Human Trafficking Basics

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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What do we know?

Human trafficking is a complex social issue that touches communities across the world - urban and rural, rich and poor, foreign and domestic. While human trafficking has occurred for centuries, it did not appear on the agenda of the United Nations General Assembly, the Commission on Human Rights, and the World Conference until the 1990s (Gozdiziak & Collet, 2005). Therefore, our policy, advocacy, and direct service responses to this issue are relatively new.

As the title of this module states, this is a basic introduction. It is intended to set a foundation and provide awareness.  A well-informed foundation is critical to combat the many myths and misconceptions about human trafficking, as it is a complex issue involving the intersection of other social justice issues (Countryman-Roswurm, 2015).


  • 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 or services against his or her will. The one exception involves minors and commercial sex. Inducing a minor into commercial sex is considered human trafficking regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion. (Polaris)
  • The AMP Model, developed by Polaris is a good way to remember the legal definition.






Transportation (does not have to be across country, state, city, or county lines)



Soliciting/Patronizing (sex trafficking only)




*if under 18, a victim does not have to prove force, fraud, or coercion occurred. As a minor the law indicates they should be considered a victim regardless if force, fraud, or coercion is present


Commercial Sex Act






The Understanding Human Trafficking Legislation  module provides more in depth information about current anti-trafficking laws.

  • Human Trafficking can be:
    • International (outside the native country)  
    • Domestic (within the native country)

While the primary focus of this toolkit is on commercial sexual exploitation and domestic minor sex trafficking in the United States, labor trafficking will also be addressed.

  • Sex trafficking involves the exchange of a sex act for something of value such as money, shelter, or food. It is the commercial aspect which separates sex trafficking from other crimes, such as sexual assault or domestic violence.
    • As a reminder, a minor does not have to prove force, fraud, or coercion was present to be considered a victim. Any minor involved in commercial sex = sex trafficking.
  • Labor trafficking includes “situations of debt bondage, forced labor, and involuntary child labor. Labor traffickers use violence, threats, lies, and other forms of coercion to force people to work against their will in many industries”. (Polaris, n.d.) It can include hard labor (agriculture, textile, and construction), domestic labor (working as a nanny, housekeeping, or maid services) (Green, 2016 & Richards, 2014), or sales crews and restaurants.
    • In some situations, an individual, group, or company violates other labor laws, yet it may not meet the legal definition of human trafficking.

Note: Smuggling is sometimes confused with trafficking. It is the illegal movement of individuals across borders. What differentiates smuggling from trafficking is that someone who is smuggled desires to cross a border and they are entering into an agreement with a person that assists them in crossing. It is not uncommon for smuggling to turn into human trafficking (labor and/or sex).


  • Human trafficking falls on a continuum of violence and is a form of abuse (regular or repeated physical, emotion, or sexual cruelty or violence) and exploitation (taking advantage of another individual’s vulnerability for profit or selfish purposes) (Countryman-Roswurm & Shaffer, 2015).
  • It does not occur in a vacuum. It is common for individuals to experience multiple/different kinds of victimization (physical abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to violence, etc.), which can lead to complex trauma.
    • Complex trauma (often the result of sexual exploitation) can result in Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) (Courtois, 2004; Countryman-Roswurm & Shaffer, 2015).
    • Virtually every body system is affected by the trauma associated with human trafficking (Richards, 2014; Zimmerman et al., 2008).
      • Survivors endure physiological, physical, sexual, social, and spiritual abuse resulting in severe physiological trauma (Countryman-Roswurm & Shaffer, 2015).
    • Individuals experiencing Complex Trauma/CPTSD may exhibit anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, insomnia, dissociation, low self-esteem, self-mutilation, mood swings, eating disorders, and drug and alcohol dependency (Abas et al., 2013; American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Bremner & Vermetten, 2001; Farley, et al. 2003; Herman, 2003; Hossain et al., 2010).
    • Many individuals victimized through trafficking experienced other forms of victimization either before or following their trafficking experience (Farley, 2013).
    • Individuals exploited for labor may also experience sexual violence or sexual exploitation (Global Freedom Center, n.d., OJJDP, 2017).

There are many different terms used interchangeably with human trafficking. For the purposes of this toolkit, here are the definitions we are using to frame the conversation.

