Give for Freedom

Exploiting The Vulnerable Part 3: Substance Abuse and Sex Trafficking

We’ve been talking about some of the triggers that cause a young person to be more vulnerable to sex trafficking. In the first post, we talked about three reasons why foster kids are at-risk for sex trafficking. In the second post, we discussed two ways that homelessness set a young person at risk for trafficking.

In this post, we want to talk about the next key trigger for sex trafficking: substance abuse.

Substance abuse is a common occurrence in sex trafficking victims. Many young people start out in prostitution by using it as a way to “earn” the drugs they are already taking. Additionally, one study of homeless youth who were prostituted found that 75% met the criteria for substance abuse, while nearly all indicated some degree of alcohol and/or drug use.

Those are the statistics. But of the almost two dozen victims that we have encountered, every single one of them have been using drugs. Every one.

Substance Abuse and Sex Trafficking

Let’s look at two ways that substance abuse and sex trafficking go hand-in-hand.


The first thing to note here is that human trafficking is the second leading criminal industry in the world and drug trafficking is number one. It goes without saying that the two always operate in tandem - where you find one you will find the other. This means that most individuals who are selling women and girls are typically selling drugs as well.

Almost every girl we’ve worked with has told us that her trafficker was also her dealer. Although most of the girls were already using drugs to some extent before being trafficked, many of them have told us that the first time they shot up with heroine was at the hands of the men who would become their traffickers. That’s the story of our friend Colleen, who told her story in the “Seeds of Hope” video. She had a long history of substance abuse, but the first time she shot up with heroine was when her would-be trafficker did it to her. She spent quite some time in a drug-induced daze and quickly realized how she would have to earn her keep, and her drugs.

Why do traffickers do this? A number of law enforcement officials we’ve spoken with have said that the traffickers shoot new girls up with heroine because it expedites the grooming process - the time it takes to get a girl under his control. While a Romeo Pimp used to take weeks or months coercing a girl into the life, this is now a quick way for him to get a girl under his control. With the help of drugs, not only is she mentally and emotionally under his control, but now the trafficker has physical ties to her that are incredibly difficult to break. In her mind, she thinks that she can’t live without her trafficker. In her body, she feels that she can’t live without the substances that he can provide.


It goes without saying that drugs and alcohol provide an escape from reality that almost nothing else in this world can. If you ask anyone recovering from substance abuse, they will tell you that it was a tool they used in order to deal with what they felt they couldn’t handle on their own.

Young ladies who are at-risk for trafficking have a long list of trauma, shame, and hurt that they are already trying to escape. Many of them start in the life by using prostitution as a way get the drugs they need in order to escape their current realities. Ultimately, those same young ladies end up using drugs as a tool to escape the horrors of “the life”. The sad reality is that the second leading cause of death for victims of sex trafficking is drug overdose, just behind homicide.

Just as relapse is an unfortunate part of recovery for many addicts, relapse is often a part of the recovery journey for many survivors of sex trafficking. Such is the story of one young lady we recently worked with. When we met with her, she told us that she had wondered around the streets of another city for days, living from one high to the next, not knowing where she was or what to do. She was picked by law enforcement, and that’s when we were brought in. We were able to help her find placement in an emergency shelter and all she had to do was stay there until we could find permanent placement for her. After a day and a half, she ran - not to a pimp, but to the drugs she was detoxing from.

In the life of a sex trafficking victim it’s the age-old “chicken or the egg” question - did she enter into the life because of the drugs, or did the the drugs become her way of surviving the life? One way or the other, substance abuse is one of the strongest ties to sex trafficking and it is imperative that parents, educators, care-givers, and young people alike are aware of how slippery the slope really is.





- Minnesota Human Trafficking Task Force

- All I Want Is Love