Oblivious ‘Sex Traffickers’: Challenging stereotypes and the fairness of US trafficking laws


  • Dr Amber Horning
  • Dr Loretta J Stalans




domestic sex trafficking, pimping, US sex trafficking laws, stereotypes


In this paper, we explore third parties who unexpectedly fell within the legal definition of a sex trafficker. The anti-trafficking lobby and media stories frequently portray traffickers as organised, psychopathic, violent, and child kidnappers. We dismantle these depictions by showing the unexpected people who qualify as traffickers. This paper incorporates findings from two studies involving eighty-five third parties in New York City and forty-nine in Chicago. We analyse how teenagers, drivers, and boyfriends qualify as traffickers under US law. We find that two-thirds of them hold inaccurate views about the difference between sex trafficking and facilitating prostitution. Trafficking can be incidental or temporary, and traffickers in these samples were often oblivious to their legal status, potentially resulting in lengthy prison sentences. We conclude by calling for differential sentencing based on traffickers’ age, and awareness campaigns designed to alert third parties of the legal distinctions between pandering and sex trafficking.


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Author Biographies

Dr Amber Horning

Dr Amber Horning is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminology and Justice Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. They spent almost a decade researching commercial sex markets, human trafficking, and forced migration. Dr Horning led one of the largest studies on third parties in the United States. They have extensive fieldwork experience with hidden populations. Dr Horning has a unique background and they engage in high-level interdisciplinary research utilising innovative mixed-methods approaches.

Dr Loretta J Stalans

Dr Loretta J Stalans is a Professor in the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department and Psychology Department at Loyola University Chicago. She has published extensively in the areas of public opinion about crime and punishment, intimate partner violence, and sexual offending, through an interdisciplinary lens and utilising diverse methodologies. Over the last decade, her research has focused on illicit sex trades and scams for financial or personal gain in virtual spaces.




How to Cite

Horning, A., & Stalans, L. (2022). Oblivious ‘Sex Traffickers’: Challenging stereotypes and the fairness of US trafficking laws. Anti-Trafficking Review, (18), 67–86. https://doi.org/10.14197/atr.201222185