The Importance of Language in Anti-Trafficking Work

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Stop Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

“This project was supported by Grant #2017-MC-FX-K051 awarded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.” 

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Language is a powerful tool. It has the amazing ability to build up and encourage, but it also has the power to tear down and defeat. In regards to social justice movements, such as the anti-human trafficking movement, language impacts the way people think about and respond to an issue.

Unfortunately, the words commonly used to describe human trafficking further perpetuate stereotypes, muddle the definition, cause harm, and ultimately can prevent young people from accessing much needed services. When the media reports on a story about a “child prostitute,” it causes us to see a criminal, and someone unworthy of services and support. In contrast, when the media reports on a child victim of human trafficking, the response may be one of pity or a focus on heroic rescue. Neither of these approaches honors the complex experiences of young survivors, or the need for holistic support and the ability to consistently meet their basic needs.

Approaching language with intentionality can help individuals and communities more intimately understand the issue of human trafficking, who is most impacted by it, and how to responsibly move toward action.

So What?

  • There are a number of different words or phrases that are used interchangeably to describe human trafficking. Not all of these terms are reflective of the true definition of human trafficking. Many exclude victims and create categories of worthy and unworthy victims (Countryman-Roswurm, 2015; Raben Group & Rights for Girls, nd; U.S. Department of State, 2014).
    • Certain language can result in the isolation of youth who have been victimized. Generally, there is a focus on minor girls who have experienced sex trafficking. The language used often excludes men/boys, LGBTQ+ individuals, adults, those who have experienced labor trafficking, and others (U.S. Department of State, 2014).
    • Prostitution or prostitute: Prostitution is a legal/criminal term. The connotations of these words are typically negative, assume an individual willingly engages in sexual exploitation, and implies they are criminal rather than someone in need of services.
    • Modern Day Slavery
      • Unfortunately, while this term is eye grabbing and makes awareness easy, it paints a problematic picture of human trafficking. Human trafficking and historical slavery in the U.S. have similarities, however, framing like this is troubling as they are not the same (National Survivor Network, 2019).
      • This language minimizes historical enslavement of African people and the multi-generational trauma and resulting impact. It can also be harmful to survivors, as it paints an inaccurate picture of many trafficking experiences.
  • Language can perpetuate stereotypes. How we talk about a person influences whether we see them as a victim or as a survivor. This ultimately has an impact on a survivor’s ability to access services (Countryman-Roswurm & Patton Brackin, 2017; Salvation Army, 2016).
    • For example language used to describe trafficking is often victim-blaming (Love 146, 2016).
      • He/She/They “chose” this or “likes” this
      • Prostituted vs. was exploited
      • Choice looks different when you are living in survival mode, have no options, or have no good options to choose from
  • Language often sensationalizes exploitation and abuse. Far too often we hear of the gruesome details and graphic content of exploitation. These details do not positively impact survivors or move the cause forward. Conversely, they serve only to shock the audience, rather than spread education on how to overcome (Beck Turner, 2014; Countryman-Roswurm & Patton Brackin, 2017; Lloyd, 2013).
    • Survivors are more than what has happened to them. Language often reduces survivors to their circumstances rather than emphasizing their amazing power to survive (Lloyd, 2013; Love 146, 2016).
    • The focus should be on a young person’s strengths and resilience. How did they survive? What has been their journey forward? What can they share to help others do the same?
  • Be cognizant of the language used by those involved in trafficking. Check out this resource for more information. These are examples of terms, but it’s important to recognize that language used can change over time and that it may not be consistent from one community to another.
    • It is helpful to understand these terms, but it would not be appropriate to use these, if this language does not come from your own experiences. Using these terms can be counterproductive to engaging young people if it is not authentic.
      • Different words can also be triggering for survivors, so be mindful and only use appropriate, strength-based language.
    • Understanding the language associated with trafficking may assist in engagement and intervention with young people. Key words may illuminate:
      • A young person’s understanding of how they view themselves or their situation, their current level of vulnerability, and their trust in the support you are offering.

Now What?

