8 Terms You Should Know About Human Trafficking

Many different terms are used to describe various forms of human trafficking or related issues. Sometimes those terms are used interchangeably and/or incorrectly. The following list is provided for clarification.

1 . Human Trafficking

The most widely-accepted formal definition is from the United Nations’ Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons which defines human trafficking as: ”The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” 

While many people refer to human trafficking as slavery, there are many characteristics that make it different from the historical practice of slavery. For example, historically slave owners typically had a large financial investment in the purchase of their slaves, which in turn motivated them to “maintain” their property. Today, human trafficking victims are obtained with little or no investment resulting in “disposable” human commodity.

2 . Forced Labor/Labor Trafficking

A form of Human Trafficking in which victims are held by force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of labor or services. In the United States labor trafficking victims are typically used in agriculture, factory work, construction and domestic servitude. Unskilled labor pools comprised of foreign national immigrants (both legal and illegal) are at high risk for labor trafficking.

Put simply, it is modern day slavery. People are trafficked for the purpose of forced labor, sexual exploitation and even organ harvesting.

3. Sex Trafficking

Defined by the TVPA as a “severe” form of human trafficking that involves the sexual exploitation of an individual for commercial/financial gain or in exchange for something of value. It includes physical abuse, pornography, prostitution, erotic type entertainment, stripping and the smuggling of individuals for the purpose of sexual exploitation. This term makes no distinction to the age or nationality of the individual. It can be anyone, anywhere. 

4. Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE)

The sexual exploitation of an individual in exchange for something of value (financial or other). CSE is a broader term that encompasses both sex trafficking and prostitution. It evolved out of the recognition that the commodification of sex is in of itself exploitative.

5. Commercial Sexual Exploitation of a Child (CSEC)

CSEC is the commercial sexual exploitation of a child. CSEC is by definition, always sex trafficking. Minors used in pornography, prostitution, erotic type entertainment, and stripping are CSEC victims. Children should never be referred to as “prostitutes” or “child prostitutes”. 

6. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST)

Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking carries the same definition as CSEC, except that it specifically refers to the exploitation of minors who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents within the domestic United States. 

7. Prostitution

The Bureau of Justice (2017) defines prostitution as “the unlawful promotion of or participation in sexual activities for profit, including attempts to solicit customers or transport persons for prostitution purposes; to own, manage, or operate a dwelling or other establishment for the purpose of providing a place where prostitution is performed; or to otherwise assist or promote prostitution.” 

Prostitution is understood by our legal systems to be an exchange between consenting adults. The reality however, is that the involvement of consenting adults who are not under the control of a pimp, are actually over the age of 18 and are consenting in a way that is in full alignment with what the definition of “consent” means, is a statistically rare occurrence. One study found that only 1% engaging in prostitution are actually consenting adults. (Davidson, 1998)

Making a distinction between sex trafficking and prostitution is a stumbling block to really solving this problem.  As stated by a well-known expert in prostitution research “Prostitution and sex trafficking are the same human rights catastrophe” (Leidholdt, 2003). Further, sex trafficking is the result of demand for prostitution.

8. Victim or Survivor?

People who have been exploited in human trafficking are victims of a crime. This however, does not make it their identity. People who have lived through human trafficking are more than just crime victims. The term “survivor” is an empowering term that honors their experiences, strength, resilience and bravery. The best way to utilize these terms is to think of the word “victim” when referring to the past or to describe their role in the crime. The term “survivor” is a present and future tense word.

Alison Phillips is an adjunct professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City specializing in human trafficking.


Bureau of Justice: Offense Definitions. (2017). Retrieved from:https://www.bjs.gov/arrests/templates/terms.cfm

Davidson, J.O.C. (1998). Prostitution, power and freedom. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press

Leidholt, D.A. (2003). Demand and the debate. Retrieved from:

United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (2004). United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Article 3 paragraph (a) p42. Retrieved from: http://www.unodc.org/documents/treaties/UNTOC/ Publications/TOC%20Convention/TOCebook-e.pdf

United States Congress, (2005). Trafficking victim’s re-authorization act of 2005. PUBLIC LAW 109-164. Retrieved from: http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/61106.html.

Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, Public Law 106-386, §§1-2004, 114 Stat. 1464 2000.