  • Modern Day Slavery - Though we don’t endorse this term,  you may see others use it in reference to both labor and sex trafficking.
  • Victim - an individual who is currently being victimized in labor or sex trafficking.
  • Survivor - an individual who has exited their experience of labor or sex trafficking.
  • Sex Trafficking
    • CSE/CSEC - Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children. This refers to a range of crimes that involves the sexual abuse and exploitation of children in exchange for anything of value (sex trafficking, survival sex, pornography) (Development Services, Group, Inc, 2014).
    • DMST - Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking. The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a U.S citizen or permanent resident under 18 years of age for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation.
    • Survival Sex (sometimes referred to as Survival Rape) - The exchange of sex to meet basic needs such as food, housing, clothing. If the individual is a minor, this meets the definition of sex trafficking.  This blog post illustrates some of these dynamics.
    • Prostitution - State laws vary on terms and details, but a very basic definition is the exchange of sex acts for money.
      • We don’t endorse this term, as it portrays exploited individuals as criminals. In reality, beneath the term is an individual who is likely in need of services and at the very least does not benefit from any judgement (Countryman-Roswurm, 2014).
      • This term should never be used in reference to a minor.
      • Read more about what the law says regarding minors who are sexually exploited here and the importance of language here.
  • Labor Trafficking
    • Involuntary Servitude - A form of force/coercion in which a person believes they or another person will suffer harm or physical restraint or are threatened with the abuse of the legal process unless they enter into a condition of servitude. (Public Law 106-386 [H.R. 3244]).
    • Debt Bondage, Bonded Labor, or Peonage - A form of coercion in which a victim has to pay off a debt through work/labor (Roe-Sepowitz, 2018).



  • Our actions
    • Our actions (or inactions) serve to either perpetuate the culture of trafficking or combat it. We have a responsibility to reduce demand and offer opportunities for prevention (Countryman-Roswurm & Patton-Brackin, 2014).
  • Demand for trafficking is broad and complex (Vogel, 2017).
    • Demand for labor and sex is a “socially, culturally, and historically determined matter” (Anderson & O’Connell-Davidson, 2003, p.41). Our culture influences people to want to buy sex or domestic labor, and an individual’s marginalized identities (race, sexual orientation, gender) can put them at greater risk for being exploited.  
    • Both sex and labor trafficking are fueled by a need/desire for money. Traffickers see the demand (i.e. social media, production of food and other products, sexualization of youth, entertainment industry, drug sales) and an opportunity to profit by exploiting another human.
    • Sex Trafficking
      • Demand is created by those who desire to buy sex, exploiters who meet the demand, the culture that tolerates it (Hughes, 2005).
      • Demand is further influenced by the objectification of women and toxic masculinity.
    • Labor Trafficking
      • Demand for labor trafficking is driven by individuals or companies who want cheap labor or inexpensive goods.
  • Individuals who are exploited (Victims)
    • Individuals who are exploited may not self-identify, may not view themselves as a victim, or know they are being exploited.
    • The consequences of repeated trauma on the brain often leave victims in a constant heightened state. Due to ongoing stress, their fight or flight response is overactive (Countryman-Roswurm & Shaffer, 2015). Their decision making and actions may seem counterintuitive (rejecting services, not cooperating, etc). Simply put, they are in survival mode.
    • Media representation of human trafficking and those who experience it is often misleading.
      • When we only look for the “physically restrained blonde-haired blue-eyed little girls” sold for sex, we overlook many victims - those who aren’t crying out for help, labor trafficking victims, boys, and those who are labeled as delinquents, criminals, defiant, and uncooperative (Countryman-Roswurm, 2015, p.4). A victim is always worthy of compassionate services, regardless of their age, race, gender, circumstances, or how they respond to you. There are no worthy vs. unworthy victims (Countryman-Roswurm, 2015).
    • Sex Trafficking
      • Even when someone “chooses” to engage in commercial sex we must consider:
        • “What is choice if there are no sustainable alternatives?” (Countryman-Roswurm, 2015, p. 4).
      • Exploitation typically occurs in a relationship. Admitting that someone you love, who is supposed to love you, is abusing you can evoke complicated responses like guilt, shame, embarrassment, and confusion.
    • Labor Trafficking
      • Wolfe, Greeson, Wasch, & Treglia (2018) found a higher number of homeless male youth involved in labor trafficking (73%) compared to sex trafficking (31%) in their study. Additionally, those trafficked for labor had higher levels of education than individuals trafficked for sex.
      • Minor victims may have been forced or coerced by family to work in illegal trades (drugs) or within family businesses (Wolfe, Greeson, Wasch, & Treglia, 2018).
      • Like sex trafficking, many labor trafficking victims knew their trafficker in some way prior to exploitation (acquaintance, family member, or friend) (Roe-Sepowitz, Bracy, & Lul, 2018).
  • Exploiters
    • Exploiters are those who take advantage of another person’s vulnerability. It is easy to view exploiters as extreme, evil, disengaged individuals of our communities. The reality is, they are often normal people who “need to feel that their behavior is normal, natural, necessary, and/or inevitable, and so justified” (Anderson & O’Connell-Davidson, 2003, p. 41).  Exploiters often have their own history of trauma, may be in survival mode, or have a lack of understanding of the harm they cause.
    • Traffickers
      • Very simply, traffickers are individuals who exploit vulnerabilities for labor or sex.
      • Traffickers can be anyone - there is not one profile of a trafficker (Human Trafficking Hotline, 2014). Traffickers can be of any race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, sexual orientation, social class, or any other demographic. Victims may identify their trafficker as a family member, intimate partner, employer, teacher, friend, or other role.
        • Sex Trafficking
          • When the victim is a minor, a situation can be considered sex trafficking even without the presence of an individual acting as a trafficker. For example, “survival sex” (the exchange of sex for a place to stay, food, protection, or other need) involving a minor is considered sex trafficking.
        • Labor Trafficking
          • Traffickers can be individuals exploiting others through force, fraud, or coercion to work for them in various settings (domestic labor, agriculture, construction, etc.) or large companies.
    • Buyers
      • Sex Trafficking
        • Buyers are the individuals who purchase another human for sexual acts whether through the exchange of money, gifts, or anything else of value (such as basic needs).
        • Like traffickers, buyers can be of any race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion, sexual orientation, social class, or any other demographic. Research has shown that buyers are often privileged, educated, family men (Monto & Milrod, 2013).
      • Labor Trafficking
        • Buyers are not purchasing a person, but rather a product or service creating a much more complex conversation.
        • According to Polaris (n.d.):
          • “In cases of labor trafficking, consumers provide the demand and profit incentive for traffickers. These consumers can include companies that subcontract certain types of services, end-consumers who buy cheap goods produced by trafficking victims, or individuals who use the services of trafficking victims. By supporting fair pay for workers and basing our purchasing choices on the fair treatment of those who make our products, consumers have the power to reduce the demand for labor trafficking.”


