Human traffickers are always on the lookout for vulnerabilities in victims. “Vulnerabilities is” a pretty broad term and can include anything from lack of situational awareness to a physical or emotional need. Let’s take a look at some of the vulnerabilities a trafficker might target, starting with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Defining Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is often explained using the image below (credit: Simply Psychology).

As the image shows, there are five basic needs that every human being must have or wants to have to make their life fulfilling. When a person doesn’t have these five basic elements in their life, specifically the physiological and safety needs, they become vulnerable in many ways.

1. Physiological Needs

Physiological needs are the building blocks of humanity’s survival. Food, water, sex, sleep, shelter, and clothing are all elements of the first building block of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Think about it. If you don’t have shelter, you don’t have enough food to survive, or you are living in rags, this causes you to be vulnerable because you will do anything to survive. If you have other people depending on you for survival, you will probably sacrifice even more to help them. Homeless people, castaways, runaway youths, and dislocated people are incredibly vulnerable to traffickers because they lack the basic necessities for survival.

This opens the door for survival sex, allowing the victim to exchange their bodies for whatever physiological need they have (food, shelter, water, etc.). This also reveals why so many runaway youths are trafficked - they have no home and quickly realize their need for shelter and some sense of security. When a trafficker pretends to be kind and caring, they often fall for manipulation just to survive.

2. Safety Needs 

Safety needs are the second most basic need for humanity to survive. People like security and knowing what’s next. Safety needs include family, societal protections like police or hospitals, financial security, and health.

A 2013 FBI report stated that 60% of rescued trafficking victims were involved or were familiar with foster home environments where the kids were told they were “attached to a check.” Foster kids are a primary target because they have lost the security of a home, who their parents are, and their next steps. Since they are not always safe, that leaves them susceptible to traffickers.

3. Love and Belongingness Needs 

Love and belongingness needs are the third level in Maslow’s hierarchy. These needs are social and relational. People need interpersonal relationships, affiliations, connectedness, and group association.

Most victims of human trafficking (though not all) are from unstable families and don’t have a good home life. They often crave emotional stability and friendship and will go to extreme measures to gain it. A 2016 TIP Report found that people who had experienced domestic abuse and trauma were easily tricked by traffickers and expressed more vulnerability. 

This ties into father absence in many homes. Children need the stability of both a father and a mother to receive the love that is so crucial to their development. When this is lacking, the child is opened up to dangerous needs and wrong solutions. 

As one convicted pimp said, “My job is to make sure she [the victim] has what she needs, personal hygiene, get her nails done, take her to buy an outfit, take her out to eat, make her feel wanted...but I keep the money” (New York Times investigative series, Running in the Shadows: Children on their Own).

This type of manipulation applies to the first three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.

4. Esteem Needs

Esteem needs are the fourth level of Maslow’s hierarchy, and these needs revolve around affirmation, respect, and mental self-worth. If a person does not receive respect from other people do not respect themselves, they lose confidence, and sometimes look for esteem in the wrong places.

Esteem needs are especially prominent in children as they walk through adolescence and crave the approval of their peers. We all remember the feeling in junior high walking down the hall at school, hoping we dressed just right, hoping that cute guy notices you or feeling like you just said the wrong thing and everyone hates you. These young kids are not confident in their own skin, and they are often vulnerable to trafficking when a pimp gives them the affirmation they need. 

Kids and adults who have a history of abuse, negativity and lack of respect can become vulnerable to false promises of fulfillment, especially if the first three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are not fulfilled in their lives.

5. Self-Actualization Needs 

Self-actualization needs are last on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs because if they are not fulfilled in your life, it is possible to get by without them, but your life will be less satisfying. 

Self-actualization refers to personal growth and fulfilling personal goals that you set in your life, and self-actualization is different for everyone. It depends on your personal tastes, likes, and dislikes. 

Traffickers still watch the last two needs on Maslow’s hierarchy. In the case of self-actualization needs, traffickers will often “provide [victims] with false dreams for the future [... or] promise a victim that the situation is only temporary and they will be able to accomplish their dreams together someday soon.”


Everyone has vulnerabilities, and everyone has to have at least some of the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy fulfilled. It’s up to each of us to look out for ourselves and our friends to make sure we meet their needs and intervene if a situation looks questionable.