HUMAN TRAFFICKING is one of the least morally controversial social justice issues of our time. Agreement that human trafficking is wrong and must end is widespread, if not completely unanimous. Yet when most people hear the term “human trafficking,” they envision sex trafficking: vivid images of young women forced to work in “massage parlors” and brothels, selling sex on the streets of major cities.
But human trafficking is broader than sex trafficking. U.S. law defines human trafficking through the legal categories of fraud, force, or coercion. In simple terms, human trafficking occurs when individuals lose control over their lives and are forced to work for nothing or next to nothing. Someone who has been trafficked does not have control over the terms and conditions of their employment; they can’t leave for fear that they or someone they care about will be harmed as a result.
So while trafficking certainly can take the form of sexual exploitation, it can also look like nannies or janitors, workers in slaughterhouses or meat-packing plants, people forced to work on factory assembly lines and rural farms. It takes place in both the formal and informal economies; it may involve adults and children.
When sex trafficking isn’t
Human trafficking hasn’t always been so tightly linked to sex trafficking. In the 1980s and 1990s, there were a number of nonprofits dedicated to combatting labor exploitation in all its forms. But when one of the first pieces of anti-trafficking legislation was proposed in 1999, its congressional sponsors wished to differentiate between sex-trafficking and other forms of labor exploitation. They “did not want ‘low-wage sweatshop issues’ to cloud the issue of human trafficking, which, they argued, was essentially about the sexual exploitation of women and girls and not about exploited labor more generally,” as Letitia Campbell and I wrote in 2014. Significantly revised anti-trafficking legislation was signed into law in late 2000.
Beginning in 2001, the George W. Bush administration implemented the new anti-trafficking law, making prostitution and sex-trafficking centerpieces of its gender policy. A 2002 National Security Presidential Directive on human trafficking called prostitution “inherently harmful and dehumanizing,” and the administration insisted that prostitution and sex-trafficking are linked phenomena.