One of the most terrifying aspects of Human Trafficking is that everyone is at some level of risk. There are, however, certain factors that can make individuals more vulnerable to falling prey to traffickers. The list of risk factors is extensive, but things like poverty, political conflict, and exposure to previous trauma are some of the most discussed. Poverty, for instance, increases an individual’s desperation, which is often manipulated by traffickers with promises of a better life. Political turmoil, and the environment of fear that comes with it, can also amplify an individual’s vulnerability to promises of safety and economic security from manipulative traffickers. Prior trauma may lead to low self-esteem, lack of a support system, and an increased need for acceptance – all vulnerabilities recognized and preyed upon by traffickers.
While these risk factors are capable of affecting any member of our society, certain disenfranchised groups face them at significantly higher rates. One such group is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, + (LGBTQIA+) community. Take previous trauma, for instance. Homophobia and intolerance mean that LGBTQIA+ individuals face stigmatization, ostracization, and abuse at disproportionately higher rates. According to a 2010 CDC NISVS (National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey) on the rates of rape, physical violence, and stalking by an intimate partner, members of the LGBTQIA+ community are at a far higher risk for victimization. Lesbian and Bisexual women faced victimization at rates of 44% and 61% respectively, compared to 35% for heterosexual women. Gay and Bisexual men were victimized at rates of 26% and 37% respectively, compared with 29% of heterosexual men. Further, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender Americans have faced violence at some point in their lives.
Poverty is also disproportionately prevalent in the LGBTQIA+ community. In 2019, the Williams Institute of Law at UCLA conducted a national study on rates of poverty in the LGBTQIA+ community. The results found that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals have a poverty rate of 21.6% compared to cisgender straight people, who have a rate of 15.7%. For context, this disparity in poverty rates could be due to a number of factors, including, employment discrimination and historical bans or restrictions on marriage (marriage often brings financial benefits with it).
All of these risk factors are even further amplified for LGBTQIA+ youth. This is largely due to rejection by their families and communities. While being socially and familially ostracised on account of one’s sexuality is harmful to anyone, it is especially dangerous for youth as they rely upon that support system for the essential things they need to live (eg. shelter, food, water, medication, etc.). As a result of this familial rejection and at-home abuse, 40% of the 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender according to the Williams Institute of Law at UCLA. This often leads to feelings of desperation in these youth and forces them into “survival mode’ to acquire basic necessities such as shelter, food, and toiletries. According to the Polaris Project, this desperation leads to LGBTQ youth being 3-7 times more likely to engage in commercial sex work to gain these necessities. This type of survival behavior is indeed child sexual exploitation. Per the U.S. federal law, any time a child engages in commercial sex it is considered the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of a Child (CSEC), as minors cannot legally consent to engage in commercial sex. This survival behavior and resulting sexual exploitation often further stigmatizes these already marginalized youth as they are labeled as “prostitutes” or “sex workers” by members of their community or law enforcement.
Importantly, LGBTQIA+ individuals who also identify as members of the Black, indigenous, or other communities of color (BIPOC) community and other non-white communities face even higher levels of vulnerability to risk factors due to their compounded oppression and marginalization for being both LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC/non-white.
While the data makes clear that members of the LGBTQIA+ community are at a far higher risk of being victimized by traffickers, it is also clear that they face significant barriers in accessing the services, support, and resources they need to exit their trafficking situations due to deeply ingrained societal biases and misconceptions against LGBTQIA+ individuals.
