Human Trafficking Center

How Not to Talk About Human Trafficking

via Creative Commons


Jan 14



By Ryan Beck Turner Associate Director of Advocacy

*Please be aware that some of the links within this post may cause triggers*

Human trafficking is the cause célèbre for sensationalist media. Celebrities Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore have started a campaign against the sex trafficking of minors. Videos about trafficking regularly go viral. High-profile human trafficking cases have seized the public’s attention.  As someone who works in the anti-trafficking field, you might think I would be thrilled about all this public attention. I’m not. A great deal of the existing human trafficking content is both inaccurate and irresponsible. This tripe is often excused because it is “raising awareness.” The assumption is that more awareness will lead to more anti-trafficking efforts. While this may be true, it is not always helpful. When misinformed people do make an effort to end human trafficking, they will often support policies and organizations that are ultimately counter-productive to the fight against human trafficking.

Human trafficking is an emerging and complicated problem that can be difficult to discuss appropriately and sensitively. What follows is a simple guide to avoiding some of the most common misunderstandings and misrepresentations:

Do not repeat “statistics” without investigating

All human trafficking statistics should be regarded with some skepticism. Human trafficking is an illicit and hidden activity and is therefore exceedingly difficult to study. Research is further hindered by misuse of terms, poor methodology and lack of adequate funding.  Unfortunately, in a vacuum of reliable data, people tend to unquestioningly cite or simply fabricate trafficking data. Statistics used by established organizations or “experts” are not above critical assessment. Even oft-repeated, canonical statistics have been shown to be based on outdated or nongeneralizable studies.

Not all prostitution is human trafficking.

The term “prostitution” refers to any exchange of sex for material benefit and exists on a spectrum of exploitation. At one end are women, men and transgender individuals who freely choose to engage in sex work. At the other end of the spectrum are victims and survivors of sex trafficking. These women, men, transgender individuals and children are prostituted against their will through force, fraud or coercion. Conflation of sex work and sex trafficking often leads to policies that criminalize prostitution, making sex workers more vulnerable to violence and exploitation and denying their basic human capacity to freely choose how they use their bodies. Meanwhile, the distinct needs of trafficking survivors are ignored in favor of “demand reduction” programs that have not had any discernible effect on sex trafficking.

Do not sensationalize or sexualize* human trafficking victims and survivors.     

Reveling in graphic details does not help victims and survivors, nor does it contribute in any meaningful way to the fight to end human trafficking. Rather, it tokenizes the experiences of victims and can trigger trauma for human trafficking survivors.

Before portraying a trafficking victim or survivor, ensure that it is necessary. Does this particular portrayal contain important information that could not otherwise be effectively conveyed?  Is the victim/survivor’s experience being used to promote an organization by inciting feelings of shock, horror or disgust in the viewer?

When portraying, publishing or publicly identifying a human trafficking survivor or her/his story, the interests and needs of the survivor should be of primary importance. After ensuring the survivor has given fully informed consent (confidentiality, scope, framing, support, etc.), it is critical to question how the portrayal might affect other survivors and whether the portrayal may create a skewed public perception.

Do not ignore forced labour.

The International Labour Organization estimates that of the 20.9 million people in human trafficking, 14.2 million are victims of forced labour, as compared to 4.5 million in sex trafficking. Yet sex trafficking captures a hugely disproportionate amount of public focus.  This skewed representation of human trafficking leads to imbalanced responses to human trafficking. Sex trafficking is an important issue that warrants special attention, but not to the exclusion of the plight of the estimated 14.2 million people in forced labour.

Human trafficking is not something that only happens “over there.”

The United States is a significant destination, origin and transit country for human trafficking. As such, Americans have an obligation to confront and be accountable for the human trafficking occurring within their borders. The myopic focus on sex trafficking of girls in Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe draws attention away from the fact that the tomatoes we eat may be the product of forced labor in Florida or that the person selling magazines at our door may be a homeless youth being trafficked state to state.

Do not ignore men and boys.

According to the ILO’s 2012 estimates, 60 percent of the 14.2 million people in forced labour are male. Yet male victims of human trafficking are rarely discussed. The lack of public attention on the trafficking of men and boys is reflected in the absence of services for male survivors of human trafficking. According to a 2012 study conducted by the Polaris Project, there are 529 shelter beds available specifically for trafficking survivors in the United States. Of those 529 shelter beds, 125 are available to men, and a mere two are reserved for men only.

The problems identified here are not merely semantic. The discourse of human trafficking has real impacts on anti-trafficking efforts and on trafficking victims and survivors. While awareness-raising is critical, it should not be used to justify or excuse misleading or inaccurate information. We will not see true progress until the passion of the anti-trafficking movement is matched with intellectual rigor and is freed from narrow and paternalistic tendencies.


