If immediate response is needed, call 911. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888 to speak with a specially trained Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocate.

By Andrea Nichols, Ph.D., Professor St. Louis Community College Forest Park, Lecturer Washington University in St. Louis, Gateway Alliance Against Human Trafficking Program Committee Member.

Multiple data sources show LGBTQ+ people experience sex trafficking victimization at rates higher than non-LGBTQ+ people. This includes school based studies, statewide studies, and city based studies. For example, studies using representative samples of high school students in both Minnesota and Wisconsin found much higher rates of sex trafficking among students who are LGBTQ+. A study in the state of Missouri also showed 21% of survivors were lesbian, gay, or bisexual and 5% of survivors were nonbinary or transgender, showing heightened victimization of those who identify as LGBTQ+. Studies focused on cities across the United States, including St. Louis, also show increased likelihood of both sex and labor trafficking victimization of LGBTQ+ people, as does the National Human Trafficking Hotline, operated by Polaris.

There are several factors that increase vulnerability of LGBTQ+ people to sex trafficking victimization.  While LGBTQ+ people can and do experience other forms of sex trafficking (e.g., trafficking by an intimate partner or family member), sex trafficking in the form of survival sex appears to be the most common. Survival sex is the term used to describe a situation in which individuals are trading sex to meet basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. People involved in survival sex often do not have stable housing and/or are experiencing homelessness. LGBTQ+ people are overrepresented in the homeless population, significantly increasing the risk of sex trafficking in the form of survival sex. According to Polaris, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, homelessness is one of the biggest risk factors for sex trafficking. When minors are involved, survival sex is legally considered sex trafficking, even if no third party is present (which is often the case). The person purchasing sex from a minor is considered a trafficker, and purchasers have been prosecuted for buying sex from vulnerable minors. When adults are involved, it is much more difficult to fit into legal designations of sex trafficking, as they must show force, fraud or coercion is happening. When force, fraud or coercion are not being experienced by an adult involved in survival sex, the term commercial sexual exploitation is often used instead—the purchaser is taking advantage of a vulnerability. Such circumstances also create vulnerability to a third party trafficker as well.

Research studies show that for minors who are LGBTQ+, homelessness is often caused by a parent or guardian rejecting their sexual orientation or gender identity and asking them to leave the family home. Alternatively, family members may make the home environment so conflict ridden that the child chooses to run away from home. When a child runs away from home or is kicked out of the house by a parent/ guardian, they quickly find themselves in a vulnerable situation. Buyers are known to approach children who are homeless, and this marks their entry into the commercial sex industry and a sex trafficking situation. In other instances, well-meaning peers show others how to get involved in the sex trade in order to survive.

In addition to parental rejection and subsequent homelessness, another factor that increases vulnerability of LGBTQ+ youth is school bullying. When the school environment is not accepting and hostile, this facilitates feelings of isolation and loneliness, which makes online exploitation by a trafficker more likely. Furthermore, experiencing bullying at school increases likelihood of runaway behaviors, subsequent homelessness, and related sex trafficking. The 2021 National School Climate Survey showed 68% of LGBTQ+ students felt unsafe at school. A sizable majority reported verbal harassment, 31.2% reported physical harassment (pushed or shoved), and 12.5% reported physical assault (punched, kicked, injured with a weapon). Effects of a hostile school climate include missing school/ truancy, poorer academic performance, lower self-esteem, isolation, depression, and dropping out. Looking for acceptance and relief from family conflicts and school bullying, LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to run away from home, resulting in homelessness with limited means of survival.

For adults who are transgender, employment, healthcare, and housing discrimination results in economic vulnerability and heightened risk of sex trafficking/commercial sexual exploitation. The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) found in their national survey that 20% of transgender people experienced housing discrimination. The same study showed lack of insurance coverage for hormone therapies or transition related surgeries left people with fewer choices for obtaining gender affirming healthcare, also creating economic vulnerability. Furthermore, 30% reported workplace discrimination, which led to unemployment and poverty, inaccessibility of healthcare. According to NCTE, this results in heightened risk of commercial sex involvement to pay for basic needs, and vulnerability to sex trafficking situation and commercial sexual exploitation.

