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“As long as there are people with money and power, there will be poorer people who they will be able to buy.”

  1. Raphael, J. and Myers-Powell, B. “From Victims to Victimizers: Interviews with 25 Ex- pimps in Chicago.” Report from the Schiller DuCanto & Fleck Family Law Canter of DePaul University College of Law. 2010.


What is the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution? Even though the terms are related — and often used interchangeably — there is an important legal distinction.

According to federal and state laws:

A prostitute is a person

who sells sex

who is not being forced to do so by another person

and is not under age 18

A sex trafficking victim is a person

who sells sex

because they are being forced by another person

OR is under age 18



Any person of any age who is forced to sell sex by another person is a sex trafficking victim. This force can be threats, beatings and emotional manipulation. The person using the force is the trafficker.

You might notice we keep using the phrase “forced to sell sex by another person.”

That’s because there are many scholars who point out that women engaging in prostitution often are “forced” to do because of poverty or a lack of education. We do not disagree with this. We are just trying to be clear about the legal definition which states another person must be applying the force in order for a person selling sex to be considered a trafficking victim.


Any person under the age of 18 who sells sex for any reason – even if they are not being forced and are doing it of their own free will – is a sex trafficking victim. The “sale” of sex, in this case, can also mean an exchange of sex for food, drugs, shelter, etc.

This second victim type was created to protect those teens who do “survival sex,” which is defined as engaging in sexual intercourse to secure basic human needs such as food, clothing, or shelter. Homeless teens often have to engage in survival sex to get by.


If you read over the trafficking definition one more time, it clearly spells out who is considered a trafficking victim but does not precisely describe who is not. So we will do that for you: Any person over age 18 who is selling sex voluntarily is NOT sex-trafficking victim.

For more about federal sex trafficking law, click here


Please keep in mind that according to trafficking researchers, “Currently, no credible prevalence or count estimates for (sex trafficking victims) exist.” 1


Additionally they warn that, “The … available data from any source are not sufficient to provide an adequate estimate of the extent of trafficking, and as such, it is critical that researchers refrain from … citing studies on trafficking prevalence without discussing the relevant limitations.” 2

  1. Franchino-Olsen, H., et al. “Adolescent Experiences of Violence Victimizations Among Minors Who Exchange Sex/Experience Minor Sex Trafficking.” 2021. Journal of Interpersonal Violence

  2. Franchino-Olsen, H., et al. “The Prevalence of Sex Trafficking of Children and Adolescents in the United States: A Scoping Review” 2020. Trauma, Violence & Abuse. 1-14


Study year: 2016

Study population: Underage victims

Number of underage sex trafficking victims in Texas: 79,000

How they determined the number: The researchers found the number of youths in the three groups at the highest risk of being trafficked:

  1. Homeless teens (Number in Texas: 1,416)

  2. Those in the foster care system (Number in Texas: 24,097)

  3. Abused children (Number in Texas: 290,471)

They then used a “victimization rate” of 25% and added together the new numbers of each category to get 79,000.


Problems with the study: The researchers did not explicitly state if their final totals represented only teens forced to sell sex or if it included those selling sex without being forced as well. Additionally, there are definitely more than 1,416 homeless teens in all of Texas.

Busch-Armendariz, N.B., et al. “Human Trafficking by the Numbers: Initial Benchmarks of Prevalence & Economic Impact in Texas.” 2016. Austin, TX: Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, The University of Texas at Austin.


Study year: 2007

Study population: Underage victims

Number of underage trafficking victims per year in New York City: 2,253

Number of trafficking victims per year in seven Upstate New York counties: 399

How they determined the number: The researchers obtained this estimate by looking at the records of agencies that help victims during the study’s two-month reference period to estimate the number of CSEC identified in an entire year.


Problems with the study: They referred to trafficking victims as “commercially sexually exploited children” without ever indicating if that term included teens forced to sell sex as well as those selling sex without being forced. Additionally, this study is 15 years old and the understanding of trafficking has changed much over that time, meaning that agencies that once only identified 10 victims a year are now identifying 10 per week.

Gragg, F., Petta, I., Bernstein, H., Eisen, K., & Quinn, L. “New York Prevalence Study of Commercially Sexually Exploited Children.” 2007. A WESTAT Report prepared for the New York State Office of Children and Family Services


Study year: 2019

Study population: Adult and underage victims


Estimated number of adults and teens forced to sell sex by traffickers at casinos, truck stops, massage parlors and online every day in New Mexico: 1,190 5


Estimated number of middle- and high-school students in New Mexico who have exchanged sex for something of value — such as money, shelter or food — making them trafficking victims: 10,016 1,2,3,4


How we determined the numbers: In the case of trafficking victims who are forced to sell sex, Street Safe volunteers physically went out to trafficking locations across the state and conducted point-in-time surveys.


In the case of teens who exchange sex, we extrapolated data found during the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health survey done between 1994-1996. During that study, more than 12,000 middle- and high-school students (ages 10-18) across the U.S. were asked if they had given “someone sex in exchange for drugs or money.” Approximately 4% of students said they had, making them trafficking victims. We then determined the total number of students in that age range in New Mexico — 250,388 — and took 4% of that number to get 10,016.