*We’ve been notified that this link in this article with the iEmpathize logo was not a photo distributed by the actual organization. We obtained it from 

20 Responses to “How Not to Talk About Human Trafficking”

  1. The Effects of Language Utilized by Traffickers and Traffickees – Vulnerabilities of Human Trafficking Victims

    […] Human Trafficking Center agrees, emphasizing that its is if the utmost importance to avoid sexualization or […]

  2. Does Legalizing Prostitution Help or Hurt Women? | Queens Free Press

    […] Fact: A majority of anti-trafficking groups (who often are also anti-consensual prostitution groups) put figures out all the time. They are not correct. […]

  3. Working Together: Media and Human Rights NGOs | AVERY HANSEN

    […] surrounding both issues, leading many people to be either confused or unaware of them. Human trafficking is an emerging and complicated problem that can be difficult to discuss appropriat…which leads to a lack of interest the media has to cover the issue properly or at […]

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    […] the factors that make a verbal or visual representation of slavery helpful or exploitative. (See this blog post from January 2014 for an idea of what the discussion […]

  5. Dolores French

    Carol and Ryan. I shared this on my fb page. Excellent.

  6. A group that wants to ban all sex work in Ireland is making fake Tinder profiles | Revealed Tech - Latest Technology News Portal

    […] is a very real and pervasive problem, but it is not the same as consensual sex work, as the Human Trafficking Center notes. And the fact is that the overwhelming majority of sex workers in Ireland are opposed the ban on […]

  7. A group that wants to ban all sex work in Ireland is making fake Tinder profiles | Review Value

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  8. A group that wants to ban all sex work in Ireland is making fake Tinder profiles | - majalah online gadget, komputer dan teknologi terbaru

    […] is a very real and pervasive problem, but it is not the same as consensual sex work, as the Human Trafficking Center notes. And the fact is that the overwhelming majority of sex workers in Ireland are opposed the ban on […]

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  11. John Kane

    I am extremely impressed with your website. Thanks to the Somaly Mam expose and things said there about all NGO fund raising, it is easier to talk about huge numbers of people who want to say something about trafficking and then repeat the incorrect information, even ratchet it up another notch. As a result the entire issue is wacky, way out of balance with reality. I am looking forward to the 2014 TIP report next week because I am retired form the Dept of State but live in Bangkok and do research with a major Thai university. My website is only a few weeks old and I hope to get some more views and some LIKES and comments as soon as possible so I am part of that conversation about TIP. Take a look, tell friends – – and the same name on FaceBook.

  12. Brette-Lynn and Emily

    We are doing a project on the global issue that is human trafficking. We stumbled upon this site while looking for organizations against human trafficking, and got quite a nudge. This information has shifted our perspective on how we are going to present to our class on Tuesday. We feel touched by this and inspired to do more simply because of the helpful point that was made above. Well done for grabbing our attention. Your words will reach dozens because of this shout for what is right. We appreciate you!

  13. Weaknesses in the Current Counter-Trafficking Public Policy Literature - Human Trafficking Center

    […] of human trafficking seems to have proliferated to a significant degree among scholars, getting the definition of human trafficking correct is the obvious first step toward doing rigorous and useful research on counter-trafficking public […]

  14. jessica k

    Thank you for this info, as I agree with all of it. Human trafficking as a serious issue is in danger of being diluted if automatically conflated with prostitution, domestic violence, and child molestation. I also do think sensationalized to the point where labor trafficking and male victims are being neglected.

  15. Happy International Sex Worker Rights Day 2014

    […] How Not to Talk About Human Trafficking […]

  16. Carol Leigh

    Thanks for your response! Yes, I think it would serve the issue well, for those working on trafficking issues from a pro-rights and harm reduction perspective to review this language and not refer to sex trafficking as separate and distinct from labor trafficking in general. My impression is that there is agreement on my point by those who speak from these perspectives, but the current language has become entrenched. Although inaccurate, it is almost a shorthand to refer to “sex and labor trafficking” as if they were distinct. I think the attention to this could have a great deal of impact. Thanks again, for responding!

  17. Ryan Beck Turner

    Hello Carol, thank you for bringing up this distinction. I agree that conflation of sex trafficking with commercial sex is indeed a serious problem, and leads to a lot of terrible policy. As someone who believes that sex work can be a legitimate form of labor, I also recognize the validity of understanding “sex trafficking” as a form of forced labor. This is the framework that the International Labor Organization uses and I think they are one of the more nuanced and responsible actors in the anti-trafficking movement. Referring to “sex trafficking” as a form of forced labor reduces the idea that it is somehow more morally offensive or important than other forms of forced labor (agriculture, construction, manufacturing, domestic work, mining, etc) and could potentially start to rectify the imbalance in both media coverage, policy, and anti-trafficking efforts. For the purpose of this blog I was utilizing the HTC’s taxonomy, however, I think that these issues would be worth exploring in future posts.

  18. Carol Leigh

    Thanks for this! One important addition because it is not obvious but crucial: Those concerned with labor abuses and exploitation are concerned with labor exploitation, forced labor etc., WITHIN commercial sex as well as within other industries. Forced prostitution IS A FORM of labor abuse. It’s confusing and misleading to refer to ‘sex trafficking’ as separate from labor trafficking. In general the term ‘sex trafficking’ is problematic in that it is often defined to include consensual commercial sex, as it is in the TVPRA. The solution is to avoid the term sex trafficking because of this confusion, but it shouldn’t be framed as completely distinct from other forms of labor trafficking.

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