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Trafficking Awareness Month

Since 2007 January has been National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

A time to raise awareness about a multi–billion–-dollar criminal industry that violates the human rights of millions of people around the world and here in the Finger Lakes region of New York. 

Human trafficking is the buying, selling, and/or transportation of a person for the purpose of exploiting them for sex or forced labor. Victims of sex trafficking are induced by force, fraud, or coercion into exchanging sex acts — whether photos,  videos, stripping, or physical sex acts — for money, gifts, food, housing, job prospects, or the promise of such things. When the victims are less than 18 years old, sex trafficking is also called commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). CSEC is a form of both human trafficking and child sexual abuse.

The Tompkins County’s CSEC Critical Team, formed with support from NYS Office for Children and Family Services Safe Harbour Program, and led by Tompkins County Youth Services and the Advocacy Center, is a collaboration of local agencies committed to preventing and supporting youth victims. But there is much work left to do, and you can help.

Broadly speaking there are three key approaches that are needed to end sex trafficking: prevention, support for victims, and prosecution of traffickers and buyers.  While prosecution and victim support services depend on effective law enforcement, social service agencies, and survivor support organizations, prevention depends on entire communities.

For many of us a first step toward understanding trafficking is to unlearn common myths and misconceptions. The truth is: 

  • There is no single  “type” that teaches what a victim of sex trafficking or exploitation looks like. 
  • Exploiters can be anyone including family members, peers, mentors, romantic partners, online friends or harassers.
  • Children and teens can be sex trafficked without ever leaving their home. 

The majority of sex trafficking victims are young women and  girls, but people who are sex trafficked include children, teenagers, and adults, of all genders. They come from cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Many of them were deliberately preyed upon based on their vulnerabilities and those who are most disadvantaged in our society are often the most common targets. Traffickers use the vulnerabilities of their victims to deceive them by “promising” things the victim may be longing for, such as job opportunities or emotional support.

According to the Human Trafficking Hotline, runaway and homeless youth are extremely vulnerable and have a high risk of being trafficked. About 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+ and not surprisingly they are a high risk group. Other youth who are at higher risk of being trafficked include those with disabilities, victims of trauma or abuse, children in foster care or the child welfare system, and immigrants, especially if they are undocumented. 

Remember though that traffickers methodically exploit the needs, past trauma, and vulnerabilities of youth. Any youth can become a target, including youth living at home with caring adults. 

Teens and children rarely disclose that they have been sexually exploited. Indeed, they may not see themselves as trafficked, exploited or sexually abused. And if they do, their experiences of broken trust may make it difficult to believe that anyone is trustworthy or truly concerned about their wellbeing. But youth who have been sexually exploited or abused often show signs of trauma and distress: depression, hostility and anger, stress, anxiety, fear of authority, fear of or loyalty to and defensiveness of those who are exploiting them. Other signs of sexual exploitation include repeated absence from or not enrolled in school; inconsistencies in information about events or activities; inappropriate sexual behaviors or boundaries, possibly due to trauma or coercion, including sexually explicit posts, photos or videos, rumors of a high number of sexual partners; fear of and/or strong loyalty to another person, often but not always, an older male or boyfriend, who behaves in controlling ways. Concerning signs do not always mean the teen or child is being sex trafficked; they do signal a teen or youth who needs support. 

Three places to learn more about the possible signs of youth sexual exploitation and how to support youth who may be at risk are:

If you suspect that a youth is in an emergency situation where the safety and welfare of the youth is in imminent jeopardy, contact 9-1-1 and report the situation.

If you have concerns about a child or teen call the Advocacy Center’s 24/7 confidential hotline at (607) 277-5000.    

Because exploiters specifically target youth vulnerabilities, one of the most effective ways to end the sexual exploitation of youth may be to create communities that wholly support youth– emotionally and physically. Meeting family and youth needs for food, clothing, safe housing, education and job opportunities, recreational and social spaces is abuse prevention. Undoing social and institutional racism and sexism is abuse prevention. Healing the trauma of generational abuse in families and cultures is abuse prevention work. Inclusive healthy relationship and sex education is abuse prevention work. 

The past year, with the COVID19 pandemic and pervasive economic, social, emotional, and health crises, increased life stressors for many of us, including local children, teens and young adults. Increased stress equals increased vulnerabilities, and this means an increased risk of exploitation — unless those youth and their families are supported in healthy, empowering, sustaining ways. We can’t each know everything or do everything for every youth, but we can all do one thing to show we care (see, listen to, support) one youth. 

Learn more about how being a caring adult who models healthy boundaries with youth can help reduce youth risk of sexual exploitation, check out the recordings from our 2 day virtual conference on our Advocacy Center youtube channel

Listen to our podcast conversation with Bridgette Nugent, a deputy director at the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and Andrea, a youth advocate at the Advocacy Center, about sex trafficking in Tompkins County.

Request a free community program about CSEC and ways to support youth victims through the website or by emailing the Advocacy Center Education Department at