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Understanding Stats on Commercial Sexual Exploitation

There are countless victims exploited in the global sex industry. And when we say “countless” we mean that in the most literal sense.

It is impossible to quantify the number of victims of commercial sexual exploitation. But that shouldn’t prevent us from at least making an effort to understand the magnitude of this global injustice.

We believe the numbers speak volumes. They help us to recognize that this isn’t some side issue or rare tragedy. With that in mind, let’s dig into sex industry statistics to get a big picture of what we’re dealing with.

A Multi-Billion Dollar Industry

Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) is a worldwide multi-billion dollar industry that victimizes millions of people each year. As discussed in our previous blog post, the term “Commercial Sexual Exploitation” includes sex trafficking. However, it’s also a more all-encompassing term to better represent all individuals who are sexually exploited for a profit.

The victims of CSE are diverse. They include those forced into sex slavery (a.k.a. those “trafficked”), those exploited in any kind of prostitution, those used in pornography, and those who strip in clubs and other venues.

Related: Here’s why we should care about victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

While the understanding and awareness of human trafficking has grown exponentially over the past decade, it’s imperative that abolitionists also begin to understand the magnitude of commercial sexual exploitation as a whole. Countless victimized persons trapped in the broader sex industry need bold advocates who can help fight for their freedom.

Reliable statistics on the sex industry are difficult to come by. They are often simply best guesses by even the most credible researchers. We have found that some widely used estimates are extremely conservative, to a point of being gross under estimates.

Sex Trafficking Statistics

Let’s start with stats on what is considered sex trafficking, which represents a fraction of all those sold for sex.

The International Labour Organization’s 2012 estimate of “forced” CSE—what we call sex trafficking—said there were 4.5 million victims globally. Now, take known and verified estimates of individual countries to compare against this number.

For example, in the relatively small country of Spain alone we know that there are an estimated 360,000 victims of sex trafficking. We have similar numbers coming out of countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Germany, and others. At that rate, there could be 1.5 million victims in just those four countries alone! It’s evident that at a global level the number of victims is most likely much higher than the ILO estimates.

Additionally it is important to consider that most estimates we have come across on the scope of sex trafficking, including that of the ILO, don’t take into account children exploited in child pornography for profit.

According to the UN definition of human trafficking in the Palermo Protocols as well as the definition in the U.S. Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act, all children under the age of 18 who are sexually exploited for profit, including in pornography, are victims of human trafficking.

Operation RoundUp and Child Pornography

To get an idea of the massive number of children being exploited online we can look to Operation RoundUp. It’s currently one of the only sources of data in the United States known to the Department of Justice that provides information on the volume of child pornography traded over peer-to-peer networks.

Operation RoundUp took place for two weeks in 2009. During the two weeks of the web crawling operation 21,670,444 unique IP addresses were found accessing child pornography. That means over 21 million people were discovered accessing child pornography during this short two-week period!

Furthermore, from 2002-2014, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the US reviewed more than 108 million child pornography images. In 2013 and 2014 alone, 19 million images or videos were viewed by the center analysts.

These numbers are staggering. Yet the massive scope of child pornography is not taken into account when determining most estimates on sex trafficking—even though any child exploited in this way for profit is, by legal definition, a trafficking victim.

Victims Who Were “Not Forced”

Next, consider the fact that the ILO’s conservative estimate of 4.5 million sex trafficking victims only accounts for those people they have narrowly classified as being “forced.” This leaves out the majority of those in the commercial sex industry that they classify by default as “not forced.”

Consider the example of Mai, who we interviewed in Thailand for Nefarious: Merchant of Souls. She entered the sex trade to provide for her family, saying, “I needed money to help my family. I needed to help them have enough to eat and provide for their daily expenses. I wasn’t thinking of myself, I wasn’t thinking of myself at all.” According to many definitions, Mai wouldn’t be considered a “trafficking victim,” even though her presence in the sex industry was a result of vulnerability and desperation.

At Exodus Cry, and among many other respectable anti-trafficking organizations, we see the entire commercial sex industry as an institutionalized system of exploitation. Therefore, ALL of the women and girls whose bodies are used and abused as profit-generators are victims.

We see the entire commercial sex industry as an institutionalized system of exploitation.

Groomed for the Sex Industry

Let’s look at some other examples of common ways a person could enter the sex industry apart from “force.” In many cases the exploiter of these victims is both the culture at large, as much as individual perpetrators.

For example, a sexually abusive father could cause his daughter to become vulnerable to the advances of a boyfriend-turned-pimp. But the MTV-inspired perpetrator culture can also indoctrinate little girls into believing their worth as human beings is tied to the objectification of their sexuality. This message is reinforced throughout pop-culture.

In both contexts, vulnerability is being taken advantage of and girls are being groomed into a lifestyle of sexual exploitation. Regardless of how someone enters the sex industry, we believe that all women and girls who fall prey to it deserve a second chance.

$99 Billion

And yet, despite all of those limitations on how trafficking is defined, the known stats on revenue generated is still jaw-dropping.

According to the very conservative underestimation of the International Labour Organization in 2014, a whopping $99 billion is said to be generated annually from sex trafficking alone. Based on the findings of the ILO report, sex trafficking accounts for more profit than all other forms of human trafficking and forced labor.

And that begs the question: how many trafficked individuals does it take to generate $99 billion dollars per year?

Considering that the ILO estimate is based on such narrow definitions, it is difficult to fathom the exponential profits that are actually generated annually from commercial sexual exploitation if we were to include profits from all victims of the prostitution, pornography, and stripping industries globally.

What can WE do?

While we will never have complete data on the number of lives being devastated by commercial sexual exploitation, we know that millions upon millions are currently victimized. So what can be done about this tragedy?

Prayer is the first step we can all take, no matter our level of education, income, or influence.

The next step is to gain understanding and share what you learn with others. As you discover the varied tentacles of commercial sexual exploitation embedded within our culture, expose them. Take a bold and vocal stance against anything that promotes the objectification of women’s (or men’s) bodies, in any way. Share our award-winning documentary Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, with a friend! (They can view the opening scene here.)

We’re also currently working to provide you with other powerful films, compelling animated videos, and other inspiring media to help make it easier for you to share the truth with all those in your sphere of influence.

Never underestimate the power of your voice in fueling and strengthening this abolition movement! In the days of the transatlantic slave trade it was ultimately through widespread awareness of these atrocities that societal transformation came.

And last but not least, a very important step is using your means to support and link arms with anti-trafficking organizations committed to fighting for all those exploited in the sex industry—regardless of whether or not a victim was “forced.”

Join us in carrying the momentum of the anti-trafficking movement into every dark corner of the sex industry. Remember that every number represents a real life that can be restored—and we must be resolute not to leave even one behind.


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