This study is a departure from the standard treatments of prostitution and sex trafficking, which tend to focus on discrete sub-populations or the specific experiences of a few subjects. In more than 300 in-depth interviews with adults involved in New York City’s multifaceted sex trade—conducted by our team of researchers, many with their own experiences in the sex trade—participants described a murky and mutable continuum between involvement due to force and choice.
Nearly half of participants met the federal definition for sex trafficking, the majority because they first traded sex before the age of 18. A similar number of participants reported having worked with or for a third party who connected them to customers, often characterizing these relationships as mutually beneficial. Most drew explicit connections between their involvement in the sex trade and poverty, housing instability, substance use, family trauma, or health issues. Rather than clear-cut cases of exclusively force or choice, this study finds that economic exigencies and systemic constraints are the primary drivers of adult involvement in New York City's sex trade.
The study also examines a unique criminal justice response—New York City's Human Trafficking Intervention Courts—developed to mitigate some of the harm trafficking victims experience in the criminal justice system. Legal and social service practitioners praised the courts’ responsiveness to defendants' high rates of trauma and their commitment to helping defendants avoid criminal records, largely through alternative social service mandates.