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Sex Work and Human Trafficking Trends in Virginia

Sex work, defined as exchanging sexual services or activities for money or other valuable goods or services, has evolved significantly in Virginia over the past decade. The state’s current laws regarding sex work are complex, with some activities being legal and others illegal, depending on various factors. However, law enforcement agencies in Virginia have been actively working to combat sex trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation. In recent years, Virginia has taken a more aggressive stance on sex trafficking, which is a form of sex work that involves forced or coerced sexual activity. In 2014, the state passed the Virginia Human Trafficking Act, which increased penalties for individuals convicted of sex trafficking and created new resources for victims. The law also established the Virginia Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, which brings together law enforcement, social service providers, and other stakeholders to address trafficking in the state.

Despite these efforts, sex work continues to be prevalent in Virginia, particularly in urban areas such as Richmond and Virginia Beach. It has been reported that most sex workers in Virginia are low-income and have experienced homelessness, substance use disorders, and other forms of social marginalization. According to Yinger (2022), there has been an increase in human and sex trafficking cases across Virginia, as observed by the FBI Richmond Division. Human trafficking is taking place in various locations, from hotels to highways, and labor trafficking victims are more likely to be non-US citizens. In contrast, most sex trafficking victims are US citizens. A Supervisory Support Agency’s conceptualization of human trafficking involves the compulsion to provide labor or services. The public can help spot trafficking signs, especially at hotels, where employees should look for repeated daily guests or those who do not request services. Trafficking signs have also been evident at other places of employment.

Hopper (2017) states that trafficking survivors with substance use disorders face multiple emotional, behavioral, and health-related consequences. Such Individuals are more susceptible to recurring patterns of addiction and victimization. To handle the intense emotions and symptoms of trauma, these survivors may turn to substance use as a coping mechanism. As a result, specialized services for this population must be designed to be trauma-informed and incorporate strategies such as the Stages of Change model and motivational interviewing to facilitate self-determination. Integrating treatment methods to address trauma and substance use issues is expected to yield positive outcomes.

Virginia law enforcement agencies have contributed significantly to the fight against sex trafficking and exploitation in the state. In addition to the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force, many local police departments have established specialized units to investigate sex trafficking cases and support victims. For example, the Richmond Police Department has a dedicated Human Trafficking Unit that works closely with community partners to identify and rescue trafficking victims and arrest traffickers. Similarly, the Virginia Beach Police Department has a Human Trafficking and Vice Unit that investigates sex trafficking and other forms of vice crimes.

However, some critics argue that law enforcement’s approach to sex work in Virginia has been too focused on criminalization and enforcement rather than on providing support and resources to sex workers themselves. Advocates for decriminalization argue that criminalizing sex work only serves to marginalize further and stigmatize vulnerable populations and that providing harm reduction services and support to sex workers is a more effective way to reduce exploitation and trafficking. While some efforts have been made to decriminalize or legalize sex work in Virginia, these proposals have not gained significant traction in the state legislature. There is a significant need for a more comprehensive approach that addresses the underlying factors driving sex work and supports individuals engaged in these activities.


Hopper, E. K. (2017). Trauma-informed treatment of substance use disorders in trafficking survivors. In M. Chisolm-Straker & H. Stoklosa (Eds.), Human Trafficking Is a Public Health Issue: A Paradigm Expansion in the United States (pp. 211–230). Springer International Publishing.

Yinger, E. (2022). Richmond FBI: Human trafficking cases rising in Virginia. Retrieved April 3, 2023, from‌


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