About Modern Slavery

What Is Human Trafficking?

By Debra Brown Steinberg

Human trafficking is “one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time.”1 Congress has condemned it as “a contemporary manifestation of slavery” that is “abhorrent to the principles upon which the United States was founded.”2 “It knows no boundaries of geography, culture, or wealth.”3 It is “the fastest growing source of profits for organized criminal enterprises worldwide.”4

“Human trafficking is a crime under federal and international law; it is also a crime in almost every state in the U.S.”5 “[S]evere forms of trafficking in persons” under federal law consist of: (a) “sex trafficking in which a 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;” or (b) “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.”6 The level of protection available under state law varies by state.7

“The United States is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children - both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals - subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking.”8 “[B]oth U.S. citizens and foreign nationals … are protected under the federal trafficking statutes and have been since the TVPA [Trafficking Victims Protection Act] of 2000.”9 The federal definition “encompasses both ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘labor trafficking,’ and the crime can affect men and women, and children and adults.”10 “Trafficking victims can come from a range of income levels, and many may come from families with higher socio economic status.”11

“Human trafficking encompasses both transnational trafficking that crosses borders and domestic or internal trafficking that occurs within a country.”12 “The legal definition of trafficking, as defined under the federal trafficking statutes, does not require transportation.”13 Nor does it “require physical restraint, bodily harm, or physical force. Psychological means of control, such as threats, fraud, or abuse of the legal process, are sufficient elements of the crime.”14 “Elements of human trafficking can be identified whenever the means of force, fraud, or coercion induce a person to perform commercial sex acts, or labor, or services.”15 Under federal law, however, a victim, who is a minor under age 18, cannot consent in a sex trafficking situation; any “consent” given is not relevant to the crime; and proof of force, fraud, or coercion is not required.[^16

This clinical legal definition of human trafficking inevitably obscures its “awful reality.”16 Put simply, human trafficking is “slavery. It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in the civilized world.”17 That is the true meaning of human trafficking.


  1. Presidential Proclamation, National Slavery and Human Trafficking Month 2013, The White House (Dec. 31, 2012), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/12/31/presidential-proclamation-national-slavery-and-human-trafficking-prevent 

  2. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106-386, 114 Stat. 1464 (2000); 22 U.S.C. §§ 7101(a), (b)(22), available at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/10492.pdf; see also Remarks by President Obama to the Clinton Global Initiative, The White House (Sept. 25, 2012) (Human trafficking’s “true name [is] modern slavery.”), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/25/remarks-president-clinton-global-initiative 

  3. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Violence Against Women “Most Shameful,” Pervasive Human Rights Violation, Says Secretary-General in Remarks on International Women’s Day (Mar. 8, 1999), available at http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/1999/19990308.sgsm6919.html 

  4. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106-386, 114 Stat. 1464 (2000); 22 U.S.C. §§ 7101(a), (b)(22), available at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/10492.pdf 

  5. National Human Trafficking Resource Center/Polaris Project, Resources: State and Federal Laws, available at http://www.polarisproject.org/resources/state-and-federal-laws 

  6. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, Pub. L. No. 106-386, 114 Stat. 1464 (2000); 22 U.S.C. §7102(8), available at www.state.gov/documents/organization/10492.pdf; see 22 U.S.C. §§ 7102(2) [Coercion], (3) [Commercial Sex Act], (4) [Debt Bondage], (5) [Involuntary Servitude], (9) [Sex Trafficking]; see also 18 U.S.C. §§1589, 1591, available at http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/smart/pdfs/18_usc_index.pdf 

  7. Shared Hope International, Protected Innocence Challenge, State Report Cards, available at http://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/bring-justice/state-by-state-grades/ 

  8. Trafficking in Persons Report 2012, p. 359, U.S. Department of State, available at http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2012/ 

  9. Myths and Misperceptions, Polaris Project, available at http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/overview/myths-and-misconceptions 

  10. Id. 

  11. Id. 

  12. Id. 

  13. Id. 

  14. Id. 

  15. Id. 

  16. Remarks by President Obama to the Clinton Global Initiative, The White House (Sept. 25, 2012), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/25/remarks-president-clinton-global-initiative 

  17. Id.