How is Human Trafficking Defined?

(The following is an excerpt from my book, The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery (2016). Beginning on January 11th, every other day I’ll be posting excerpts from my book to help readers learn more about this issue during National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The Essential Abolitionist answers the most often-asked questions about human trafficking, and the response to modern slavery.)

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines human trafficking as the following.

  1. Sex Trafficking: the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; and
  2. Labor Trafficking: 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.

Several important elements of this definition need to be clearly understood. The most obvious is that there are two different categories of human trafficking, with distinct specifications. Note that both include the words “force, fraud, or coercion,” which are addressed in detail later. However, there is a key distinction between these definitions. When the type of trafficking is commercial sex and the “person induced to perform such act”—the victim—is under the age of 18, no force, fraud, or coercion needs to be shown. Yet, in the specification for labor trafficking, force, fraud, or coercion needs to be shown regardless of the age of the victim.

The first category in the definition of human trafficking addresses “commercial sex acts,” not sex acts in general. A commercial sex act is defined in the TVPA as “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.” So to be considered human trafficking, the incident must include a commercial element; something of value must be given or received. This requirement distinguishes human trafficking from, for example, rape or other forms of sexual assault where no commercial element exists. Value is often represented by money but can be satisfied by anything of recognizable value.

For now, there are three important reasons to understand these basic definitions. First, when discussing human trafficking, we must all have a mutual understanding of the definition. Second, when potential victims of human trafficking are identified, these definitions set the criteria used to classify them as victims of trafficking, which then allows them access to specialized benefits and reliefs available to trafficking victims by law. Finally, this definition is the standard by which individual state laws are measured, with most states using similar language in their statutory definition of human trafficking.

Two other points to clarify: The TVPA uses the term “severe forms of trafficking in persons,” implying there are forms of trafficking less than “severe.” This language causes confusion, but any case of human trafficking involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion is considered “severe.” Also keep in mind that this definition is not a criminal statute used to prosecute traffickers. Both federal and state statutes exist which address more specific elements of the crime of human trafficking and their associated monetary and penal penalties.

In short, human trafficking is using force, fraud, or coercion to obtain commercial sex acts or other labor or services—with the exception that when the type of trafficking is commercial sex, and the victim is under 18, no force, fraud, or coercion need be shown.

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