What Is Human Trafficking?

Many have heard the term “human trafficking,” but defining this crime can be difficult. Read more to learn about what constitutes sex and labor trafficking and how traffickers keep their victims in exploitative situations. 

Human trafficking is a crime that often goes underreported and unprosecuted due to its covert nature. The first major piece of U.S. legislation addressing this issue was the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000, as amended. This law acknowledges that there are two severe forms of trafficking in persons: sex trafficking and labor trafficking.

Defining the Types of Trafficking

The TVPA of 2000, as amended, defines sex trafficking is as, “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purposes 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 an act has not attained 18 years of age.”

Labor trafficking is defined as, “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.”

Put simply, trafficking refers to illegally manipulating someone to perform a service through force, fraud or coercion.

Force, Fraud and Coercion

Force, fraud and coercion describe how traffickers exploit and control their victims. These three words are key to understanding trafficking of both kinds.

  • Force is described as physical control over the person experiencing the trafficking situation. Examples of using force would be physically restraining and individual or depriving someone of food.
  • Fraud refers to the lies or false promises that the trafficker tells their victims. Traffickers may falsely promise wages or opportunities to keep victims in a trafficking situation.
  • Coercion is another way to describe the threats traffickers make toward an individual or their loved ones.

When assessing for trafficking, it is important to take the individual’s age into account. If a person engaging in a commercial sexual act has not yet reached 18 years old, the federal age of consent, the situation will always be considered sex trafficking, whether force, fraud or coercion are involved.

In many instances, false promises lure individuals into a trafficking situation. Force and coercion can make leaving the exploitative situation seem extremely difficult.

Traffickers are experts on preying on and exploiting people’s vulnerabilities. Through force, fraud and coercion, they manipulate individuals into situations of forced labor or commercial sex acts.

If you suspect you may be a victim of human trafficking or want to learn more information, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888 or text “HELP” to 233733.


This blog post was produced by the International Institute of St. Louis under grant number 90ZV0144-01-00 awarded by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the office position or policies of the US Department of Health and Human Services.