What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is a criminal business that profits from enslaving people for sexual servitude and forced labor. It is the fastest growing and second largest criminal industry in the world today (second only to drug trafficking and tied with illegal arms), according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It is wrong to call sex trafficking a “form of labor.” Sex trafficking is rape. Rape is rape, not labor. Sex trafficking is rape for sale.

Types of Human Trafficking:

Sex Trafficking: “Sex trafficking is the act of forcing, coercing, or transporting a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act. Sex trafficking can occur in residential brothels, brothels disguised as massage parlors, strip clubs, and via online escort services and street prostitution.”

Labor Trafficking: “Labor trafficking is the act of forcing a person to work for little or no money. It can include forced labor in underground markets and sweatshops, as well as legitimate businesses such as hotels, factories, restaurants, construction sites, farming, landscaping, nail salons, and traveling sales crews.”

Domestic Servitude: “A form of labor trafficking, domestic servitude often involves women who are forced to live and work in the homes of employers who confiscate their legal documents and prevent them from leaving. Domestic workers can be U.S. citizens, lawfully-admitted foreign nationals, or undocumented immigrants”

(From The State of Human Trafficking in California, 2012, p. 16)



According to U.S. Federal law, human trafficking is defined as:

  • Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
  • The recruitment, harboring, transportation provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

According to the United Nations, human trafficking is defined as:
The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or use of force or other forms of coercion: abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or a position of vulnerability or 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.

Modern Day Slavery:
Human trafficking is also known as modern day slavery. Human trafficking deviates from our historic view of slavery, making it hard to conceptualize. But ultimately,slavery today and 200 years ago share the same notion: It’s the notion that one person’s life, liberty and fortune can be under the absolute control of another, and be sold, bought, or used at the will of the owner.

“The fact is human trafficking is happening right here, right now, in the United States, probably in any city where anybody lives. Just because you don’t know anything about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” – Vicki Zito, Mother of Survivor

Human trafficking exists all over the United States, but California is a hot spot for domestic and international human trafficking because of its large population, international borders, large economy, extensive ports, and metropolitan regions.

  • The average entry age of American minors into the sex trade is 12-14 years old. [1].
  • California harbors 3 of FBI’s 13 highest child sex trafficking areas in the nation: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. [2]
  • Foreign nationals are also brought into the U.S. as slaves for labor or commercial sex through force or fraud. [3]
  • The prevalence and anonymity of the internet has fueled the rapid growth of sex trafficking, making the trade of women, men and children easier than ever before.

Human Trafficking is Not Human Smuggling

Human trafficking removes the freedom of choice, in contrast to smuggling where the individual willingly cooperates in the illegal entry into a country.  Here are some of the differences:

Must contain an element of Force, Fraud, or Coercion (actual, perceived or implied), unless under 18 years of age involved in commercial sex acts. The person being smuggled is generally cooperating.
Forced labor and/or sexual exploitation. There is no actual or implied coercion.
Persons trafficked are victims. Persons smuggled are complicit in the smuggling crime; they are not necessarily victims of the crime of smuggling (though they may become victims depending on the circumstances in which they were smuggled)
Enslaved, subjected to limited movement or isolation, or had documents confiscated. Persons are free to leave, change jobs, etc.
Need not involve the actual movement of the victim. Facilitates the illegal entry of person(s) from one country into another.
No requirement to cross an international border. Smuggling always crosses an international border.
Person must be involved in labor/services or commercial sex acts. Person must only be in country or attempting entry illegally.

Table from U.S. Dept of State, Distinctions Between Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking

[1] The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children, Shared Hope International, May 2009.

[2] The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Efforts to Combat Crimes Against Children, Audit Report 09-08, January 2009.
[3] Trafficking in Persons Report, U.S. Department of State, June 2011.