No One Sees Them

As uncomfortable as it may make us, the truth is that slavery is alive and well in the world today, and we have a responsibility to do something about it. But it’s difficult to combat a problem you don’t see. Some of you may be well-versed on the evils of modern-day slavery, also known as “trafficking in persons” or “human trafficking.” If you don’t know much about this issue, however, here are 10 things you should know about human trafficking.

What is “human trafficking?”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is “the illegal trade in people for exploitation or commercial gain.”[i] So, what does that mean, really? It’s simple. Human trafficking is:

  1. Selling or bartering people in exchange for money, goods, or services, and/or
  2. Forcing people to perform labor, sexual, military, or other services against their will or through coercion, typically without pay or at drastically low wages.

Exploitation and commercial gain can, but don’t always, overlap. Examples of exploitation could include rebel military groups forcing child soldiers to join them, or a family promising a woman a job as a nanny in a foreign country, then confiscating her documents and forcing her to work without pay.

Commercial gain obviously means that traffickers are using their victims to make money and would include things like forced prostitution or using forced labor to build a shiny new city like Dubai.[ii] This is the kind of trafficking that’s probably more familiar to us all.


There’s more to it than sex trafficking

Most people think of human trafficking primarily as sex trafficking, which is the largest and most easily identified trafficking “sub-genre.” However, there are about a half-dozen additional trafficking categories, some of which you may have never considered.

The U.S. State Department lists the following categories of human trafficking:

  • Forced Labor
  • Bonded Labor
  • Debt Bondage Among Migrant Laborers
  • Involuntary Domestic Servitude
  • Forced Child Labor
  • Child Soldiers
  • Child Sex Trafficking (also known as CSEC, or the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children)[iii]

Labor trafficking is common in both developing and flourishing economies, though traffickers primarily target those from weaker economies, whether they keep them in their home country or move them abroad. Factory, agricultural, construction, and hospitality are common industries where you’ll find forced labor.

Once a victim is ensnared, it can feel impossible for them to get out. Traffickers maintain control of their victims through threats, coercion, violence, isolation, and other means to manipulate the victim into staying—and into believing there is no way out.

Traffickers may also move their victims away from anything familiar so they are less likely to run away. Often they will move victims to another country with a totally different language and confiscate their documentation. This accomplishes two primary things:

  • The language barrier makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the victim to reach out for help or to understand what services and resources are available to them.
  • Without access to their own ID and travel documents, the victim can’t flee to their home country—they are at the mercy of their trafficker, who has most likely told the victim that they’ll be arrested if they go to the authorities.

Violence also plays a major role in traffickers’ control over their victims. Traffickers will mercilessly beat their victims for minor “infractions” of the rules, making the likelihood of attempted escape or other disobedience minimal. Or they may force their victims to use drugs, so they become addicted and do whatever it takes to stay in their trafficker’s good graces.


Modern slavery is a massive worldwide problem

There are an estimated 35.8 million slaves around the world, according to a recent Global Slavery Index report from the Walk Free Foundation.[iv] The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are around 27 million slaves throughout the world.

The GSI report indicates that India is, by far, the #1 country for modern slavery as far as the numbers go, with an estimated 14 million people (about 1.1%) being exploited or forced to work in various industries.

Mauritania claims the unenviable spot at #1 on the list for highest prevalence of trafficking in any country, with 4% of the population (160,000 people) estimated to be enslaved. Based on this same prevalence scale, the US falls at 143rd of the 167 countries included, with an estimated 0.019% of the population caught in the web of human trafficking (this puts the estimate of trafficked persons in the US at around 60,000).

The modern slave trade generates an estimated $32 Billion in profits for traffickers each year.[v] It’s becoming increasingly popular as individuals, street gangs, and organized crime rings realize that it can be more profitable to traffic people than it is to traffic drugs—because you can only sell a bag of cocaine once, but you can sell a person’s body over and over again.


Victims aren’t always kidnapped

Many people think of traffickers as kidnappers—and while that can be true, kidnapping a victim is actually less common than other methods used to entrap them. Simple deceit, for example: many labor trafficking victims are lured away from family and friends by the alluring promise of a great job.

Sex trafficking victims are often groomed by what’s called a “Romeo pimp”—a trafficker who pretends to fall in love with them, only to turn around and force them into prostitution. Some, called “Gorilla pimps,” use an unexpected violent attack to force victims to obey them.

And, worst of all, sometimes the Romeo or Gorilla approaches aren’t even necessary, because it’s the victim’s own family that sells them into exploitation.


