Criminal justice responses to domestic minor sex trafficking do more harm than good, new book finds

Human rights approach needed to address why youth become involved in sex trafficking

SAN FRANCISCO, CA— Criminal justice responses to domestic minor sex trafficking often do more harm than good, according to a new book by RTI International senior research scientist Alexandra Lutnick, Ph.D. The book sheds light on how youth become involved in sex trafficking and how current policies are not addressing their needs.

"Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains" offers a unique look into the forces behind  sex trafficking in the United States to map the complex factors associated with youth involvement in trading sex.

"Far too often, we get a narrow portrayal of sex trafficking as girls being forced into it against their will; however, it's not that simple because research shows that a diverse range of young people are involved in the sex industry for a variety of reasons," Lutnick said. "If we only rely on one limited narrative, programs and policies are created that do not actually help and can sometimes hurt youth."

The book highlights the experiences of youth who choose to trade sex and those who are forced to by third parties or circumstances, while also discussing the networks of acquaintances and friends who introduce young people to the trade. Lutnick interviewed service providers and experts who work with youth involved in sex trafficking, and incorporated recent research to describe the social connections that facilitate their behavior. 

"Hearing about a young girl forced into trading sex against her will hits our heartstrings and makes us want to do something, but then we see policies coming out that are not addressing the root causes of sex trafficking," Lutnick said. "We know through research that making the penalty severe enough does not make the issue go away or do anything to equip young people with alternative options. The key most viable things youth need such as housing or employment options routinely go unfunded."

The book urges policymakers and practitioners to move beyond the framework of "rescuing" victims and "punishing" villains by incorporating a more effective human rights response.  To address the issue, the book suggests including input from people who have experienced trafficking to help influence policies and programs.

"We need to understand all the factors leading up to when youth become involved with sex trafficking," Lutnick said. "Then we can offer a more human rights based approach to allow people to maintain their dignity and help guide what they want to see happen."

Research for the book began from a project led by RTI to evaluate programs funded to work with domestic minor victims of human trafficking in New York, San Francisco and Chicago.

The book is available through Columbia University Press and on