Part 2—The Narrative Arc

Understanding Human Trafficking

Understanding human trafficking

While every situation is unique, traffickers tend to follow patterns. Understanding “typical” trafficking scenarios can help to spark ideas about stories to tell that are both realistic and powerful.

Key Points


Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to get someone to perform labor or sex acts in exchange for money or something else of value such as a place to live or an addictive drug.

  • Trafficking has nothing to do with moving something or someone from one country to another. That is smuggling, which is a crime against a border, not a person; people can be trafficked in their own homes.
  • Force, fraud or coercion MUST be present for a situation to be trafficking and that force, fraud or coercion MUST be the factor that compels the person to remain in the situation. If you hire someone and promise to pay a certain amount then renege on that promise, that is fraud. If the person you cheated is free to leave and go file a complaint it is not trafficking, though it may be exploitation. This situation only becomes trafficking when the defrauded person is, for example, threatened with deportation for complaining.
  • The EXCEPTION to the force, fraud or coercion requirement is that children participating in commercial sexual activity is ALWAYS considered trafficking under federal law. There is no such thing, under federal law, as a child prostitute.
  • Not all adult commercial sex is trafficking. There are adults who choose to make a living in the sex trades, but it’s important to remember that choice exists on spectrum. For example, there are many people who choose to make a living in the sex trades because there are no other good options available to them.
  • Human trafficking can happen in any business – not just in sexually oriented businesses like escort services or strip clubs. It can also happen where no business exists in any formal sense – such as within families.
  • While human trafficking CAN happen to anyone, certain individuals and groups of people are far more vulnerable than others.
  • People being trafficked will not always or even often identify as trafficking victims. Because of how trafficking works, most people do not identify their experience as trafficking until AFTER the situation is over.

The human trafficking story arc

Unlike murder, or robbery, human trafficking is not a single event that happens at one specific moment in time. Trafficking occurs through a series of activities that take place over time, throughout the course of a day, for months or even years.

Like any traditional, linear narrative, the story of every sex and labor situation has a beginning, a middle and – we hope – an end. The beginning and middle tend to follow fairly common patterns. How trafficking ends is as unique as the resilient survivors who manage to find their ways to freedom.

“One thing I find hard to take is language or pictures or stories about ‘innocence lost.’ I feel like that means some victims are worthwhile and some are ‘guilty.’”

– A survivor of human trafficking


Recruitment: Human trafficking victims are rarely picked at random. They are targeted for vulnerabilities that make them susceptible to the enticement the trafficker has to offer. That enticement depends on the type of trafficking and the victim.

Grooming: Victims are manipulated slowly and expertly until something they would never ordinarily do or accept becomes something that feels normal and even necessary.


Trafficking, coercion and control: The methods traffickers use to control victims may include violence, but often do not. Instead, labor trafficking victims are controlled through threats (like the threat of deportation) or economic abuse, such as wage theft and debt bondage. In sex trafficking situations, coercion and control is often a toxic cocktail of violence, confused loyalty, economic or physical need, love, manipulation and abuse.


Exit and healing: While there are organizations that claim to “rescue” human trafficking victims, the reality is that adult survivors rescue themselves. That process generally takes place over time as the person in the situation begins to recognize that they want to change the way they are living, or that they are in an abusive job or relationship. Sometimes they seek help and services, and sometimes they make their own ways toward freedom.

Who gets trafficked and why

If you’ve done any research at all on human trafficking, chances are you have run into one of two ubiquitous tag lines or tropes:

“Human trafficking: It can happen to anyone.”

“Human trafficking is happening right here, in our own backyards.”

These phrases were coined at a time when the concept of human trafficking happening in the United States – as opposed to in faraway countries – was new and surprising.

And technically, it is true that anyone can be a victim of human trafficking. But these phrases are also a little misleading because in reality, certain individuals and communities are far more vulnerable than others.

That’s because human trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is the end result of a range of other persistent injustices and inequities in our society and our economy.

Traffickers recruit victims by offering them something they desperately want or need. Sometimes that’s a job. Sometimes it’s love, a safe place to sleep or a sense of belonging and community. So it makes sense that there is more trafficking in communities where needs are greater.

Data shows that the vast majority of trafficking victims identified in the United States are people who have historically faced discrimination and its political, social and economic consequences: People of color, indigenous communities, immigrants and people who identify as LGBTQ+ are disproportionately victimized. People living in poverty, or foster care, or who are struggling with addiction, trauma, abuse or unstable housing, are all at a higher risk for trafficking.

So is human trafficking happening right here, in our backyards? Well it really depends on what else is in your backyard!

Cliche Alert

The other problem with the ubiquitous phrase “it’s happening right there in your backyard” is that it makes it sound like the way to protect yourself and your family is through vigilant policing of strangers. It’s not!

Note: Photos are for illustrative purposes. All people depicted are models.

Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.