  • While anyone can become a victim, certain characteristics can increase an individual’s risk (Clawson & Dutch, 2009; Countryman-Roswurm, 2012; Logan et al., 2009; Rafferty, 2013; Smith et al., 2009; Tyler & Johnson, 2006):
    • Sex and Labor Trafficking
      • Age
        • Because of their age and inexperience, youth are particularly susceptible to the advances of a trafficker (Banks & Kyskelhahn, 2011; Clawson, Dutch, Solomon, & Goldblett, 2009a; Smith et al., 2009).
      • Race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, and immigration status. CSE is the exploitation of vulnerability and is enabled and reinforced by oppression, prejudice, and inequality (Countryman-Roswurm, 2015).
        • African-American youth comprise 59% of all prostitution arrests for those under 18—more than any other racial group (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2012). African American youth are at increased risk for domestic minor sex trafficking, with being female, living in an urban area, and experiencing abuse prior to trafficking all being factors (Havlicek, 2016).
        • Native American and Alaskan Native - Indigenous women experience higher lifetime prevalence (45.3%) of rape, physical violence, and stalking by intimate partners than any other race.
        • LGBTQ+ youth disproportionately experience homelessness, system involvement, and are more likely to be physically or sexually victimized, and be forced to exchange sex to meet basic needs (Dank et al., 2015).  Transgender youth of color are at particularly high risk for sex trafficking (Morton, M., 2018; Tomasiewicz, M. L., 2018).
        • Migrant workers and undocumented individuals are particularly vulnerable to labor trafficking in the U.S. (Roe-Sepowitz, 2018). Undocumented individuals are also less likely to report sex and labor trafficking due to fear/distrust of law enforcement (Brennan, 2008).
      • Other risk factors include (Countryman-Roswurm, 2012, Countryman-Roswurm & Bolin, 2014; Anchan, 2016):
        • History of physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, or sexual assault
        • Youth who have run away or are experiencing homelessness
        • History of relationship violence
        • Poverty
        • History of parental or personal drug or alcohol abuse
        • Loss of a parent, caregiver, or close relationship