Problems with the study: While point-in-time surveys are useful they do have disadvantages, namely our volunteers could only go to public places to conduct them. We were unable to go to brothels and other private establishments to count the number of victims. This means technically we can only say there are 1,190 people who are being forced to sell sex in public venues in New Mexico at any given time.


Ideally, we could combine the two “datasets” — 1,190 + 10,016 — in the above studies to get a picture of the overall number of victims in New Mexico.

But, unfortunately, we can’t do that because they are “unequal” datasets. This means the two numbers were arrived at differently. In the case of trafficking victims who are forced to sell sex, we physically went out to trafficking locations and counted. In the case of teens who exchange sex, researchers asked teens if they had ever given “someone sex in exchange for drugs or money.”

What we need are “equal” datasets — meaning the data we are adding together has been collected the same way by the different researchers — however, those datasets don’t exist. 



What we can say is the number of people who fit the federal definition of a trafficking victim in New Mexico is probably at least 11,000 at any given time but includes only current trafficking victims. The word “probably” is incredibly important. It shows the numbers are not definitive.

For more on this issue, click here

  1. Franchino-Olsen, H., et al. “Adolescent Experiences of Violence Victimizations Among Minors Who Exchange Sex/Experience Minor Sex Trafficking.” 2021. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

  2. Ulloa, E. “Prevalence and Correlates of Sex Exchange Among a Nationally Representative Sample of Adolescents and Young Adults.” 2016. Journal of Child Sex Abuse. 25(5): 524–537

  3. Edwards, J., Iritani, B., & Hallfors, D. “Prevalence and correlates of exchanging sex for drugs or money among adolescents in the United States.” 2006. Sexually Transmitted Infections. 82(5):354–358

  4. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, there are 250,388 housed people in New Mexico aged 10-18; 4% of this number is 10,016 []

  5. According to hundreds of point-in-time surveys conducted by Street Safe New Mexico from 2013 to present


Everyday Street Safe works with women on the street who sell sex, and we are often asked how many of them are trafficking victims.

The answer: 79-86%. 1,2,3

This means the vast majority fit the federal definition of a trafficking victim, either because they have been forced to sell sex or started selling sex under age 18.

Conversely, less than 18% of women selling sex on the street are “prostitutes,” meaning they have never been trafficked. 1,2,3

We point this out because when it comes to interactions with police, it definitely matters if a person selling sex is defined as a trafficking victim or a prostitute.

That’s because the legal definitions of “prostitute” and “sex trafficking victim” serve as literal instructions guides for law enforcement. The definitions tell police officers how to interact with people who sell sex.

By law, an adult “prostitute” is classified as a criminal offender and is treated as such. This means if someone is caught selling sex by police, they are arrested and go to jail.

By law, an adult “sex trafficking victim” is classified as a victim and treated as such. This means if they are caught selling sex by police, they are referred to a nonprofit agency for help and released.

So how do police determine if a person is a prostitute or sex trafficking victim?

The answer is, most don’t.

Instead, many departments adopt blanket policies.

Some police departments accept the overwhelming evidence that the vast majority of adults who sell sex are either current or former trafficking victims and, therefore, they do not arrest anyone who sells sex.

Some police departments ignore that overwhelming evidence and instead believe any adult who sells sex is a prostitute and therefore must be arrested.

When neighboring police departments adopt differing policies, it can lead to a lot of confusion.

For instance, in Albuquerque, N.M., where Street Safe is based, the city police department will arrest any adult who sells sex and charge them with prostitution. Other departments — such as the state attorney general’s office, Homeland Security and the FBI — do not arrest adults for selling sex and treat them as a trafficking victim.

Unfortunately, in the more than 20 years since Congress passed the initial federal sex trafficking laws, they have not done much to clarify their position on the “arrest or not arrest” debate.

On the one hand, they wrote amendments to the U.S. Code in 2008 and 2013 stating that nothing in the sex trafficking law “may be construed to treat prostitution as a valid form of employment” and that trafficking law not “shall preempt … any State or Federal criminal law.” Meaning that prostitution remains a crime. 4

However, at the same time, in the original sex trafficking statute, Congress determined that: “Victims of … trafficking should not be inappropriately incarcerated, fined, or otherwise penalized solely for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked.” 5 And they found that “Nations including the United States must recognize that trafficking is a serious offense. This is done by … protecting rather than punishing the victims of such offenses.” 6

  1. Finn M., Muftić L., & Marsh E. “Exploring the Overlap between Victimization and Offending among Women in Sex Work.” 2014. Victims & Offenders. 10(1):74-94

  2. Carpenter, A. C. & Gates, J. “The Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego County.” 2016. Submitted to U.S. Department of Justice

  3. Street Safe survey, conducted 2018

  4. Pub. L. 110–457, title II, §225, Dec. 23, 2008, 122 Stat. 5072, as amended by Pub. L. 113–4, title XII, §1243, Mar. 7, 2013, 127 Stat. 154

  5. 22 U.S.C. § 7101(b)(19)

  6. 22 U.S.C. § 7101(b)(24)

Defining Sex Trafficking
Number of Trafficking Victims
Who is not a victim
New York
New Mexico
Policeinterpret trafficking
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