Let’s take the medical field as an example of how society often fails these LGBTQIA+ trafficking victims. According to an article published in the Annals of Health Law magazine in 2014, 88% of victims of trafficking or CSEC will visit a medical provider during their victimization. Interactions with medical or healthcare professionals could be for an array of reasons, ranging from injuries from sexual or physical abuse to drug overdoses to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), LGBTQIA+ people are disproportionately mistreated by healthcare professionals than their cisgender straight counterparts. According to a CAP survey, 8% of LGBQ respondents and 29% of transgender respondents indicated a doctor refused to see them based on their sexual orientation or gender identity respectively. Further, 6% of LGBQ people and 21% of transgender people said a doctor or other health care provider used harsh or abusive language while treating them. Further, 8% of LGBTQ respondents indicated they avoided or postponed getting necessary medical care due to previous experiences of disrespect/discrimination at the hands of a healthcare worker. This data makes clear that LGBTQIA+ victims of trafficking and CSEC often do not get the care they desperately need, but also the sad reality that they may not even seek medical care in the first place due to these negative experiences.
Bias within Law Enforcement agencies can also disproportionately negatively impact LGBTQIA+ individuals, including LGBTQIA+ victims of trafficking. A 2014 study conducted by the UCLA Williams School of Law yielded important findings with regards to the relationship of the LGBTQIA+ (and HIV+) community and law enforcement. According to the survey, 73% of respondents had face-to-face contact with police in the past five years. Of that 73%, 21% indicated an law enforcement officer had treated them with a hostile attitude and 14% indicated a law enforcement officer had verbally assaulted them. Moreover, all of these numbers were consistently higher among People of Colour, transgender, and gender-nonconforming respondents specifically. Another report conducted in 2013 found that 48% of LGBT survivors of violence who interacted with police said they experienced ‘police misconduct’ (incl. excessive use of force and entrapment). A 2011 study found that 22% of transgender respondents had been harassed and 6% had actually been physically abused by a law enforcement officer.
The inherent and dangerous bias that this data demonstrates consequently negatively impacts how crimes involving LGBTQIA+ victims are handled by law enforcement agencies. In 2014, a report on a national survey of 2,379 LGBT and HIV+ people found that over a third of LGBT/HIV+ crime victims’ cases were not properly addressed.
This systematic mistreatment, understandably, leads LGBTQIA+ folks to be wary of seeking assistance from law enforcement. In the 2011 survey, for instance, 46% of transgender respondents indicated feeling uncomfortable seeking police assistance. The 2013 survey found that only 56% of LGBTQ and HIV+ survivors of hate-based violence reported those instances to the police. Similar to healthcare and medical agencies, the danger of LGBTQIA+ related bias in law enforcement agencies lies in LGBTQIA+ victims not reporting their victimization, not being properly identified, and not being treated humanely as they seek safety and protection.
To illustrate the complex issue of implicit bias, let us explore the following hypothetical scenario:
Marvin is an adult gay man who acts and dresses more femininely. Under the coercion and control of a pimp, he is working as a commercial sex worker in a city where prostitution is illegal. While on patrol, two police officers see Marvin engaging in commercial sex. Given their implicit biases against gay and transgender men (for instance, the misconception that they are all hypersexual), the officers automatically assume that Marvin chose to work as a prostitute and do not even consider that he may be a victim of sex trafficking. As a result of these implicit biases, Marvin’s victimization will likely go unrecognized and unaddressed, and perhaps even more concerning, will likely lead to Marvin’s criminalization. Further, as a result of not viewing Marvin as a potential victim, these law enforcement officers have missed the opportunity for positive intervention and referral of Marvin to essential victim services.
Human Trafficking is one of the most complex issues plaguing our society today. Part of that complexity has to do with varying vulnerabilities across different demographics. The LGBTQIA+ community, on account of higher rates of poverty and previous exposure to trauma, in particular, is one demographic that is at a significantly higher risk of falling prey to traffickers. Moreover, the ability of LGBTQIA+ identifying individuals to seek help and exit their trafficking victimization is impaired by inherent bias within many of the essential service systems and agencies that these individuals intersect with on a daily basis. Armed with this data and knowledge, the next step is for the anti-trafficking movement to be actively engaging policymakers and related stakeholders in addressing these biases, protecting LGBTQIA+ individuals from exploitation, and reducing barriers to identification and specialized services for these most vulnerable victims.