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Human Trafficking Center

Talking about Trafficking: Finding the Right Words


Jul 2014


July 2, 2014
by Ashley Greve, Associate Director of Advocacy













There are many communities dedicated to the fight against human trafficking—service providers, law enforcement officers, scholars, researchers and more. In interactions with these different groups, I hear the same buzzwords again and again. Chief among them: demand reduction, victim-centered and trauma-informed. Unfortunately, and despite their frequent use, these terms often seem to have ambiguous meanings. This is in part because their denotations – and connotations – shift according to the context of their use, but also because different people employ them to imply a broad range of work modalities. To facilitate consistency – as well as to bolster our own understanding of these widely used terminologies – the associates at the Human Trafficking Center recently undertook a lengthy process of defining them for ourselves.

To begin, we collected references to these terms from dozens of agencies both internal and external to the field of counter-human trafficking. Small groups scrutinized, interpreted and consolidated these references into three working definitions that were later discussed and decided upon by group consensus. It wasn’t easy. The debates were fruitful but impassioned as we struggled to represent our own values without discounting popular usages of the terms in practice.

Take demand reduction, an unavoidably loaded term. The consensus-based definition we arrived at is a two-part explanation that seeks to represent the phrase’s widest applications alongside its most common usage. Broadly defined, demand reduction is aimed at diminishing the demand for products and services of forced labor and exploitation (including sex trafficking) through preventative actions and/or punitive measures. With this understanding, initiatives to increase transparency in corporate supply chains and production processes can be categorized as demand reduction if the ultimate goal is to persuade consumers to boycott goods produced with exploitive labor.

More commonly, demand reduction refers to an anti-prostitution strategy aimed at deterring the purchase of commercial sex through preventative education and/or punitive measures for consumers and/or third party sellers. The basic idea is that if there were no demand for commercial sex, then the commercial sex industry would cease to exist, as would any exploitation within it. “John schools” are one example of a strategy that fits within this narrower definition.

Once there is an identified victim, the criminal justice system (hopefully) steps in. Ideally, authorities interacting with individuals experiencing trafficking will employ victim-centered strategies for assistance. As our associates have defined it, a victim-centered approach prioritizes the rights, dignity, agency and self-determination of victim-survivors (including those who have been complicit in criminal activities) by providing social services for safety and stability while engaging victim-survivors as participants in the process of prosecution. A survivor may choose, for example, not to submit to live in a safe house. They may not feel safe among strangers, may need the social support of their family and friends or may distrust law enforcement, among a host of other concerns that are perfectly valid outcomes of their experiences. A victim-centered approach would seek to respect this person’s right to make their own decisions while balancing this right with safety and security concerns.

Once immediate safety concerns are dealt with, service providers may begin to guide the individual toward a path of healing—or for some, merely coping. Whatever strategies or techniques they utilize should be trauma-informed. While no associate within the HTC is a licensed counselor, we recognize that trauma-informed approaches incorporate an understanding of the vulnerabilities or triggers of trauma survivors, including the physical, mental and emotional impacts of trauma, so that service delivery practices do not exacerbate harms or re-traumatize survivors.

A definition should not reflect ideology – its purpose is to explain and describe. We believe these definitions are thoughtful composites of the varying ways the terms demand reduction, victim-centered and trauma-informed are currently being used in the counter-trafficking field. We hope these definitions are useful, or at the very least, informative. Only by appreciating how people are applying these phrases can we really understand the services being used, their goals and their effects. This mutual understanding can lead to more informed intervention and rehabilitation strategies within counter-trafficking efforts.

One Response to “Talking about Trafficking: Finding the Right Words”

  1. Talking about Trafficking: On using the words slave and slavery - Human Trafficking Center

    […] enter the world of anti-human trafficking is to be bombarded with a seemingly endless supply of jargon: forced labor, modern-day slavery, victim-centered, force, fraud and coercion. Like most […]

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