Teen Dating Violence & Human Trafficking

Teen Dating Violence & Human Trafficking

Intimate partner violence and human trafficking are inextricably linked.

Intimate partner violence or teen dating violence becomes human trafficking when the abuser begins to generate a profit or gain things of value from their partner’s abuse.

Through the lens of teen dating, the abuser may pressure their partner into performing commercial sex acts for money, social status or something of value. On the other side of that, we can look at labor trafficking and coercing a partner into working — which includes but is not limited to illegal activity such as drug dealing.


Instances of intimate partner violence as it intersects with human trafficking vary from case to case. This infographic merely highlights the trends and not the totality of victimization.

The Link from Teen Dating Violence to Sex Trafficking

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s 2019 data, the top method of recruitment of victims is through an intimate partner relationship.

Those same numbers also indicate that a large swath of victimization began before the survivor was 18 years of age (between the ages of 14 and 17 more specifically).

It is important to note that the hotline data is accurate but not all-inclusive. It includes data collected from calls to the hotline, but no data from law enforcement agencies or social service providers.

In a limited qualitative study “It’s All Whatever As Long As You Keep Telling Me I’m Important: A Case Study Illustrating the Link Between Adolescent Dating Violence and Sex Trafficking Victimization,” published in Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk in 2015,” survivors of trafficking explain what led to them being sex trafficked in a teen dating violence situation.

READ: Where Teen Dating Violence and Human Trafficking Intersect


Six Factors that Play a Role in Sex Trafficking Victimization

Based on the stories of four survivors, the researchers concluded that there are six driving factors that ultimately led to these survivors being sex trafficked.

This study is very limited in scope, but their conclusions do apply to many other survivor stories. It is also important to note that this study outlines six factors, but not every sex trafficking case is the same, just as every person is not the same.

This study highlights the link between teen dating violence and sex trafficking specifically.

There are many factors that make youth vulnerable to being trafficked. This list is created through the limited lens of intimate partner violence that led to exploitation.

Low Confidence

In the qualitative interviews one common theme of feeling physically unattractive and unimportant became a cornerstone in what led to adolescent exploitation and what kept the survivors in that situation.

According to the study, “… they felt physically unattractive, describing themselves as insecure, self-conscious, and too light or dark skinned compared to peers. They also described feeling unimportant, hungry for attention and compliments, and undeserving of being treated well. Thus, being told that they were attractive by new acquaintances and being treated as though they were important in these new social circles, compelled girls to attach to them emotionally.”

The survivors were uncomfortable with engaging in commercial sex and criminal activity, but because of the way the traffickers groomed them through flattery and developing that romantic relationship, they were undeterred, but rather compelled to do it in an effort to spend time with their intimate partner.

Not Seeing What a Healthy Relationship Modeled in their Own Lives

Youth who have not been a witness to healthy relationships modeled by their family or caregivers are more disposed to experiencing intimate partner violence themselves.

According to the report, “Three of the cases reported that they did not have examples of healthy romantic partnerships in their immediate families, friendship circles, or neighborhoods, which influenced their inability to distinguish respectful and appropriate partner behavior from abusive treatment.”

Previous Sexual Abuse

Among advocates, researchers, social workers and therapist child sexual abuse is a well-known link to sexual exploitation later in life.

In the study, the survivors themselves outlined why, “… all 4 of the women described being raped, sexually abused, or coerced into their first sexual experience in adolescence. Two of the participants spoke about feeling ‘numbed out’ or dissociating during subsequent sexual encounters, with one describing a state of ‘shock’ during subsequent sexual encounters.”

Childhood sexual abuse also has the capacity to lead to future victimization involving intimate partner violence and an increased likelihood to develop a substance use disorder, participation in risky sexual behavior and reduced self-esteem.

All of those risk factors, again, point to a more vulnerable person to being exploited.

“Our findings confirm that this pathway may also lead to sex trafficking victimization, mediated by attachment to an intimate partner who may or may not have premeditated plans to exploit,” the study concluded.

Grooming through Flattery and Romance

This is one of the tried and true methods of recruitment for many traffickers.

Traffickers – in many cases – take a person with a vulnerability and manipulate that vulnerability.

For instance, if a trafficker sees a person who has incredibly low self-esteem and little confidence and little social clout, they will exploit that vulnerability through flattery and romance.

This method of recruitment is often calculated and designed to have the victim become emotionally invested in the relationship.

Once the victim goes all in on that relationship based on falsities and calculated maneuvering, they find themselves completely dependent on their abuser, whether that be financially or emotionally.

The trafficker sets the trap with flattery and romance.

According to the study, “because the dating relationships that ultimately became exploitative were at first exciting, genuinely romantic from their perspective, and boosted the girls’ self-esteem, the girls remained in these relationships even when the partners became abusive and sexually exploitative. It is common among partner abuse survivors to report not recognizing or acknowledging that a dating relationship has transitioned from romantic to abusive.”

Gaining Confidence Through Social Status

As the study participants had low confidence and self-esteem, which ultimately led to their victimization, the very relationship that was abusive also offered a measure of the confidence that they lacked.

According to the study, “Once in a dating relationship, the girls’ feelings of self-esteem were further bolstered by having intimate partnerships with individuals who had higher status in their communities or in a particular subculture.”

Gaining Confidence Through Earning More Than Other Women

It was gaining some measure of confidence that bolstered some survivors in this study. Early in their sexual exploitation they were comforted and emboldened when they were met with success in earning money through commercial sex.

According to the study, “All of our participants also reported having moments early [on] … when they felt proud that they could out-earn other women or become popular among male clients … These moments of satisfaction were fleeting but did not offset contrary, simultaneous feelings of doubt, anxiety, fear, and depression.”


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