Understanding Human Trafficking

Defining Human Trafficking

U.S. law defines human trafficking as the use of force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person into commercial sex acts or labor against their will. The Action-Means-Purpose (AMP) Model can be helpful in understanding the federal law. Human trafficking occurs when a perpetrator, often referred to as a trafficker, takes an Action (induces, recruits, harbors, transports, provides), and then employs the Means of force, fraud or coercion for the Purpose of compelling the victim to provide commercial sex acts (sex trafficking) or labor/services (labor trafficking). At a minimum, one element from each column must be present to establish a potential situation of human trafficking.

Sex Trafficking: The basics

Key Points

How does it begin?

People in sex trafficking situations almost always know and even trust or love their traffickers. Traffickers target vulnerable people who have needs that the traffickers can fill. Sometimes they offer material support – a place to live, clothing, a chance to “get rich quick.” Other times they offer love, emotional support or a sense of belonging. Kidnapping victims and forcing them into the sex trade through violence is rare.

Who are the traffickers?

Traffickers come from all genders, races, ethnicities and walks of life. In sex trafficking situations, they may be intimate partners or spouses of the victims, family members, friends or benefactors, business acquaintances and bosses.

‍Who are the victims?

Anyone can be trafficked, but some people are far more vulnerable than others because they have greater needs. These include people living in poverty or in unstable housing situations, as well as people with a history of trauma or addiction. Because of current and historic discrimination and inequity, people of color, immigrants, and people who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to be exploited for these vulnerabilities and face trafficking.

Why don’t victims just leave?

In many cases, people in sex trafficking situations do not see themselves as victims while they are being trafficked. They have been so expertly manipulated or “groomed” that they believe they are making their own choice to engage in commercial sex. These emotional ties are as powerful as being held in handcuffs or behind bars. People in sex trafficking situations may well also depend on their traffickers for physical needs like money or shelter. They may face threats against them or their families or violence if they complain or try to leave.

How do people get out of sex trafficking situations?

Every story is different. What they have in common is resilience. Survivors come to the understanding that they want to leave the situation, and then fight to get out. Sometimes they get help from service providers, or anti trafficking organizations, but the concept of “rescuing” adult sex trafficking victims is misleading and dangerous. Survivors rescue themselves.

How do we reduce or prevent sex trafficking?

Human trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is the end result of other inequities in our society and our economic system that make people vulnerable to the enticements of traffickers. So while prosecuting traffickers and seeking justice for survivors is vital, it is not enough by itself to end trafficking. To reduce trafficking at the massive scale of the problem, we need to work together as a society to increase supports and services for vulnerable people and change conditions – like homelessness, family violence, poverty and discrimination – that make people vulnerable to the lure of traffickers.

Recognizing Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking is the crime of using force, fraud or coercion to induce another individual to sell sex. It is not something you can see happening across a crowded room. Learn more about potential red flags and indicators, including real-life examples. 

Labor Trafficking: The basics

Key Points

How does labor trafficking begin?

Labor trafficking most often begins with a simple job offer. It becomes trafficking when pay or working conditions are abusive and the worker cannot quit or complain because the boss is threatening them or exploiting their desperate economic circumstances. Kidnapping or physical force are rarely part of how labor trafficking situations begin.

Who are the traffickers?

Traffickers can be business owners, bosses, or other workers with a managerial role in a formal business. Traffickers can also be victims’ families or legal guardians, including parents, spouses and intimate partners.

‍Who are the victims?

Anyone can be victimized by a labor trafficker, but certain people are far more vulnerable than others. Economic need is a key risk factor and immigrants – including immigrants who are in this country legally – are particularly vulnerable to labor trafficking.

Why don’t victims just leave?

The most common ways traffickers control victims are through threats or economic abuse. Immigrants are vulnerable to labor trafficking because many have come to the United States due to violence or severe poverty in their home countries. That makes threats like “if you complain, I will call ICE” extremely powerful. Additionally, many labor trafficking victims are bound to traffickers by debt and the belief that even the minimal amount they are being paid is better than their other options.

How do we reduce or prevent labor trafficking?‍

Vigorous enforcement of basic labor protections afforded to workers in the United States would go a long way toward reducing labor trafficking, as would efforts to help workers understand their rights and the protections available to them. Increased employer accountability or “skin in the game,” is also vital to reducing labor trafficking.

Recognizing Labor Trafficking

Labor trafficking is the crime of using force, fraud or coercion to induce another individual to work or provide service. Learn more about potential red flags and indicators, including real-life examples.

Human Trafficking Training

Before you can be part of the solution to human trafficking, you have to understand this complex crime and the many nuanced ways in which people can be victimized. To help, we offer this free, interactive online training program. It has six separate modules and will take about 20 minutes to complete. When you’re done, you’ll have baseline knowledge about  what human trafficking is, how it happens, who the victims and traffickers are, and how you can really be part of the movement to end it.


Take the Training

Iniciar la capacitación en español

Human Trafficking Points to Remember

Key Points

  • 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.

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