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The Issue

Sexual exploitation and human trafficking of children and youth is sexual abuse. 

What is sexual exploitation?

Sexual exploitation involves children/youth being manipulated into exchanging a sexual act for money, drugs, shelter, food, transportation, love, acceptance, or other needs. Victims can be of any age, gender, sexual orientation, income level, geographic location, or religion. Exploiters prey on the vulnerability of young people.

Some common types of exploitation include:

  • Sex trafficking (street-visible forced prostitution)
  • Child sexual abuse images and videos/sexting (often called child pornography)
  • Relationship-based exploitation (family, peer-to-peer, etc.)
  • Sextortion (blackmailing)
  • Gang-involved exploitation
  • Webcam hacking
  • Survival-based exploitation (gay-for-pay, etc.)
  • Sex work at traditional indoor venues (strip clubs, massage parlours, brothels, etc.)

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is very commonly confused with human smuggling and is thought to be an issue that happens only in developing countries.

Smuggling specifically involves the migration of humans across borders. Trafficking, however, is the control of a human for the purpose of exploiting them. While trafficking does not necessarily involve movement, many victims of trafficking are moved quite frequently.

Another common misconception is that child/youth sexual exploitation and trafficking does not happen in Canada; the truth is that in 2014, the RCMP Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre reported that 93% of Canada’s trafficking victims come from Canada.

Sexual exploitation and trafficking are an ongoing cycle of physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse. Exploiters take several months (sometimes years) to groom the young person before the exploitation begins.

All forms of sexual exploitation and trafficking are illegal under the Criminal Code of Canada and should be reported immediately

Who are the victims?

Sexual exploitation can happen to anyone regardless of their age, ability, ethnicity, gender, religion, income level, geographic location, or sexual orientation.

The majority of the victims are women and girls, men and boys can be victims too.

There is no single cause of sexual exploitation, however, there are some factors that increase a young person’s risk of being exploited or trafficked. These include:

  • Low self-esteem/self-worth
  • A history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse
  • Lack of self-identity
  • Lack of belonging or sense of acceptance among family or peers
  • Mental health issues
  • Drug and/or alcohol addiction

Who are the exploiters?

The popular image of an exploiter is an older male who looks “creepy”. This often isn’t the case however: exploiters and traffickers are just as diverse as their victims. There have been many cases where the exploiters and traffickers are female, as well as an increasing number of youth being exploited by their peers. Exploiters can be peers, predators, pimps, madames, gang members, recruiters, or johns/janes.

Where does sexual exploitation happen?

Sexual exploitation and trafficking can happen on the street, indoors, and online. Youth can be recruited in schools, malls, theatres, playgrounds, or anywhere youth hang out. There are many factors that contribute to how and where exploitation happens.

Street-level forced ‘prostitution’ of young people typically occurs through some form of coercion, deception, or manipulation which can include forced drug debts, violence and threats to individual and their families, false promises or even “boyfriending”. There are also indoor venues in addition to street level exploitation such as strip clubs, massage parlours, brothels and bathhouses.

Due to advancements in technology, young people are much more susceptible to sexual exploitation and human trafficking than ever before. Here are some of the common ways through which youth can be sexually exploited online:

  • social media sites
  • phone apps
  • online games and game consoles (Xbox, Playstation, Wii, etc.)
  • dating/companion websites
  • chatrooms
  • texting and image-sharing

Why does sexual exploitation happen?

It’s important to keep in mind that sexual exploitation and trafficking is never the youth’s fault.

Exploiters and traffickers target youth because of their vulnerability and relative lack of life experience. Youth victims are often manipulated for months at a time by exploiters and traffickers.

Exploiters and traffickers use various tactics to gain the youth’s trust, which may include extra attention, love bombing, gifting, isolating youth from their friends/families, and introducing new or different experiences (partying, use of drugs/alcohol, etc.).

Children and youth often reach a stage where they desire belonging and acceptance from their peers, and are also sexually curious. These factors can increase their risk of being targeted by exploiters.

How do you support a young person who is being exploited?

When supporting youth victims, remember that they are never at fault. Instances of exploitation are often not reported because youth feel embarrassed to come forward. They may feel it was their fault or they may feel that adults will not believe them. By showing empathy and being nonjudgmental, adults can encourage youth to feel safer about disclosing. Youth may respond better when receiving help from a nonjudgmental adult.

Myths & misconceptions


Under the Criminal Code of Canada, it is illegal for any person to sexually exploit another person under the age of 18. 


The buying and selling of children and youth for sexual purposes is inherently abusive and exploitive and therefore children cannot be “prostitutes”.


The act of exploitation is structured by the desires and fantasies of the “customer”, which are incongruent with the desires and sensitivities expressed by the victims.


Sexually exploiting a child or youth is sexual abuse and is a crime in itself.


Sexually exploited children and youth suffer pain, humiliation, degradation, and many other types of abuse at the hands of their exploiters.


While some common denominators exist, there is no causative relationship between sexual exploitation and socioeconomic status.

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