Missouri is a largely rural state book-ended with the major cities of Kansas City on its western border and St. Louis in the east, with NightLight’s hometown of Springfield nestled in the south. It is home to over 6.2 million people, making it the 19th most populous US state according to the 2020 census. While the state is well-known for its deeply-embedded conservative values and inclusion in the “Bible Belt”, Missouri ranks high in the United States for cases of human trafficking, and commercial sexual exploitation is pervasive. In fact, according to data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Missouri ranks 4th in the nation for cases of Human Trafficking per capita(1), and was #8 in the country for overall number of reports in 2020(2).
Types of Trafficking in Missouri
There are two primary types of human trafficking defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and Missouri is home to both of them: forced labor and sex trafficking.
Forced labor, or labor trafficking, involves recruiting, transporting, or harboring people to subject them to various forms of modern slavery. Labor trafficking is tied strongly to the agricultural and service industries, both of which are key components of Missouri’s economy. Many labor trafficking cases involve migrant workers coming to find jobs during agricultural harvest seasons. They are promised work and housing, but traffickers provide poor living conditions and pay them little to no wages for the work they do. Service industry workers are also put into positions of working long hours under unfair or illegal employment practices, and living in illegal, sub-standard conditions. Traffickers are able to take advantage of these highly vulnerable populations as a result of their immigration status, unstable living conditions, or inability to attain regular employment.
Complete metrics do not exist for trafficking in Missouri, and we believe that most trafficking is still under-reported, especially labor trafficking. However, data from calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2021 shows that 9% of reports included some form of labor trafficking, with 3% reporting both labor and sex trafficking of the same individuals.
According to the data we have available, sex trafficking is the most common type of human trafficking that happens in Missouri as it accounts for 94% of reports to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Sex trafficking involves using force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of obtaining commercial sex acts from a child or from an adult against their will.
Sex trafficking is tied strongly to all aspects of the commercial sex industry, which includes prostitution, exotic dancing, pornography, and online sexual exploitation. Although prostitution is illegal in Missouri, the combination of vulnerable populations, high demand, and a thriving commercial sex industry allows trafficking to thrive - and the lines between exploitation and trafficking to blur.
Sex Trafficking in Missouri
Sex trafficking in Missouri takes on many forms. According to the Human Trafficking Hotline, 216 cases involving sex trafficking were reported in 2021. Out of those cases, 22% reported being trafficked for the production of pornography, 9% reported being trafficked in a hotel/motel, and an astounding 56% were reported as an “other” venue. In our experience, adult entertainment venues such as strip clubs account for much of the exploitation that leads to cases of sex trafficking in the state. Additional data from the Missouri Attorney General’s 2020 Human Trafficking Annual Report indicates that illicit massage businesses are also a primary venue for much of the sex trafficking that happens in the state.
Women are the primary victims of sex trafficking in the state of Missouri, with various sources citing 91% to 100% of victims are female. Out of those, 46% identified as racial or ethnic minorities(3) including Black, Asian, and Hispanic. One report from the National Human Trafficking Hotline cited the average age of entry for trafficking victims who contacted the hotline was just 19 years old.
Traffickers range from opportunistic individuals like intimate partners or family members to sophisticated criminal organizations like gangs and trafficking rings that span large geographic areas. In 22% of cases, victims reported engaging in “survival sex” which is a type of trafficking that often lacks a distinct trafficker because the victim is selling themselves out of extreme need for things like food and shelter(3).
Factors that Contribute to Trafficking in Missouri
Trafficking is more likely to occur when vulnerability is high. Missouri has many factors that contribute to certain populations being more vulnerable, including poverty, housing and homelessness challenges, gender inequality, involvement in the foster care system, domestic violence, racism, drug use, lack of education, and mental health issues.
Poverty is a major contributing factor to sexual exploitation and trafficking in Missouri. In 2021, the state ranked #31 in the United States for poverty (with #1 being the lowest level of poverty), and 12.7% of the population was living below the poverty line according to the Center for American Progress. This relatively high rate of poverty leaves many in the state, especially women with limited education or work experience, open to working in adult entertainment venues to earn money. These venues introduce women to the commercial sex industry and open doors for customers to proposition them for additional “services” like illegal prostitution.
