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human trafficking info hub

Part 2

How Human Trafficking Happens

It is important to dispel the myths about human trafficking – what it looks like, who is trafficked, and how it is done. Many Canadians still think that human trafficking involves crossing international borders, kidnapping and organized crime, but it’s not always the case. The ‘face’ of Canadian sex trafficking can look very different. Right now, Aura Freedom and other Toronto grassroots groups are seeing 16 and 17 year old boys trafficking their classmates for money, notoriety and as a way to validate their masculinity. We are also seeing young women getting involved in the recruitment of those trafficked into the sex trade, even if oftentimes they are being exploited themselves.

As we’ve already said: don’t think ‘Hollywood’.

During the luring and grooming stage, a sex trafficking situation can start out looking a lot like a romantic relationship or a friendship before the exploitation begins.

Traffickers exploit vulnerabilities created by sexism, racism, gender inequality, toxic gender norms, isolation, poverty / a lack of employment opportunities, a lack of education / social supports – and loneliness. Social media is a tool for traffickers looking to exploit these vulnerabilities in youth through grooming practices, such as befriending them and giving them attention, love, stability, and gifts that they are usually unable to access in their day-to- day lives.

They get a glimpse of a “dream life” before the rug is ripped out and the exploitation begins. 

Luring and Grooming 101 with our Founder & Director

Grooming chart in video courtesy of End Slavery Now

Luring and Grooming in Sexual Exploitation

Luring and grooming is a process where a trafficker (boyfriend, friend, person of trust, etc.) will manipulate their victim in order to coerce them into situations of sexual exploitation. Understanding the grooming process is important because when you know what grooming looks like, you can identify it if it happens to you or others.

Grooming is a calculated process that happens over a period of time as the groomer gains the trust of their victim and moves through the cycle. Sometimes, the grooming stage can take two weeks, sometimes it can take two years. Each case is different – it’s important to not paint each case with the same brush.

Below is the step by step method traffickers often used to groom a victim.

  • Step 1: Targeting someone to exploit

    First, traffickers will identify an individual they want to exploit. Generally, traffickers will target someone who is facing inequities, may have low self-esteem, may be isolated, is experiencing an economic stressor, has family problems, etc (see Root Causes and Risk Factors below.) Traffickers primarily use social media and other apps to communicate and build relationships with their victims. COVID-19 has resulted in youth spending more time online and being more isolated, resulting in an increased risk of being groomed and recruited online.

    It is important to note that most often traffickers are people you know, including family members, friends, and intimate partners.

  • Step 2: Gaining trust and information

    Then, traffickers gather all the information they can from an individual. This may include what school they go to, if they have a social network, where their parents work, where they live, if they have siblings and what school they go to, what their insecurities are, and any stressors or problems in their lives. Often at this stage, the trafficker will coerce the victim for sexually explicit pictures and videos which they will then use to threaten them later. Gaining trust and information is key to the grooming process as this informs traffickers what needs they can fill, as explained in the next step.

  • Step 3: Filling a need

    Next, using the information gathered in Step 2, traffickers identify and fill a need in the victim’s life. This makes the victim dependent on the trafficker for anything from money and gifts, to clothes and alcohol, to friendship and love. Many times a trafficker may seem like a “great boyfriend/partner/friend” to unsuspecting friends and family because they appear to be providing their victims with support and love. 

  • Step 4: Isolation

    At this point in the grooming process, the trafficker will have a major role in the victim’s life. They will create time to be alone with the victim and will attempt to distance the victim from their friends and family in order to isolate them. This step is important because in isolation the trafficker has more control over the messages the victim hears and is better able to manipulate them. In isolation, no one will be able to support the victim when the abuse begins in the next step, further confirming the victim’s need for the trafficker. 

  • Step 5: Abuse begins

    At this stage, the abuse begins. Psychological, emotional, physical and sexual abuse are all used to further isolate the victim. Also at this stage, the trafficker also claims the victim must repay money that was spent on various gifts or necessities, whether it be clothes, rent, cigarettes/drugs, or car rides and cell phones. In most cases, the trafficker demands sex work as repayment.

  • Step 6: Maintain Control

    In order to keep the victim from leaving, the trafficker must maintain control. They do this by using threats, violence, fear, and blackmail (see Control Tactics and Fear sections below). They may even use the information gathered in Step 2 to threaten the victim's friends or family. Many victims show loyalty to their traffickers even after they’ve recovered because of the insidious nature of manipulation, coercion, and the trauma bond that is formed.