It Can Happen to Anyone—But Traffickers are Expert Profilers

If you took a survey of all trafficking victims worldwide, you’d find that they span the full spectrum of humanity: victims can be rich, poor, healthy, sick, educated, uneducated, men, women, boys, girls, men, or women.

That being said, the most common characteristic you’ll find among trafficking victims is vulnerability. Lack of education, lack of resources, past sexual assault or abuse, low self-esteem, poverty, prior family involvement in trafficking, and/or being a child in the foster care system are all risk factors for being lured into trafficking.[vi] In fact, of the sex trafficking victims recovered in a nationwide raid by the FBI in 2013, 60% had lived in foster care or group homes.[vii]

In a recent meeting of the Child Rescue Association of North America, Jay Huff, a retired FBI and Miami Vice officer who specializes in anti-trafficking operations, stated that, “A pimp is the best profiler out there. He can walk into a room with 30 to 40 people and immediately identify the ones who have no self-esteem.” And that’s who he (or she) will target.


It can become a multi-generational plague

Once a victim is trafficked, it can cause a generational cycle of exploitation. Stephanie Larsen, quoted at the top of this article, shared her family’s story with Glamour magazine in 2012—the story of four generations of women in her family being exploited.

On a gray morning in Calgary, Alberta, Stephanie Larsen, 32, sits at her tidy kitchen table studying a family photo album. She lingers on a portrait of a mother and daughter in their Sunday best, then turns to a black-and-white image of a woman, circa 1930, bundled up in a dark wool coat on a Chicago street. “Bette Davis eyes,” says Stephanie’s mom, Lorrie Johnson, gazing wistfully at the Depression-era beauty. The whole scene is warm, familial, normal—until Stephanie holds up both pictures and asks, “Do these women really look like prostitutes to you?”

Lorrie absently fondles the small ruby dangling from her necklace, an heirloom that belonged to her late grandmother, and pulls more photos from their cellophane sleeves. There’s a blond sporting a Jackie Kennedy bob, Stephanie’s grandmother Joyce; a striking redhead, Stephanie’s great-grandmother Anna; and the Bette Davis look-alike, Lorriane, her great-great-grandmother, born to a strict Baptist preacher in Kentucky. And one by one, Stephanie ticks them off: prostitute, prostitute, prostitute. “This,” she says, “was the family business.”[viii]

To her eternal credit, Stephanie’s mother ended the cycle and protected Stephanie from the world of sex trafficking. And now Stephanie is working to help end child exploitation through the organization she co-founded with her husband, Jess: The Child Rescue Association of North America. Their non-profit funds rescue missions organized and executed by teams like Operation Underground Railroad—missions where anywhere from two to 100 or more children are rescued from sex trafficking and child pornography rings.

It’s not just the sex trade that leads to multi-generational trafficking and exploitation. In India, for example, wealthy land or business owners will lend money to poor individuals as an advance payment for a job. The borrower, or “employee,” is then forced to work the rest of his or her life to pay off the debt. But with interest piling on like crazy, entire families across multiple generations can spend their whole lives working to pay the debt and never be free. Business owners or foremen use violence to prevent workers from running, and children as young as five are forced to work for their food. This practice is illegal in India, but hasn’t been enforced (or has been so sporadically). Check out this video (or this one) from the CNN Freedom Project for more:

CNN Freedom Project - Siddarth Kara - Debt Bondage


Sex trafficking is inextricably linked with pornography

Without the demand, there would be no reason to supply trafficking victims. And is there ever a demand! But what fuels it? The reasons may vary from person to person as to why they solicit sex, but the fact is, one of the major factors fueling the demand for sex trafficking victims is pornography.

Eighty percent of prostitution survivors at the WHISPER Oral History Project reported that their customers showed them pornography to illustrate the kinds of sexual activities in which they wanted to engage. Fifty two percent of the women stated that pornography played a significant role in teaching them what was expected of them as prostitutes.[ix] One excellent explanation of the tangled mess of porn and sex trafficking comes from

Pornography comes from the Greek words porne, meaning “prostituted woman” or “prostitution”, and the word graphos, meaning “writings.” If we can begin to comprehend that what is depicted in pornography is not simply sex or sexuality, but commercial sexual exploitation, we can begin to rightly appreciate the negative and corrosive effects of this content.

Catherine Mackinon, a feminist professor at Harvard Law School, says that “consuming pornography is an experience of bought sex” and thus it creates a hunger to continue to purchase and objectify, and act out what is seen. And in a very literal way, pornography is advertising for trafficking, not just in general but also in the sense that traffickers and pimps use pornographic images of victims as specific advertising for their “products.”