Missouri ranks as the 10th highest state in the nation for domestic violence according to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Exposure to violence, including sexual violence, can lead women to experience shame and fear, making them more susceptible to further violence, drug use, and mental health issues. These in turn can make it difficult to maintain employment and stable housing, leading to a higher vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation.
Another factor that we see regularly contributing to our clients’ vulnerability is drug use. A 2022 report by WalletHub ranked Missouri as 4th in the nation for drug use after combining data on arrest and overdose rates, opioid prescriptions, and more. Drug dependency and addiction drains individuals of their financial means and makes them dependent upon their suppliers, leading to a higher propensity for women especially to begin trading sex for drugs. Drugs are used by traffickers to maintain control of their victims and used by victims to cope with the trauma of the abuse they’ve endured, creating a vicious cycle of dependency and pain that is difficult to end.
In addition to these factors, Missouri is located in the heart of the United States and is criss-crossed by major Federal and State highways, making it one of the most traversed states in the nation. This means that people are trafficked to, from, and through the State, including many foreign nationals. While incomplete, data collected by the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2021 indicated around 16% of victims in Missouri were non-US Citizens.
Ending Human Trafficking in Missouri
The Missouri Attorney General has reported that in order to eradicate human trafficking in the state, efforts should be focused on: prevention, victim identification, intervention, restoration, and reformation of legal and cultural systems.
Prevention involves addressing vulnerabilities in the community, raising awareness of human trafficking, and combating demand for commercial sexual services. Various government agencies in the state of Missouri, including the Department of Public Safety, State Highway Patrol, Department of Transportation, Office of the Attorney General, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and others have begun initiatives aimed at raising awareness, providing training, and collecting data to prevent trafficking in the state. According to Demand Abolition, around 6% of men in the U.S. have bought sex in the past year, with up to 15% buying at any point in their lifetime. In order to address the issue of Demand, Missouri has passed laws that criminalize the solicitation of sex acts.
NightLight and other organizations contribute to identification, intervention, and restoration. We reach out to women actively working in the commercial sex industry and prostitution locally to offer support and help identify those who are ready for change or are being trafficked. In certain circumstances, law enforcement agencies may reach out to us to serve as advocates and assist with identifying trafficking victims during undercover operations and regular community support work. Intervention and restoration include providing short and long-term services to survivors including housing, meeting basic needs, drug rehabilitation, mental and physical health services, job skills training, mentoring, coaching, counseling, and more. NightLight provides many of these services and collaborates with other local organizations to connect clients with the resources they need in their journey to recovery.
Finally, a huge area for improvement in the state of Missouri is in legal reform to ensure justice for victims and stop them from being criminalized and re-exploited. Laws that make prostitution illegal and criminalize other elements of the commercial sex industry can actually be harmful when victims of trafficking are charged with crimes they’ve been forced to commit. In Missouri, criminal records relief is only available to people who were minors at the time of their arrests. While many law enforcement agencies are working to better train officers on victim-centered, trauma-informed approaches, continued efforts to identify victims of sex trafficking in the state and connect them with resources will make the state’s response even more effective.
A Note on Human Trafficking Data
This article combines data from various sources including the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, the Human Trafficking Institute, World Population Review, and more. It’s important to emphasize that no set of data on human trafficking is comprehensive as many cases go unreported and even more are unprosecuted. Many trafficking-specific statistics are extrapolated from other, more clearly understood statistics which are then applied to incomplete data sets. Calls to the NHTH and data from these other sources can give us a sample of the overall picture of human trafficking in Missouri and beyond, but not a complete one. Many nonprofits do not report to the NHTH, and standards for data collection are different across law enforcement jurisdictions and government agencies. We will update this article as new and trustworthy data becomes available, but please keep in mind the limitations of the statistics we’ve shared — the problem is bigger than numbers on a page could ever accurately express.