"Why don't they just leave?"

Traffickers use various tactics to keep survivors from leaving or reaching out for help. Many of the survivors we’ve supported didn’t realize they had been trafficked until later on or even after they exited the trafficking situation.

Most survivors -both youth and adults- felt they were at fault for their abuse and exploitation because they never actually said ‘No’

But the truth is, their exploitation was a slow process of coercion, manipulation, violence and blackmail and, sadly, they never had a choice.

Some control tactics used by traffickers may include:

**The history behind the term “Stockholm Syndrome” has been found to be rooted in misogyny. As we are continually updating our research and exploring terms that accurately explain the phenomenon from a grassroots intersectional perspective, we’d like to highlight this article here.

Coercive Control: A Trafficker Favourite

We can’t always “see” Coercive Control, which is an ongoing pattern of domination and control where abusive partners repeatedly and constantly engage in psychological and emotional violence using intimidation, depravation, degradation, isolation, humiliation, and more.

Coercive Control is present in most situations of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, and also in Intimate Partner Violence / Domestic Violence.

Download this educational PDF on Coercive Control below.


Above all else, fear is what keeps survivors under the trafficker's control:

Source: Karly Church, crisis intervention counsellor and survivor of human trafficking

One of the most difficult obstacles survivors face is stigma.
Kindness and non-judgement can go a very long way in supporting survivors.

Why Human Trafficking Happens

Root Causes and The Importance of Equity

Advancing Equity

Human trafficking is a manifestation of inequity. In fact, exploitation and gender-based violence thrive in conditions of inequity and where there is an imbalance of power. Therefore, when we work to advance equity, we are working to end human trafficking.

We often hear: “Anyone can be trafficked.”

And yes, that is true. Anyone can be trafficked regardless of their age, gender, race, or ability. We have worked with survivors from all walks of life.

However, we must recognize that there are communities that are more at risk of exploitation and have historically been targeted. If your anti-trafficking work is not addressing inequities of gender, race, socio-economic status and more, then it simply won’t be effective. In fact, it can do more harm than good.

Intersectionality matters.

Examining Root Causes

There is no ‘quick fix’ to human trafficking. We have to buckle up and know that this is a long drive. If we are really going to end human trafficking, we must zoom out and look at societal power imbalances and inequities (root causes).

In societies across the globe, women, girls and gender diverse people face inequality, discrimination, violence and control. Marginalized and racialized women and girls experience added layers of discrimination and barriers to support, as well as youth in care and youth with mental health issues.

Moreover, colonialism, systemic racism, and homo/transphobia have helped to create intergenerational trauma within communities, who are targeted by exploiters. Indigenous, Black, and other racialized women, girls and youth often lack social support, leaving room for exploitation under the guise of love, community and a better life.

The root causes below must be examined when working to end sexual exploitation/trafficking:

Sex trafficking is tied to oppression and inequity - by working from an anti-oppressive perspective we are able to effect change and ultimately prevent human trafficking.

Connecting the dots: So what does all this have to do with human trafficking?

Just knowing the root causes of exploitation and human trafficking, and working toward equity for all human beings, can empower people to demand better simply because they know they are worthy of healthy and vibrant lives.

Examining root causes is a cornerstone of Aura Freedom’s anti-trafficking work. This is our passion. This is our area of expertise.

"When youth feel 'seen' and valued for who they are, they become more empowered. And it's very hard to traffic an empowered person."

Marissa Kokkoros, Founder and Director of Aura Freedom

Targeted Communities


Young women and girls face greater risks of exploitation. This is due to patriarchy and gender inequality, which has led to the hyper-sexualization, dehumanization, and commodification of girls and unhealthy masculinity which is deeply connected to GBV. Girls of colour, migrant girls, girls in foster care, and those living with disabilities are at an even higher risk.


Indigenous girls are the most targeted population by exploiters, due to colonialism, systemic racism, and the intergenerational effects of residential "schools" which have resulted in their overrepresentation in foster care, intergenerational poverty, substance abuse, sexual violence, unsafe drinking water, and extreme marginalization.


