Learn about sex trafficking, including warning signs, how traffickers target and recruit people and resources to help prevent trafficking.
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If there is immediate danger or if you suspect someone is being trafficked, call 911 or your local police service.
About sex trafficking
The most common form of the crime of human trafficking in Ontario is sex trafficking. As a form of sexual exploitation, sex trafficking refers to the forced, coercive, fraudulent or deceptive exchange of sex for something of value (for example, money, food, drugs, alcohol, transportation, shelter). This can also include sexual exploitation online, including social media platforms, through sexual imagery or video.
Sex traffickers often identify and target a person’s vulnerabilities to gain trust and form a bond. They can be a stranger, someone connected to the victim online or someone they know personally. Traffickers often engage with young people through social media and they may also coerce them into recruiting others, including their peers.
Traffickers may manipulate a person by:
- fulfilling their unmet needs, such as love, affection, friendship, a sense of belonging and other basic needs like housing or food security
- using threats, physical violence, emotional abuse, isolation and control
For this and other reasons, the trafficked person may fear and resist police intervention.
Sex trafficking is different from consensual sex work engaged in by adults. Sex trafficking is a crime, and no one can consent to being trafficked.
Children and youth under the age of 18 cannot engage in sex work or in exchanging sex for money, drugs, alcohol, shelter, transportation, food or any other object or necessity. Every person who recruits, transports, transfers, receives, holds, conceals or harbours a person under the age of 18, or exercises control, direction or influence over the movements of a person under the age of 18 (by using force, physical or psychological coercion, manipulation or deception) for the purpose of exploiting them or facilitating their exploitation (i.e., exploiting them through the commercial sex trade) is committing a crime.
How sex traffickers target people
Traffickers target people who are vulnerable and marginalized, although anyone can be a victim. A person’s vulnerability may stem from factors such as:
- young age
- involvement in the child welfare system, or transitioning out of care
- physical or developmental disability
- history of childhood physical or sexual abuse, trauma
- mental health challenges
- family conflict
- lack of self-esteem or sense of belonging
- systemic discrimination
Children and youth are among those most at risk of being targeted by sex traffickers. The average age of recruitment into sex trafficking in Canada is just 13 years old.
The impacts of historical colonialism and systemic racism are underlying causes of the marginalization that put women and children from Indigenous, Black and other racialized communities at increased risk of being targeted.
How recruitment into sex trafficking can happen
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. This bond is developed in stages, over time.
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 can occur. Not all circumstances follow this pattern or include each of these elements.
Early intervention is critical in preventing sex trafficking before it happens. Changes in behaviour, physical appearance, belongings and relationships with family and friends can be signs that someone might be a victim of human trafficking. Warning signs to watch for include:
Behaviours and activities:
- are repeatedly missing from home and/or have been frequently reported missing to police
- are being secretive about their activities
- begin staying out more often and later
- are absent from school or there is a decline in school performance
- use new or increased methods of transportation, such as taxis, ride-hailing or sharing applications
- are not allowed to speak for themselves and their activities are controlled by someone else
- seem fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, nervous or paranoid (they may avoid eye contact or seem fearful around police)
- move frequently and may not know their surroundings well
- are repaying a large debt through sex (including sexual imagery/filming)
Relationships with family or friends:
- are withdrawing or isolating from family and friends
- 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
Physical appearance and belongings:
- begin wearing more sexualized clothing
- have new clothing and jewelry that they can’t afford to buy
- show signs of physical abuse, such as bruising, cigarette burns or fractures
- have tattooing or branding symbols, particularly names
- suddenly have a new or second cell phone with a secret number
- don’t have their own belongings or money, and don’t control their own passport or other documents
- seem malnourished or lack medical care
Help for people who have been trafficked or are at risk
Survivors and people at risk of sex trafficking can access a range of supports:
- programs and supports offered by community service providers
- Indigenous-led services and supports
- specialized services for children and youth
- priority access to social housing or help paying rent
- free help to apply for a restraining order
- legal assistance
Being trafficked can cause severe trauma and survivors often need intensive, specialized services and supports to heal, rebuild their lives and regain independence. It can be very difficult for a survivor to leave a trafficking situation and can take several attempts before they find help.
Canadian Human Trafficking Hotline
The hotline is for victims seeking help, people with a tip to report a potential case, members of the public wanting to learn more about the subject. You can also find services across Canada including Ontario, using the hotline’s National Referral Directory.
Prevention and education programs and resources
Speak Out: Stop Sex Trafficking
The Speak Out: Stop Sex Trafficking campaign is a suite of resources for Indigenous youth, caregivers, service provider organizations and communities. The campaign was designed by Indigenous people and aims to raise awareness about sex trafficking in Ontario and help stop the trafficking of Indigenous women, children, youth and LGBTQ2S individuals. You can get:
- information on the website
- downloadable materials for distribution in communities
- a discussion guide that includes culturally relevant activities to help leaders and caregivers facilitate conversations with youth and provide support
“The Trap” anti-human trafficking digital education tool
The Trap is an online resource to teach children and youth what human trafficking is and equip them with the skills to stay safe. It was developed with help from frontline service providers and trafficking survivors. The tool can help adults lead a realistic discussion with youth about how trafficking occurs, so young people can identify when it may be happening to them or their friends, and know where and how to get help.
The role of schools
As of January 31, 2022, all provincially funded school boards, school authorities and provincial and demonstration schools in Ontario must have anti-sex trafficking protocols in place that include:
- statements of principles
- strategies to raise awareness and increase understanding about the urgency and complexity of combating sex trafficking
- an emphasis on the importance of multi-sectoral partnership
- direction on response and support procedures for students who are at risk of or are being sexually abused/exploited/trafficked or who might be forced/coerced into the recruiting of other victims, as well as for students re-entering school after exiting a trafficking situation
- expectations for training for school board employees
- approaches to support accountability and evaluation
School boards should work with parents and guardians, students and local partners, such as persons with lived experience and survivor-led organizations, Indigenous organizations and communities, anti-human trafficking committees, community-based service providers, police services and child welfare agencies to develop and implement their protocols.
Read Ontario’s Anti-Sex Trafficking Policy to learn about school boards’ local anti-sex trafficking protocols.
Contact your school or school board to learn more.
White Ribbon Digital Resource
Find educational resources and lesson plans for educators on child sexual exploitation and sex trafficking developed by White Ribbon.
Youth Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention Program
The Youth Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention Program is a prevention-focused initiative that is part of Ontario’s Guns, Gangs and Violence Reduction Strategy and supports Ontario’s Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy. Programs are available in Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Toronto and neighbouring Indigenous communities and can be accessed by contacting the local service providers.