Background: Approximately 10% of U.S. high school-attending youth are physically abused by a dating partner each year. Many sequelae of dating violence have been documented, but the dating violence literature is lacking information about commercial sexual exploitation as a possible outcome of an abusive dating relationship. Conversely, scholarship on sex trafficking victimization has documented that some girls are enticed into sex work by exploitative partners who initially pretend to be dating partners, but the research lacks specificity about why and how the girls become vulnerable to these destructive relationships. This case series chronicles the experiences of four women who were commercially sexually exploited in the U.S. as minors, identifies common themes cross their narratives, and organizes these themes into a proposed framework for understanding a possible pathway from safety to unsafe dating to sex trafficking victimization.

Methods: We conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with four adult women who had firsthand experience as victims of domestic minor sex trafficking. Participants were recruited through an organization that serves sex trafficking survivors. A constructivist grounded approach was used for data analysis. Participants’ narratives are presented, as well as illustrative quotes that typify each of the primary themes identified.

Results: There were six primary themes that emerged from the cases’ narratives. Factors that made girls vulnerable to entering into abusive dating relationships and subsequently to experiences as sex trafficked minors included: (1) feeling physically unattractive and unimportant; (2) lacking examples of healthy relationships; (3) experiencing sexual abuse that caused subsequent dissociation and emotional debilitation; (4) being flattered by romantic gestures early in an abusive dating relationship and becoming emotionally attached; (5) gaining confidence from dating someone with higher social status; and (6) experiencing short-term satisfaction from out-earning other sex workers. Secondary themes that merit further investigation included having conflicts with guardians, engaging in criminal behavior at the request of their dating partner, and developing substance dependence that made it difficult to exit sex work.

Discussion: Findings support the conclusions that one pathway into commercial sexual exploitation for minors is via dating partners, and that some minors are motivated to engage in sex work out of devotion to their dating partners rather than fear of violent retribution. A proposed framework for understanding how youth become vulnerable to sexual exploitation by a dating partner includes pre-dating, early phase dating, and late phase dating factors. Some pre-dating factors, for example, include feeling insecure, being bullied by peers, and having conflict with a guardian. Early phase dating factors include being impressed by the high social status of a new love interest and romantic gestures. Late phase dating factors include engaging in criminal activity to please the dating partner, and being physically, sexually, financially and emotionally abused. Additional empirical research that replicates and expands the proposed framework is encouraged, with the long-term objective of improving both dating violence and sexual exploitation prevention initiatives

Key Take Away Points

  • Some sex trafficked youth are victimized by dating partners
  • Some dating partners sexually exploit their victims
  • Commonalities across victims may include low self-esteem, conflict with guardians, peer bullying, lack of healthy relationship models, infatuation and emotional attachment to an abusive dating partner, drug use and dependence, and other factors

Author Biography

Emily F. Rothman, ScD is an Associate Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health with a secondary appointment in the Department of Pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine. She is a former domestic violence shelter advocate and batterer intervention counselor, and now conducts research on the etiology and prevention of interpersonal violence. Angela R. Bazzi, PhD, MPH is an Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health. Her research focuses on the intersections of sexual health, sex work, interpersonal violence, and mindfulness for trauma recovery. Megan Bair-Merritt, MD, MSCE is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine. Her research focuses on the impact of family violence on child health, as well as effective interventions within the primary care setting.


The authors wish to acknowledge the individuals who participated in the research.