Black communities are more vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking due to systemic racism and the intergenerational effects of slavery, over-policing and child apprehension. Black girls are often fetishized and hyper-sexualized which contributes to their objectification and dehumanization, increasing their vulnerability.


LGBTQ2S+ youth face higher rates of homelessness and often lack family and community support, making them especially vulnerable to traffickers. Moreover, when LGBTQ2S+ trafficking survivors seek services or go through the criminal justice system, they are often discriminated against for their sexual orientation or gender identity.


Children and youth involved in the child welfare system are some of the most vulnerable to exploitation and one of the most targeted populations by traffickers due to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), lack of parental guidance and family support, separation from community, and much more.

A message from Marissa Kokkoros,
Founder & Director of Aura Freedom

“Human trafficking happens to people facing inequality, whether that be women and girls, Indigenous and racialized youth, children in foster care, migrants, and other marginalized communities. Essentially, it happens to people with vulnerabilities that traffickers exploit for profit.

So, if we advance equity and lift people up, we ultimately reduce trafficking because it is very hard to traffic an empowered person who is living a life of dignity and health. But this is the long-term solution. Unfortunately, there is no “Band-Aid” solution to sexual exploitation, which is why it still exists. 

When we put traffickers in jail, there is simply another one coming after them doing the same thing. Just as we can see two girls leave a safe house on one day, and another two show up the next day. Why is this happening? Because we are not focusing on upstream approaches to prevent and ERADICATE exploitation. Instead, we are focusing on reacting when the trafficking has already happened.”

Citation: Marissa Kokkoros, Founder & Director of Aura Freedom

Additional Risk Factors

Everyone has vulnerabilities in life – it is a part of being human and does not mean you are weak. It is important to be aware of these vulnerabilities and how they may be targeted and exploited by traffickers. Knowledge is power.

In addition to the targeted groups and root causes mentioned above,
these are additional risk factors for trafficking and exploitation:

Noticing the Signs

Sometimes, victims will show signs that may indicate they are experiencing exploitation or trafficking. Other times, they will not. 

It is important to note that although the warning signs below may indicate human trafficking, they do not always mean that someone is being trafficked, so be sure to use them with caution. Remember the importance of refuting the patriarchal ‘victim narrative’ that has a limited view of what trafficked persons look like, who they are, or how they act.

These indicators should be used for educational purposes and not to encourage surveillance as this may negatively affect marginalized and racialized communities, such as sex workers. These signs should be used as possible indicators, not rules.

What you might see:

  • An increase in school absences and bathroom breaks, returns from lunch hungry
  • Drop in grades and withdrawal from social activities
  • Tattoo of boyfriend’s name, symbols, wears certain colours
  • Change in friends, becomes labelled as “loose”
  • Drug and/or alcohol use
  • Change in attire/expensive clothing
  • Carries multiple cells phones with blocked numbers, taxi numbers
  • Avoids eye contact, extreme mood swings
  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous and paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behaviour regarding Police
  • Becomes protective of siblings or other family members
  • Lacks health care, appears malnourished, physical signs of abuse

What you might hear:

  • Talks about being in the Game, the Life or telly time, and uses different lingo/terms
  • Refers to boyfriends, friends and even themselves using certain lingo/terms-  this language is not always the same
  • Speaks about having to make a quota or “bill”
  • Makes reference to certain websites
  • Speaks about how much money they make
  • Speaks about hanging out in hotels and Airbnb’s
  • Talks about future plans with intimate partner including quitting school
  • Inability to clarify where they are staying/address
  • Loss of sense of time
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in their story

We encourage prevention methods that put survivors at the centre of the work, building resilience and empowerment and using grassroots approaches to address exploitation,
rather than punishment or relying on the involvement of law enforcement.  

Barriers in identifying survivors of human trafficking
or for them to reach out for help and support:

Shift the language from, "Why don't they just leave?” to understanding the barriers preventing survivors from getting out.

Please note that this Human Trafficking Info Hub is not a service directory. For pan-Canadian directories on different anti-trafficking services and supports for survivors, you can visit the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking or Find Help/211.

Suggested citation for Aura Freedom’s Human Trafficking Info Hub: Aura Freedom. (2021, November 25). Human Trafficking Info Hub. Retrieved from:

Please note this is a living website and will be updated as funding permits, and as we learn more about human trafficking, as well as curate and vet additional resources from our partners.

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