In addition, viewing pornography and gratifying oneself with it ends up short-circuiting the sexual process. This creates a drug-like addiction which distorts the individual’s view on sexuality. It also trains the mind to expect sexual fulfillment on demand, and to continually seek more explicit or violent content to create the same high.

As Victor Malarek put it in his book The Johns: “The message is clear: if prostitution is the main act, porn is the dress rehearsal.” Pornography becomes a training ground for johns/tricks. When pornography is the source of sex education for our generation, the natural outcome is a culture of commercial sex and sex trafficking.[x]

Or this, from a Huffington Post piece published just this week that quoted Dr. Gail Dines, chair of Wheelock College’s American Studies department:

“we know that trafficking is increasing—which means demand is increasing. This means that men are increasingly willing to have sex with women who are being controlled and abused by pimps and traffickers.”

“There are only two conclusions here: That men are naturally willing to do this to women — biology — or that they are being socialized by the culture to lose all empathy for women,” Dines said. “I refuse to accept that men are born rapists, porn users, or johns.”

“As an academic, a sociologist, and mother, I believe it is the way men are shaped by society,” said Dines. “The biggest sex educator of young men today is pornography, which is increasingly violent and dehumanizing, and it changes the way men view women.”[xi]

Creating demand isn’t the only way pornography and trafficking are intertwined. For more examples of how porn is used in trafficking (or as a form of trafficking in and of itself), look here, here, and here.


It happens here

And by “here” I mean everywhere, including where YOU live. Trafficking in persons,—whether for sex or labor or military power—happens everywhere. Every country. Every state in the U.S. And probably in your hometown. This map shows the distribution of potential trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center from 2007-2012. And that’s only the potential cases that are reported, let alone the cases no one suspects.


via the National Human Trafficking Resource Center

Map via the National Human Trafficking Resource Center


This video, a clip from Nightline’s series “Hidden America,” highlights footage from Nikolas Kristof and Cheryl Wu-Dunn’s “A Path Appears,” a special PBS series that shows some of the ins and outs of sex trafficking in the U.S.

Screen Shot 2015-02-18 at 5.02.11 PM


The “Big Game” and Sex Trafficking

The biggest game in football just happened, and while reports have circulated for years that sex trafficking spikes around the Big Game, there is a shortage of evidence supporting those claims.

One former trafficking victim, Annie Lobert, now founder of Hookers for Jesus and Destiny House, a restorative program for trafficking victims, says it’s hard to prove the increased demand, but that traffickers follow large events around the country because of increased money being brought into that area. Whether or not the Big Game increased demand, what she shares about everyday demand itself is bad enough:

Fox News - The Truth About The Super Bowl and Sex Trafficking


You can do something about it!

Faced with all this information about human trafficking, you may be wondering what you can do to fight this scourge. Here are four things you can do NOW to help fight trafficking:


1. Get Educated

There are a ton of resources that can teach you more about the world of trafficking and how to fight it. Some well-known sites are:

National Human Trafficking Resource Center

Polaris Project



Walk Free


2. Share to Create Awareness

One of the most important things you can do is share the information you learn, and help create awareness about human trafficking, what drives demand, and that it happens everywhere.

Follow a few of the organizations mentioned here on social media, and share, share, share! Share this article or another article on human trafficking that resonates with you.


3. Get Involved

Find organizations doing anti-trafficking work you’d like to support. Then donate or volunteer to support the cause. Some great organizations include:

Polaris Project

International Justice Mission

Child Rescue Association of North America

Operation Underground Railroad

The A21 Campaign

Love 146


4. Help Reduce Demand

To beat traffickers at their own game, we as a global society have to change the behaviors that drive the demand—whether that’s no longer looking at pornography, opting for responsibly-sourced products over the cheapest possible option at the mega mart, or something else entirely. Without the demand, there would be no trafficking industry.

You can help end modern-day slavery. Let’s join the fight and help do our part to “preach deliverance to the captives,”[xii] for “the slave is our brother [or sister], and in His name all oppression shall cease.”[xiii]











[ix] Evelina Giobbe, 1990, A facilitator’s guide to prostitution: a matter of violence against women, 1990, WHISPER:, Minneapolis, MN as referenced in



[xii] King James Bible, Luke 4:18



Sarah Knight

Sarah Knight is a passionate abolitionist and advocate for victims of trafficking and other forms of sexual violence. She is a founding member of a new nonprofit, We Are One in Three, and hopes to begin a Masters of Social Work program this fall. Sarah loves art, cooking, and her family (her friends are pretty great, too). Her five-year plan includes opening a residential recovery center for trafficking victims in Utah and getting a puppy—not necessarily in that order.

You can find Sarah on twitter, pinterest, and instagram as @sarahknight927, and on facebook at