  • While trafficking has only been depicted in a certain way in the media (generally the idea that a victim has been kidnapped and is in physical bondage), individuals are exploited in a variety of ways:
    • Sex Trafficking
      • Vulnerable youth are exploited and manipulated through relationships.
        • About 60% of survivors who called the Polaris Hotline in 2017 said they were trafficked by an intimate partner or family member.
      • Traffickers look for vulnerabilities, pretend to care, and then exploit the vulnerable, often using psychological manipulation (Anchan, 2016).
        • Adults and youth victims may consider their trafficker to be their boyfriend or girlfriend (Countryman-Roswurm & Bolin, 2014; Tyler & Johnson, 2004).
        • Familial Trafficking: Youth are often first exploited by their family members. They may be sold to pay a debt, buy drugs, or for money (Hodge & Lietz, 2007; Richards, 2014; Zimmerman et al., 2006).
    • Labor Trafficking
      • Deception through high paying false job offers (occurs both internationally and domestically). This can occur through staffing agencies, word of mouth, advertisements, and online (Roe-Sepowitz, 2018).
      • As a form of control, traffickers may keep personal information (all forms of identification, passports, visas, and bank information, or threaten to report those without legal documents) coercing their victims to stay out of fear (Richards, 2014; Roe-Sepowitz, 2018).
        • Other tactics include psycholoical violence, threats to harm or to report, physical force, sexual violence aginst the victim and/or their family (Roe-Sepowitz, 2018).
      • Traffickers may demand repayment of an exorbitant amount of money for travel, housing, or food. This is a form of debt bondage often makes it impossible for individuals to exit the situation.  


  • Unfortunately, due to the hidden nature of the crime, exact statistics regarding the prevalence of victims are difficult to obtain and influenced by questionable research methods employed to assess the number of victims, misidentification, and underreporting (Clawson & Dutch, 2009; Rafferty, 2013; Smith et al., 2009). Statistics provided are, at best, estimates.
    • Across the world, anywhere between 12 to 27 million people are thought to be victims of human trafficking (U.S. Department of State).
    • The International Labor Organization estimates that forced labor and human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide.
    • It is estimated that 100,000 to 300,000 youth are at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the United States alone (Estes & Weiner, 2001; Smith et al., 2009).

So What?

What does it mean? Why is this information important?


  • Understanding primary vulnerabilities, tactics, methods, definitions, related terms, and who is involved assists with identifying victims, and in providing appropriate services to meet their needs.


  • Survivors will require long-term aftercare services to ensure their holistic needs are met, while also addressing re-integration needs (job skills, education, money management, basic life skills, etc.) (Clawson, Solomon, & Grace, 2009).
  • The needs of survivors are vast; no one entity can meet them all. The complexity and scope of human trafficking requires a multi-disciplinary approach (Clawson & Dutch, 2008; Smith et al, 2009; Countryman-Roswurm, 2012).
    • Communities that have successfully implemented programs that allow for collaboration across professions and disciplines are better able to meet the needs of survivors (Countryman-Roswurm, 2012).

Now What?

What are the implications? What can we do?


  • Educating yourself is crucial. You can’t effectively intervene and help if you don’t understand the complexities of trafficking. Good intentions are not enough - education is key. Without it, you can unintentionally do further harm (Countryman-Roswurm, 2015).
    • For example, some youth may not have a trafficker. As stated previously, some may not identify as a victim and even reject you and the services you are offering. You can better respond with a plan when you are equipped with this knowledge prior to intervening.
  • Understanding a victim’s possible distrust of the system and remaining supportive over a long period of time can assist in the healing process (Orme & Ross-Sheriff, 2015).
    • This blog offers tips on how to engage youth in services.


