Sex Trafficking in the Lehigh Valley

Human Sex Trafficking:  What We Don’t Want to Know and What we Need to Know

Heather Evans, LCSW

Co-Founder, VAST (Valley Against Sex Trafficking)


It exists within our neighborhoods.   Our initial response to learning of human trafficking is to accept its existence in remote locations such as India and Thailand. We know that it exists, and we may shake our heads in sorrow or disgust. Yet, it is remote. It is over there and therefore, there is little we can do from our American context. Julian Sher, author of Somebody’s Daughter, aptly stated: “The United States seems unwilling to recognize that the vast majority of victims of sex trafficking are not foreigners but girls from next door.” Its victims include men and women, 80% are women and half of these women are under the age of 18.


One does not need to be trafficked across country borders or state lines to be trafficked. Trafficking occurs when someone, through force, fraud or coercion, or is under the age of 18, is recruited and exploited in the commercial sex industry.   Wherever there is a demand for prostitution, sex trafficking exists.  This includes the Lehigh Valley, PA region.


Our children and youth are vulnerable.  It is essential for us to face this reality so that we may prevent further exploitation from occurring.  In the United States, the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 years old, which meets the criteria of a human sex trafficking victim.  Teen prostitute or child prostitute are terms that should not be used because they do not accurately reflect the victimization involved with a young person.  He or she is a victim of human sex trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation.


 If individuals are being exploited at an average age of 13, what does this mean?   The prevalence of human sex trafficking is far-reaching, spanning multiple demographic characteristics such as age, socioeconomic status, nationality, education level and gender.  Traffickers may prey on people who are hoping for a better life, lack employment opportunities, have an unstable home life, or have a history of physical or sexual abuse.


No girl dreams of being a prostitute when she grows up and traffickers do not approach a young individual by asking if they want to be a prostitute.  Traffickers, more commonly known as pimps, are experts in identification and engagement.  It is their business.  They are master manipulators and calculated at targeting and recruitment.  They establish relationships with them, presenting themselves as boyfriends and protectors. The mode of domestic sex traffickers is to ensnare vulnerable girls and women through tactics that combine seduction with brainwashing and terrorism, otherwise known as seasoning.


The common link of their recruitment is identifying unique vulnerabilities of each victim.  What makes one vulnerable?  Age in itself makes one vulnerable.  Every teen girl is vulnerable.  Who doesn’t want admiration and attention? Want to be loved? Want to be treated as special? Want to be bought nice things?  Who hasn’t made a choice they later regret? Who hasn’t been deceived by another?   In addition, an unstable, neglectful home environment makes one vulnerable or a history of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.  Anything that promotes an individual from not recognizing the wrong kind of attention, affection or admiration can make one vulnerable to being recruited and exploited in the commercial sex industry.  We combine the mindset of a typical teen girl, with the vulnerability of someone who has been sexually abused, or someone who comes from a broken home, possibly with no father figure, with some form of instability, and it provides an opportunity for these vulnerabilities to be exploited.  One trafficker called himself a “street psychiatrist:  I seek out girls who need my help.”  Somebody’s Daughter, Ford


Recruitment can happen within your own home.  While traffickers are known to meet and recruit girls anywhere where youth gather, group homes, outside of schools, malls, parties, research shows that of children being trafficked in America, 76% had their initial exposure to human sex trafficking through some type of internet experience, according to the Michigan State Attorney General’s Office.   This causes us to face the reality that nearly 100% of our children and youth are vulnerable due to common use of internet.


Human sex trafficking exists because there is a demand for it.  We have a responsibility to consider the society the drives this form of modern-day slavery.  Ernie Allen, President and CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says, “There is massive consumer demand in this country for sex with kids.  And it has never been more blatant or more normalized than today in this era of the internet.  We are paying a price as a society because of it.” 


We have a responsibility to respond. 

Prevent Human Sex Trafficking of our youth:

  • Be proactive in teaching children about healthy sexuality, healthy boundaries and how to protect their vulnerabilities.
  • Talk to your children about sexual victimization and sexual exploitation and potential online danger.
  • Know who your children interact with online and in the community.
  • Develop mentoring relationships and programs for youth, particularly those with high-risk factors.
  • Promote communication, confidence building and assertiveness in our youth.
  • Have healthy discussions about media and the messages that it sends to our youth.
  • It’s OK to say NO.  (Teach your girls that sex appeal does not equal value. Teach your boys it is OK to wait to have sex.)
  • Seek support and resources for at-risk symptoms (ie. Depression, anxiety, school or peer challenges, family conflict, abuse)
  • Have guidelines and education in your household for computer use and social media.
  • Spend time with your youth


Warning Signs to consider possible Sexual Exploitation

  • Change in school attendance
  • Falling asleep in class
  • History of running away/leaving home
  • Frequent traveling/mode of transportation
  • Delinquency
  • Relationships (ex. New, older boyfriend)
  • Tattoo (“branding” is often used by a trafficker)
  • Change in possession/appearance: Excessive Brand Name Handbags, Clothing and promiscuous style of dress
  • Multiple or frequent Sexually Transmitted Infections or Urinary Tract Infections.
  • Use of lingo referring to involvement in prostitution


Become Informed & Raise Awareness


Lehigh County Deputy District Attorney, after two recent successful convictions of sex traffickers said "... it's hard for people to realize human trafficking is in the Lehigh Valley. It's here. This is the face of it."  While learning about local prevalence is alarming and disturbing, there is hope.  VAST (Valley Against Sex Trafficking) Coalition is leading the way in eliminating human sex trafficking in the Lehigh Valley, PA region.  A group comprised of community members, service providers, businesses, law enforcement and government officials are dedicated to awareness, action and aftercare efforts.  As we increase awareness amongst all key individuals, we can successfully identify what exists and prevent future exploitation from happening.  A unified response is an effective response to eradicating human sex trafficking in our Lehigh Valley, PA region.  VAST holds bimonthly community educations meetings along with trainings and events throughout the community.  To learn more or get involved, visit



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