The Bitter Truth: Human Trafficking in America

by Lory Stone and Debra Brown Steinberg

She’s the girl next door who ran away from home at age twelve to escape her stepfather’s abuse. He’s the pot washer in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant. She’s your daughter in her bedroom online with a predator.

“[H]uman sex trafficking and sex slavery,” according to the FBI, “happen locally in cities and towns, both large and small, throughout the United States, right in citizens’ backyards.”1 The State Department designates “[t]he United States [as] a source, transit, and destination country in which men, women, and children - both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals - [are] subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking.”2 The Attorney General cautions: “Make no mistake-human trafficking is not just a global problem. It is a national crisis.”3

These sobering facts underscore President Obama’s acknowledgement of “the bitter truth … that trafficking also goes on right here, in the United States… .”4 “Human trafficking has emerged as one of the most serious civil rights threats within the United States in the 21st Century” according to the National Association of Attorneys General.5 And, it “is second only to narcotics trafficking as an international criminal enterprise.”6

“In communities nationwide, human trafficking victims often are hiding in plain sight.”7 “[V]ictims of human trafficking can be young or old, US citizens or foreign nationals.”8 “The American Bar Association reports that, “[i]n the United States, more than 100,000 citizens are estimated to be victims of trafficking - although, because data are scarce, many experts say the number is actually much higher.”9 The FBI concludes that, “[a]lthough comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking, an estimated 293,000 American youths currently are at risk of becoming victims of sexual exploitation.”10

“American children are victims of sex trafficking within the United States.”11 “According to the Justice Department’s recent estimates, more than 40 percent of all human trafficking incidents opened for investigation were for sexual trafficking of a child. And the overwhelming majority of these victims - more that 80 percent of them - were identified as U.S. citizens.”12 “The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14.”13 Yet, as of 2010, the Department of Justice estimated that “[t]here are only 50 beds available in the United States in facilities designed specifically for victims of child prostitution.”14 “The country-wide lack of protective shelter and specialized services is responsible for the re-victimization and criminalization of domestic minor sex trafficking victims.”15

The prevalence of homegrown human trafficking is often obscured by a variety of myths, such as those identified on the FBI website:

Myth: Trafficking must involve the crossing of borders.
Fact: Despite the use of the word “trafficking,” victims can actually be held within their own country-anti-trafficking laws don’t require that victims must have traveled from somewhere else.

Myth: U.S. citizens can’t be trafficked.
Fact: They can and they are.

Myth: Victims know what they are getting into or have chances to escape.
Fact: They’re actually duped into it and may not even think of escaping because of threats against them or ignorance of the law.

Myth: Victims are never paid.
Fact: Sometimes they are paid, but not very much.

Myth: Victims never have freedom of movement.
Fact: Some victims can move about, but are coerced into always returning, perhaps with a threat against their families back home.16

Debunking these myths through education, training, and public awareness is the first step toward, in President Obama’s words, “rededicat[ing] ourselves to stopping one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time… human trafficking - a crime that amounts to modern-day slavery,”17 and to realizing the promise of the President’s message of hope to trafficking victims and survivors: “[W]e see you. We hear you. We insist on your dignity. And we share your belief that if just given the chance, you will forge a life equal to your talents and worthy of your dreams.”18


  1. A. Walker-Rodriguez, R. Hill, Human Trafficking, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2011), available at http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/march_2011/human_sex_trafficking 

  2. 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report, U.S. Department of State, available at http://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/2012/ 

  3. Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks on Human Trafficking for the Frank and Kula Kumpuris Distinguished Lecture Series (Little Rock, Ark., Apr. 24, 2012), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2012/ag-speech-120424.html 

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

  5. National Association of Attorneys General, 2012 Presidential Initiative Against Human Trafficking, Resolution Adopted March 5-7, 2012, available at http://naag.org/2011-2012-presidential-initiative.php 

  6. Id. 

  7. Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks on Human Trafficking for the Frank and Kula Kumpuris Distinguished Lecture Series (Little Rock, Ark., Apr. 24, 2012), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2012/ag-speech-120424.html 

  8. National Association of Attorneys General, 2012 Presidential Initiative Against Human Trafficking, Resolution Adopted March 5-7, 2012, available at http://naag.org/2011-2012-presidential-initiative.php 

  9. L. Bellows (President, American Bar Association), Changing Lives Warped by Human Trafficking (Jan. 11, 2013), available at http://www.newsday.com/opinion/oped/bellows-changing-lives-warped-by-human-trafficking-1.4436711 

  10. A. Walker-Rodriguez, R. Hill, Human Trafficking, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2011), available at http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/march_2011/human_sex_trafficking 

  11. L. Smith, et al., The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children, Shared Hope International (May 2009), available at [http://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/prevent/research/; http://www.sharedhope.org/files/SHI_National_Report_on_DMST_2009.pdf](http://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/prevent/research/; http://www.sharedhope.org/files/SHI_National_Report_on_DMST_2009.pdf) 

  12. Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks on Human Trafficking for the Frank and Kula Kumpuris Distinguished Lecture Series (Little Rock, Ark., Apr. 24, 2012), available at http://www.justice.gov/iso/opa/ag/speeches/2012/ag-speech-120424.html. 

  13. A. Walker-Rodriguez, R. Hill, Human Trafficking, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (March 2011), available at http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/march_2011/human_sex_trafficking 

  14. U.S. Department of Justice, The National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction: A Report to Congress (Aug. 2010), available at http://www.ojjdp.gov/programs/csec_program.html 

  15. L. Smith, et al., The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children, Shared Hope International (May 2009), available at [http://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/prevent/research/; http://www.sharedhope.org/files/SHI_National_Report_on_DMST_2009.pdf](http://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/prevent/research/; http://www.sharedhope.org/files/SHI_National_Report_on_DMST_2009.pdf) 

  16. Help Trafficking Prevention: Help Us Identify Potential Victims, Federal Bureau of Investigation (Jan. 20, 2012), available at http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2012/january/trafficking_012012/trafficking_012012 

  17. Presidential Proclamation - National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, January 2013, available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/12/31/presidential-proclamation-national-slavery-and-human-trafficking-prevent 

  18. Remarks by President Obama at the Clinton Global Initiative (September 25, 2012), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/25/remarks-president-clinton-global-initiative