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Human Trafficking Center

Talking about Trafficking: Should we use the words slave and slavery?


Jul 2014



by David Esarey, Human Trafficking Projects Manager

To 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 disciplines, the anti-human trafficking movement has developed its own vocabulary and sifting through the terminology to find the author’s meaning can present a daunting challenge. Is human trafficking slavery? Is it modern-day slavery? What’s the difference? Is a person who has been trafficked a victim, survivor or slave? Our choices in terminology frame how we view and address the issue. The purpose of this post is not to suggest an answer for what terms should be favored over others. Rather, this analysis of the use of the term slave and the differences in modern-day slavery versus slavery will serve to highlight the importance of understanding the implications of the words we choose.

Slave may be the most emotionally evocative word in the anti-trafficking activist’s arsenal, relying on an image of a nineteenth-century slave held in chains. While human trafficking is essentially universally condemned, presenting modern victims through the lens of antebellum slavery produces a particularly strong emotional response. The use of the term slave takes a concept people understand intellectually and helps them identify with it on an emotional level. Further, using the term slave can help acknowledge the gravity of the experience.

On the other side of the debate, the term slave may not be a precise label. Rarely are victims of human trafficking kept in chains, nor do they experience other conditions that the word may evoke. Additionally, the word is not a label many victims would choose for themselves. While they may see themselves as victims, to self-identify as a slave suggests a total loss of agency and can carry significant psychological implications. Referring to a person as a slave runs the risk of defining the individual by their experience. Although person in slavery may be somewhat less catchy than slave, it can also be less stigmatizing.

A final point concerning the use of slave: Context. Is. Everything. Slave can be a useful term in the right situations, but its imprecision presents certain dangers. If a speaker is able to use the term to illicit an emotional response but continues on to offer an explanation of what is really meant, it can be a useful tool for reaching audiences. On the other hand, if slave is used in a way where it stands on its own without any further clarification (such as on a poster), it risks misrepresenting the issue. The setting can play a significant role in whether slave is the appropriate label.

Modern-Day Slavery v. Slavery
While human trafficking as a legal term has been well-established through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and Palermo Protocol, at times it can feel clinical or sterile. It offers precision without emotion. For this reason, the terms modern-day slavery or simply slavery are often attached to add an emotional, explanatory component. But what distinguishes these two terms and which is better? Certainly neither is perfect, but slavery and modern-day slavery have different connotations. Modern-day slavery presents a false dichotomy, as though there were a clean break between “old” and “new” slavery. While there is no clean break, there are differences that this term highlights. For instance, antebellum slavery was a legal institution while human trafficking is an international crime. Slavery, on the other hand, maintains a constant line from “old” to “new” but (much like the term slave) can reinforce false perceptions that human trafficking looks like “old” slavery. Once again, context is critical in determining which term is more appropriate.

The terminology we use when discussing human trafficking defines how we perceive and approach the issue. We must therefore understand what we are saying and what that communicates to others. Critically examining the accuracy and appropriateness of the words we use will help us present our position as we intend, using the context as a guide.


What is your opinion on the use of the terms slave, slavery and modern-day slavery?


*The HTC would like to thank the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking and Prax(us) for informing our discussion of human trafficking terminology and challenging us to think critically about the choices we make in our own work.

3 Responses to “Talking about Trafficking: Should we use the words slave and slavery?”

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