  • Organize training sessions for direct service staff as well as those in other systems of care that may come in contact with victims/survivors (Clawson, Solomon, & Grace, 2009; Hodge & Lietz, 2007).
  • It is important for direct service providers to be trained on trauma-informed methods in order to effectively address the complex mental health needs of human trafficking victims (Clawson, Solomon, & Grace, 2009; Hardy et al., 2013; Orme & Ross-Sheriff, 2015). This approach is an ongoing process, not a checklist.
    • The four “R”s (SAMHSA, 2014).
      • Staff at all levels of the organization will have a basic realization and understanding of trauma.
      • Staff will be able to recognize signs of trauma.
      • Staff can respond by applying the 6 principles of a trauma informed approach
      • Staff will resist re-traumatization
    • 6 Principles (SAMHSA, 2014)
      • Safety
      • Trustworthiness and Transparency
      • Peer Support
      • Collaboration and Mutuality
      • Empowerment, Voice, and Choice
      • Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues
  • It is critical not to fall into a deficit mindset when implementing a trauma-informed approach. The strengths and resilience of the individual should be celebrated and leveraged for further success.
    • Trauma-informed approaches shift the focus from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?”.
    • Including a strengths-based approach takes this a step further, recognizing the impact of the trauma but shifting to focus on “what’s right with you?”.
  • It is critical for agencies to integrate a human trafficking protocol that includes specialized assessment/screenings and coordination of services (Hardy et al., 2013).
    • Additionally, agencies should review current program policies and procedures to ensure they will not cause undue stress or re-traumatize victims/survivors (Clawson, Solomon, & Grace, 2009).
    • A focus on identification without response strategies and resources cause harm.
      • When victims are identified (for example within the juvenile justice system) but there are no alternatives and they remain locked up, this creates a lack of trust in the systems potentially preventing them from seeking help in the future (Anchan, 2016).
      • When victims have been encouraged to leave a trafficking situation and seek help only to find there is no shelter or supportive services available, this can dramatically increase the risk of harm.
  • If your community does not already have one, consider organizing a multidisciplinary team to address the multifaceted challenges associated with human trafficking (Hodge & Lietz, 2007).
    • Multidisciplinary teams can help victims/survivors coordinate services across agencies and improve communication to develop a more effective system response to human trafficking.


  • Raise awareness regarding human trafficking through prevention and educational outreach programs (Orme & Ross-Sheriff, 2015).
    • Help your community members understand the complexities of trafficking and ensure they understand how to help without causing harm.
  • Advocate for effective local, state, national, and international policies regarding human trafficking (Hodge & Lietz, 2007; Linhorst, 2002).
  • Educate the community on what to do if they encounter a victim of trafficking. Ensure they are aware of community resources that can assist in an emergency.


  • Youth with a history of human trafficking will face a number of unique challenges because of the trauma they have endured (Dubois & Felner, 2016). The same is likely true for youth who are at risk for exploitation or trafficking. Educate yourself on risk, protective, and resilience factors, as well as the impact of trauma to best serve youth in your program.
  • Mentors can help youth stay on track with their healing (Dubois & Felner, 2016).
    • Seek to connect mentees to services and programs that can be helpful.
    • Encourage them to stay connected to programming in which they are already engaged.
    • Help them identify and address issues that are holding them back from healing.
  • Be patient. Youth with a history of trauma benefit greatly from a caring relationship with a positive adult mentor. However, there will be a number of ups and downs in the relationship and building trust will take time (Dubois & Fulner, 2016).


  • Provide mentors with comprehensive training on abuse, exploitation, and human trafficking.
  • Include mentor training on the impacts of trauma, and how to use a trauma-informed approach in their interactions with their mentee.
    • Provide training and ensure the use of evidence-based approaches, including Stage of Change, Motivational Interviewing, Positive Youth Development, and Narrative Practices.
  • Provide support for mentors who are matched with youth who have experienced trafficking. Work with them to set up appropriate support and boundaries with their mentee.


  • Advocate for the support of mentoring programs in the community.
  • Educate others on the benefits of mentoring for youth who have experienced trafficking.



Discussion Questions

  • Take a moment to think about what immediately comes to mind when you think of human trafficking. What are the first images pop up? What do buyers, traffickers, and victims act like? What do they look like? What words come to mind?
    • This is your immediate reaction and what your brain recalls. Now how does that differ from what you’ve just learned? Were you surprised by anything? What myths and misconceptions have you encountered? What areas would you like more information?
  • What three things have to be present for a crime to meet the requirement of human trafficking?
    • What is different about minor sex trafficking?
  • What can put someone at risk for trafficking?
  • What are some reasons someone would not identify as a victim?
  • What tactics or recruitment methods do traffickers use?
  • How does trauma affect an individual?
  • Review the 6 principles of trauma informed care.  What stands out? How would you  incorporate them into practice when working with individuals who have been trafficked?
  • What is the value of focusing on an individual’s strengths and resilience?
  • How can we use this information to strengthen our response to individuals who have experienced trafficking? What will be integrated into your practices?


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