The data sources and research examining risk factors experienced by LGBTQ+ people provide understandings of various aspects of sex trafficking victimization related to gender identity and sexual orientation. Importantly, it is not the social identity that is the risk factor, it is the behaviors of others that heightens risk (e.g. school bullying, parental rejection), as well as structural inequalities (e.g. access to gender affirming healthcare, employment discrimination). When young people have parents who accept their gender identity and/or sexuality, this risk factor disappears, thereby blocking a pathway into sex trafficking. In contrast, parents who force their children out of the family home, or who make the home life conflict ridden, catalyze runaway behaviors, homelessness, and sex trafficking risk. Addressing interpersonal and structural barriers is necessary to mitigate the increased risk of sex trafficking experienced by LGBTQ+ people.


General LGBTQ+ Support

SQSH: SQSH (St. Louis Queer+ Support Helpline) (thesqsh.org)

MTUG: Home | Metro Trans Umbrella Group (stlmetrotrans.org)

Trafficking Specific Resources

trafficking-screening-tools.pdf (nctsn.org)

LGBTQ+ Communities and Human Trafficking – Polaris (polarisproject.org)

Breaking Barriers: Improving Services for LGBTQ+ Human Trafficking Victims – Polaris (polarisproject.org)


Dank, M., J. Yahner, K. Madden, I. Bañuelos, L. Yu, A. Ritchie, M. Mora, and B. Conner. 2015. “Surviving the Streets of New York: Experiences of LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSW Engaged in Survival Sex.” Urban Institute, February 25. http://www.urban.org/research/publication/surviving-streets-new-york-experiences-lgbtq-youth-ymsm-and-ywsw-engaged-survival-sex.

Dank, M., L. Yu, J. Yahner, E. Pelletier, M. Mora, and B. Conner. 2015. “Locked in: Interactions with the Criminal Justice and Child Welfare Systems for LGBTQ Youth, YMSM, and YWSE Who Engage in Survival Sex. Urban Institute. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/71446/2000424-Locked-In-Interactions-with-the-Criminal-Justice-and-Child-Welfare-Systems-for-LGBTQ-Youth-YMSM-and-YWSW-Who-Engage-in-Survival-Sex.pdf

Fedina, L., C. Williamson, and T. Perdue. 2019. “Risk Factors for Domestic Child Sex Trafficking in the United States.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 34, no. 13: 2653–73. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260516662306.

Gerassi, L. B., S-Y. Cheng, L. Muentner, and M. Benson. 2021. “Prevalence and Associated Characteristics of Youth Who Trade Sex in a Representative Sample of High School Students.” Journal of Adolescence 93, no. 1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2021.09.008.

Gay, Lesbian, & Straight Education Network (GLSEN). 2022. “The 2021 National School Climate Survey.” https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/2022-10/NSCS-2021-Executive_Summary-EN.pdf.

Hogan, K., and D. Roe-Sepowitz. 2020. “LGBTQ+ Homeless Young Adults and Sex Trafficking Vulnerability.” Journal of Human Trafficking. https://doi.org/10.1080/ 23322705.2020.1841985

Martin, L., Rider, G. N., Johnston-Goodstar, K., Menanteau, B., Palmer, C., and McMorris, B. J. 2021. “Prevalence of Trading Sex Among High School Students in Minnesota: Demographics, Relevant Adverse Experiences, and Health-related Statuses.” The Journal of Adolescent Health, 68(5), 1011–1013. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth. 2020.08.021 

Murphy, L. 2017. “Labor and Sex Trafficking Among Homeless Youth.” https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5887a2a61b631bfbbc1ad83a/t/ 59498e69197aea24a33a640b/1497992809780/CovenantHouseReport.pdf

Nichols, A. J., K. M. Preble, and A. Cox. “A State-Level Analysis of Demographic Characteristics and Sex Trafficking Experiences of Survivors.” Journal of Human Trafficking 10, no. 1: 51–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/23322705.2021.2016268.