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"Human Trafficking" Has Become a Meaningless Term

Politicians and activists often abuse it to push for punitive laws or to incite moral panic

Mana Vatsyayana/Getty

President Barack Obama has famously declared that "human trafficking" is "modern-day slavery." He's also said that it "is a crime that can take many forms." 

The second definition is a good deal more accurate. "Trafficking," in practice, is less a clear-cut crime than a call to moral panic. The vagueness of the definition allows or even encourages governments, organizations, and researchers to claim that there are tens of millions of trafficking victims worldwide on the basis of little more than hyperbolic guesses. Politicians use trafficking rhetoric to portray themselves as defenders of the downtrodden, and generate laudatory press coverage, as Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has done with his crusade against and other sites advertising adult services. And some high profile figures have used trafficking narratives to gain fame. Somali Mam, the celebrated Cambodian anti-trafficking advocate, was exposed for making fraudulent claims about herself and other women she helped. 

The exact origin of the term "sex trafficking" is unclear, but according to Alison Bass, author of Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, it seems to have been developed by anti-prostitution feminists in the 1990s. Bass told me that "trafficking" was used especially to describe the migration of women from the collapsing Soviet Union to the United States. Donna Hughes's seminal 2000 article "The Natasha Trade" defined trafficking specifically as "any practice that involves moving people within and across local or national borders for the purpose of sexual exploitation."

But anti-prostitution activists like Hughes often use “sexual exploitation” to include any kind of prostitution or sex work—in fact, Hughes insists in her article that "trafficking occurs even if the woman consents.” In other words, trafficking can include sex workers who decide to illegally or semi-legally migrate from Eastern Europe to the United States. This describes the majority of women who were said to be "trafficked," according to researchers Robert M. Fuffington and Donna J. Guy. "More often than not," they write in A Global History of Sexuality, "these women have engaged in some form of sex work in their home countries and see work abroad as a chance to improve their circumstances."

While Hughes defines trafficking as "sexual exploitation,” Obama also uses the term to refer to children pressed into military service and agricultural laborers forced to work under poor conditions or without pay. This definition has sometimes been endorsed by pro–sex worker rights organizations, who "hoped to redirect what had historically been a repressive anti-prostitution approach to an approach that regarded the sex sector as one of many labor sectors," Carol Leigh, a sex worker rights activist and filmmaker, told me. 

The broader definition of trafficking as labor exploitation hasn't done much to change public perception, though. When you say “trafficking" people still think sexual slavery. The Wikipedia entry on human trafficking, for example, begins by stating, "Human trafficking is the trade of humans, most commonly for the purpose of sexual slavery, forced labor, or commercial sexual exploitation"—a definition that begins and ends with sex. In reality,  forced labor of other kinds—like domestic labor, construction and agriculture—is much more common, according to the ILO, which estimates that 4.5 million of 21 million people worldwide are victims of sex trafficking (though, again, all trafficking figures are notoriously slippery and poorly sourced).  

More, the term "trafficking" often is used to refer to cases in which there is no migration at all. For example, New York's Human Trafficking Intervention Courts are used to handle basically anyone arrested for prostitution or related charges, whether or not they have been coerced and whether or not they have come from overseas. Most people who go through sex trafficking courts have been arrested for loitering and prostitution, according to a study by Truthout

According to Bass, "trafficking has become a new name for an old problem, which is largely teenage runaways." Young people who run away from abusive situations at home, and who sell sex to survive, are considered trafficking victims by default under many federal and state laws. This, despite the fact that hardly any teen runaways have pimps or traffickers, according to a John Jay College of Criminal Justice study. Most see sex work as the best way to support themselves on the street, given the limited legal and social service options available for children who run away from home. And most, Bass told me, do not travel out of their own town or city, much less out of the country. 

So, in practice, trafficking does not mean "modern-day slavery." Nor does it mean being transported across borders for purposes of sexual exploitation. Instead, it usually refers to one or more of the following: being underage and selling sex; illegally immigrating; being subjected to any kind of forced labor or abusive labor practices; engaging in consensual sex work. 

"The public seems to believe that sex trafficking means forced prostitution,” researcher Tara Burns told me, “but when you sit down and read charging documents for sex trafficking charges, that is very very rarely the case." Sex workers are often charged with having trafficked themselves, Burns said. "Under different state laws, sex trafficking can also mean sex workers advertising for their own services or renting their own hotel rooms, or adults abusing children well outside of the commercial sex industry."   

The word “trafficking,” then, becomes a way to leverage the image of young women kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. After 9/11, Bass says, the State Department was eager to embrace the language of trafficking as another way to justify immigration restrictions and surveillance inspired in the first place by anti-terrorism—which is why initiatives like the State Department "Human Smuggling and Terrorist Center" lump together "Human smuggling, trafficking in persons, and clandestine terrorist travel" as "transnational issues that threaten national security." "Trafficking" can also be used to make anti-prostitution laws seem compassionate rather than punitive, as in the New York trafficking courts, which frames those arrested as trafficking victims in need of help, even though in practice you still end up with police arresting people (especially minority women) on prostitution charges. In either case, the word is a way to target marginalized groups like immigrants and sex workers in the name of a (confused or cynical) humanitarianism. 

So what would be a better term? Laura Agustín, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets & the Rescue Industry, says there isn't one. "The issue is not 'better language' because the framework setting out the problems serves policing, not people," she told me.  "There is no replacement term for trafficking because to use a single term simply disappears all these different situations, encourages reductionism and feeds right into a moralistic agenda of Good vs Bad. This category was invented and does not describe realities." 

If we're talking about underage sex workers with few other options for survival, we should say that we're talking about underage sex workers with few other options for survival—a discussion that should focus on resources and social service help, not law enforcement. Similarly, if the focus is forced labor conditions, then more attention should be paid to the main industries where that occurs. If the issue is about consensual sex work by adults, then legislators should be honest about using police to harass people for consensual sex work. They shouldn't pretend they're on a noble crusade against "trafficking."

This article has been updated.