The Intersection of Sexual Abuse and Human Trafficking Amongst Those Suffering Homelessness

This article discusses themes such as sexual abuse, sex, substance abuse, human trafficking, and suicide, which may be sensitive topics for some readers. 

The victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking are often those who are already vulnerable such as; those suffering from homelessness, poverty, addiction, or mental illness. Traffickers and abusers often seek out those who are homeless and prey on their lack of housing, offering a place to stay in exchange for sexual favors. The lack of housing often opens up an unfortunate cycle for survivors; they will escape their abusers only to be left financially destitute and vulnerable to re-exploitation.    

A Vicious Cycle 

At the very bottom of Abraham Maslow’s, an American psychologist, Hierarchy of Needs lies Psychological Needs; this is the very first set of needs; without all these needs, an individual cannot focus on progressing to the next level. Amongst these needs are air, water, food, shelter, sleep, and clothing. If one of these needs is not met, the individual focuses on gaining that need.  

For instance, let’s say an individual suffers from homelessness, and an opportunity presents itself: the individual can work on the streets as a prostitute for a place to live. At that moment, the individual who lacks housing will choose a place to live over the emotional, mental, and physical toll of being a prostitute. However, once an individual’s need for housing is met, their next set level of needs will be safety. This tier includes security of body, morality, health, employment, resources, family, and property. 

Once the individual realizes their current job and lifestyle threatens their safety and security, they remove themself. However, when they lose their housing, they are more likely to choose a life of exploitation instead of struggling to survive on the streets. The cycle results in a terrible negative loop that will only be broken with safe, affordable housing and resources to help individuals find jobs and address the mental health effects of homelessness. 

The Statistics 

According to the National Runaway Switchboard, “one in three teens will be recruited by a pimp within 48 hours of leaving home”.

Dr. Michele Diane Kipke, a pediatric doctor and Associate VP for  Strategic Health Initiatives at the University of Southern California, states, “70% of homeless youth report experiencing some form of violence, 32% of which includes sexual assault”.

Dr. Margot Kushel, director of the UCSF Center for Vulnerable Populations and UCSF Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, explains that “according to a study of homeless and marginally housed people, 32% of women, 27% of men, and 38% of transgender persons reported either physical or sexual victimization in the previous year”.

Amongst homeless young adults (18-26), 23% have engaged in the sex trade. 

Specific communities are at higher risk for sexual violence. 38% of LQBTQIA+ homeless youth (13-25) have been raped compared to 15% of non-LGBTIA+ youth. 

However, even these statistics are unreliable. Sexual assault of any type often goes unreported. Moreover, many victims believe they will be brushed aside or ignored because they are suffering from homelessness. Similarly, many may not understand they were taken advantage of and have a legal avenue to pursue. Unfortunately, crime among our homeless communities is underreported because police are often untrusted or do nothing. 

Sexual Abuse Resulting in Homelessness

Sexual abuse is not only a threat to homelessness but also a cause. In a study done by 

Richard J. Estes, a Social Work and Social Policy professor at the University of Pennsylvania discovered that, “61% of girls and 16% of boys report sexual abuse at home as a reason for running away”. Often children of abuse feel as if they only have one way out: to run away. 

Once on the street, they are highly likely to face sexual violence due to the dangers of living on the street and their past abuse. Revictimization is almost as prevalent as the first instance of abuse. In a study conducted by a Ph.D. student at the University of Saint Louis, Hannah Walker found that, “the mean prevalence of sexual revictimization across studies was 47.9%, suggesting that almost half of child sexual abuse survivors are sexually victimized in the future”.  Sadly, children who run away due to sexual abuse are more likely to face revictimization due to revictimization rates and the rampant sexual abuse found amongst those without homes.  

Unfortunately, people worldwide will take advantage of these children, forcing them into sex trafficking. Runaway children are some of the most vulnerable because of their fear and naivety. It makes them the perfect target for pimps. 


A part of the vicious cycle is the relationship between pimps and the people performing for them. A pimp becomes the victim’s protector, provider, and worse: a nightmare. 

The relationship between the pimp and the victim starts with the pimp acting as a protector. They are protecting the victim while working and more often than not, giving the victim a place to live. This creates a sense of gratitude and reliance on the victim’s part.

The pimp is in charge of the victim’s earnings and often controls the money in the “relationship.” Only giving the victim enough money to get by but never to survive on their own. This again fosters that sense of reliance and dependency. 

Then comes the violence used to keep the victim broken and playable. This violence comes in many deprived forms, from mental torture, beatings, rape, starvation, and forced drug use. This is to make sure victims can never leave. In addition, many pimps will brand their victims with either a tattoo or a scar to ensure everyone knows who the victim belongs to, as if the victim were an animal. This is an example of the emotional torture these victims must endure. Those who want to leave that life often have to buy their way out; however, pimps will set the exit fee at an exorbitant price, so the victims never have a chance.

Moreover, pimps set a nightly quota for each victim. The victims cannot return home until they have made the quota, and are often threatened with assault if they fail to complete their task. So even if they get robbed, they cannot return without being free of violence. This is another fear tactic used against the victims to keep control. 

These victims are often traded between pimps. 

Unfortunately, sometimes operating without a pimp can be even worse and deadlier. Pimps act as protectors and enforcers when it comes to the sale of sex. Working by oneself can result in being beaten up, raped, assaulted, murdered, and robbed by customers.

Sadly, when victims try to exit this life, they have no savings and no way to support themselves, so they often end up homeless. Then they feel forced back into that  life because they would rather  sell sex than fight to survive on the street.       

Substance Abuse and Sexual Abuse

With the lack of mental health resources provided for those suffering from sexual abuse, survivors often turn to substances to cope with the trauma. Often, survivors experience intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where they suffer vivid flashbacks, intense emotions, and painful memories. Survivors of sexual assault are “5.3 times more likely to use prescription drugs for non-medicinal purposes(…) and 10 times more likely to use hard drugs other than cocaine”. 

Moreover, survivors who abuse substances are also more likely to be revictimized. Additionally, those who abuse substances due to mental and emotional illness are more likely to suffer homelessness.      

The dependency on drugs and alcohol to cope with the trauma victims endure also adds to the cycle of reentering the sex industry. 

Emotional and Mental Tolls 

As stated above, there is a lack of public mental health services for survivors of sex trafficking. Unfortunately, many victimized people struggle to cope, hold down a job, and adapt to everyday life. Sadly, this often results in victims being forgotten and living on the streets. 

When victims escape the lifestyle, they are often riddled with PTSD and other emotional and mental illnesses. One symptom of PTSD is suicidal ideation. Many victims don’t believe they can make a life for themselves after surviving sex trafficking, so they kill themselves. 

Moreover, victims often suffer from little  to no self-esteem, which can also result in suicide. It can also act as a crippling force that can strengthen the feeling of  victims wanting to shut down completely. The lack of confidence can also lead victims back to the lifestyle because they feel as if they can do nothing else to support themselves. 

Victims are forced to  live with their trauma daily, and there are not enough public mental health services to help them transition back into normality, which increases the chances for victims to get revictimized and return to their pimps. 

How to End the Cycle 

Victims need safe housing. This will stop victims from feeling like they have no choice but to return to their pimps. Additionally, leaving the lifestyle will relieve some of the stress that these victims face. 

It is also fundamental to provide better free public health services to victims seeking help after escaping sex trafficking. 

Career services can help victims learn skills and find jobs to ensure their success after escaping sex trafficking and breaking the cycle.  

Click this link to find your local anti-human trafficking organization: 


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