Sexual exploitation does not discriminate. Individuals have been trafficked and exploitated from every gender, race, religion, age, and socio-economic status. Despite this diversity, there is one common trait each victim has: vulnerability. And because of this, traffickers are skilled in identifying and knowing how to exploit this vulnerability and who is most vulnerable.

Exploitation has less to do with the decisions of the victims, and more to do with the behaviour of those exploiting them. Exploiters go to great lengths to gain the trust of those they are exploiting. As a result, when an individual is being groomed for exploitation they may be unable to see this behaviour as being unusual, and prone to exchanging sex for protection, drugs, money, and belonging.

So, who is most vulnerable? An individual becomings increasingly vulnerable as they experience multiple factors below:

People with unmet basic needs

This can include food, shelter, clothing, etc. Exploiters will offer to provide these basic needs to their victims, and then manipulate them into paying them back with sexual acts. Those who are homeless or runaway are also offered shelter, belonging, or safety in exchange for sex.

Children and youth

Children and youth are vulnerable to sexual exploitation because they are naturally more vulnerable to those more powerful than they are. Children in group homes or foster care are also more vulnerable due to abuse and recruitment that is happening within some of these settings.

Women are more vulnerable

Although males and transgendered individuals are also preyed upon, the majority of individuals exploited around the world and in Canada are women.

Individuals with low self-esteem

Low self-esteem can contribute to those looking for unhealthy attention in other people, and and compromise their ability to discern who should and shouldn’t be trusted.

People with drug or alcohol abuse

Abuse of drugs and alcohol may come either before or after exploitation, as a means to cope with trauma or isolation. Drugs or alcohol may also be used as a method of payment, exploiting an addiction while at the same time controlling an individual.

People with an abusive history

Having a history of abuse is common among exploited individuals, as it may normalize abuse and exploitation. Children who have been abused or neglected in the past are more likely to experience further abuse than children who haven’t been abused or neglected.1

People with disabilities

Individuals with mental, intellectual, or physical disabilities might be seen as easier to control and manipulate by exploiters. Some disabled victims may not understand that what’s happening to them is abuse and that it’s wrong. Even if they do, they might not be able to ask for help. If a person is being abused by someone who looks after them or who they rely on to meet their needs it can be even harder for them to speak out or protect themselves.2

People with many sexual partners

There is some evidence to suggest that women who have many sexual partners are at an increase risk to be sexually exploited, as it increases their risk of sexual violence.

Isolated individuals

People who are emotionally or physically isolated are easier to lure into exploitation because they appear accountable to less people. These individuals are also more likely to compromise their ability to discern who should and shouldn’t be trusted.

People with criminal or gang involvement

Men or women with criminal or gang involvement often has links to organized levels of prostitution or human trafficking.

1 Child Sexual Exploitation: Who is Affected, The NSPCC2 Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities: a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies., Jones, L. et al (2012)3 Alcohol and sexual victimization: a longitudinal study of Norwegian girls. Pederson W, Skrondal (1996)