General Practice Implications for Individuals

  • Become familiar with the definition of human trafficking. Using terms that are outdated or terms that do not reflect the true definition of human trafficking creates confusion and causes harm (Beck Turner, 2014; Raben Group & Rights for Girls, nd; U.S. Department of State, 2014).
    • Remove terms like “child prostitute” from your vernacular. By federal definition there is no such thing as a child prostitute (Raben Group & Rights for Girls, nd).
    • Be inclusive of all survivors and their experiences. Acknowledge that youth who are trafficked (and traffickers themselves) come from all backgrounds, and that each situation of human trafficking is unique (Beck Turner, 2014; U.S. Department of State, 2014).

General Practice Implications for Service Providers

  • Do not sensationalize abuse and exploitation by sharing jarring details.This often re-traumatizes survivors and is nothing more than a shock tactic. It puts the focus on the details of abuse rather than on the resilience and strength of survivors to overcome. Consider how best to include survivor voice without re-exploitation. Speak about the fact that human trafficking exists and provide steps for combating it (U.S. Department of State, 2014).
  • Use strengths-based language that avoids blaming the victim. Recognize that no one chooses to be trafficked and identify the exploiter/ trafficker as responsible (Love 146, 2016).

General Practice Implications for Community

  • Educate the media and hold them accountable for how they report on human trafficking. The media plays a significant role in determining how stories about human trafficking will be framed. How the media shares information regarding human trafficking can and does impact societal paradigms and public response (Tiegreen & Newman, 2008a; Tiegreen & Newman, 2008b). Reporting on human trafficking should be centered on the individual who experienced it, focused on facts, non-sensationalized, and accurately portraying the issue.
    • Connect media personnel interested in doing a story on human trafficking to resources that will help them communicate the issue of trafficking skillfully (Countryman-Roswurm & Patton Brackin, 2017).

Mentoring Practice Implications for Individuals

  • Use language that is empowering, strengths-based, and that builds up your mentee. Remember, young people are more than what happened to them.
  • Help your mentee identify language that is comfortable to them, as well as what might be triggering. Discuss ways to positively cope when they are triggered by language.
  • Talk about the impact of language with your mentee. Your mentee may use language that is disempowering simply because they have heard others use it (either in reference to themselves or others). Encourage them to reflect, without judgment, on the words used and the messages they convey.  Model compassion and kindness in speaking to ourselves and others.

Mentoring Practice Implications for Service Providers

  • Programs should center, and be led by those with lived experience. Incorporate survivor voice and leadership into programming. Partner in developing language used in program materials, and other program components, being certain to compensate survivors adequately for their time and expertise (Countryman-Roswurm & Patton Brackin, 2016).
  • Be open to feedback and recognize that you won’t always get it right. Accept criticism with an open mind and strive to do better next time (Countryman-Roswurm, 2015).
  • Train staff and mentees on strengths-based language. Help them reframe phrases and language. For example:
    • Person who is sexually exploited vs. prostitute
    • A young person reacting out of trauma vs. a bad kid acting out
    • Everyone is capable of healing and growth vs. someone is “ruined”

Mentoring Practice Implications for Community

  • Talk about how the media portrays trafficking. Is it done well? How could it have been done better?
  • Invite others into a conversation about why language matters. What language is used in your community? How is language similar or different from those with lived experience, youth service agencies, leaders, and the general public?





  • How might using the word prostitution or modern day slavery miscommunicate the realities of trafficking?
  • How does deficit based language or phrases like “they chose this lifestyle”, influence our actions?
  • Word Association (individual or group)
    • Write the word “prostitution” and “victim of trafficking” on a chart. Under “prostitution” write down all the words or phrases that come to mind. Next under “victim” do the same.
    • Compare and discuss the results. Now walk through and think about how the difference in language might influence the thoughts/actions of a first responder, judge, service provider, caregiver, and the person themselves.  
    • What are the potential impacts of both approaches?  How can we engage in awareness efforts that highlight the complex experiences of youth that include trafficking and exploitation.


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