not being treated with the same nurturing, compassionate approach that Caucasian girls receive. Adultification is the leading theory explaining why sexually exploited African American girls are often misunderstood, even by people like law enforcement personnel and judges, who seek to help victimized persons.  

There is a trend in the prosecution of prostitution and sex trafficking cases to convict the exploited persons and not the pimps/traffickers or sex buyers. This is especially true when the exploited person is a person of color.

Sex buyers are disproportionately white men, but women and girls of color bear the brunt of prostitution arrests. In Pennsylvania, 78% of prostitution arrests are for selling sex, while only 22% of arrests are for purchasing sex. Black adults account for approximately 37% of adult prostitution arrests and Black children account for nearly 53% of all “juvenile prostitution” arrests – in both cases, this percentage is higher than for any other racial group.  

Black girls are sometimes targeted by the police and routinely arrested, despite the fact that they are child sex trafficking victims. The theory of Adultification helps explain this trend – if Black girls are seen as older and less innocent, it is less likely that they will be correctly identified as victims of child sex trafficking who are deserving of compassion and support, rather than punishment.  

Advocates, survivors, and other experts have found that ingrained racial bias and stereotypes, which were created to dehumanize and justify the exploitation and exclusion of certain racial communities, hinder progress in anti-trafficking efforts because they lead to racially disparate assumptions about who is a trafficker and who is a trafficking victim. This is a significant contributor to the pattern of arresting prostituted persons and not the sex buyers or pimps/traffickers.  

This is a global problem as well as a national one. Siobhán Mullally the UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons has said, “Instead of being identified as victims of a serious human rights violation, victims are being arrested, detained, denied assistance and protection, and even forcibly returned to their countries of origin because of racial profiling and discrimination at border crossings and in criminal justice systems.” 

Pimps and Sex Traffickers Prey on the Vulnerabilities of Black Women and Girls

Sex trafficking and prostitution, like historical slavery, thrives on the separation from family and community. Often the targets of modern sex traffickers are children and adults who are isolated from their community and who would not be easily missed.  

Because of this, children in the foster care system, especially those who recently aged out of the system, are prime targets for sex traffickers. Black children are overrepresented in the foster care system. Although they make up only 14% of children in the United States, Black children make up 23% of the foster care system. Over 23,000 children age out of the foster care system each year. Studies show that 20% of these children will become instantly homeless upon aging out of the system, making them extremely vulnerable to sex traffickers. Further, a report conducted in 2016 by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that 86% of the likely sex trafficking victims were in the care of social services when they went missing. 

Foster children are also ten times more likely to be sexually abused and Black children are sexually abused twice as much as their white counterparts in the foster care system. Research show that growing up with a history of abuse and sexual assault makes people more vulnerable to being abused and trafficked in the future. 

Given these various vulnerabilities, and given the phenomenon of Adultification that leads to Black girls being sexualized at an early age, it is no surprise that Black girls are disproportionately represented in child sex trafficking cases. In Louisiana, Black girls account for nearly 49% of child sex trafficking victims, and 84% in King County, Washington–though Black girls comprise only 19% and 7% of the populations respectively. 

Further, US and global data show that human traffickers disproportionately target those in positions of socioeconomic or political vulnerability; these populations are often people of color. Poverty-stricken areas of the country are often hotspots for sex trafficking as many victims are lured into trafficking situations with promises of good work opportunities. These “opportunities” quickly become abysmal circumstances of intense abuse as members of this vulnerable population are trafficked for labor and sex.

The Time for Change is Now

The discrimination that fills the sex trafficking marketplace and inhibits efforts to save trafficked persons, is a global emergency. The very idea of human rights is that every person, regardless of what they look like or where they come from, has the right to be safe and loved and not exploited or abused. Racial profiling in sex trafficking is a glaring trend that must not be ignored any longer. Our society must work to stop the hypersexualization of Black women and girls in media, educate those in power on victim identification, and increase our healing and trauma recovery services. Now is the time to stand up and make a difference. It is time to recognize our mistakes and bias and strive to change the way we treat women and minorities in exploited situations. We must call it as we see it: sex trafficking is a human rights violation. 

ACTION: Request Information about the ELEET Training Program

The Equipping Law Enforcement to End Trafficking (ELEET) training program was developed with a working group of survivors, prosecutors, and seasoned officers in order to educate law enforcement and/or prosecutors on the importance of developing a victim-centered approach during initial contact with victims of human sex trafficking while minimizing the court appearance of victims and addressing implicit bias, such as racial biases. Request to book a training or get more information here.

You can also make a donation to help support NCOSE’s work to fight against the sexual exploitation and abuse of vulnerable populations.

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NCOSE leads the Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation with over 300 member organizations.


The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has had over 100 policy victories since 2010. Each victory promotes human dignity above exploitation.


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