Common Myths and Misconceptions about Human Trafficking

Select each myth to see the reality.

Reality: The federal definition of human trafficking includes both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. Both are protected under the federal trafficking statutes and have been since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000. In the U.S., victims can be U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, visa holders, and undocumented persons.

Reality: Trafficking does not require movement or transportation across any borders. Although traffickers may transport victims from one place to another, it is not a required element of the trafficking definition. People can be trafficked in their own cities or towns, even from their own homes.

Reality: Smuggling is a crime against a country’s borders; human trafficking is a crime against a person. Human smuggling and human trafficking are two distinct federal crimes in the United States. Smuggling requires illegal border crossing and is usually done by agreement between the smuggler and the individual smuggled. In human trafficking force, fraud, or coercion are used to compel commercial sex acts or labor.

Reality: Trafficking does not 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. Unlike the previous federal involuntary servitude statute (Title 18 of the United States Code § 1584), the new federal crimes created by the TVPA of 2000 are intended to address “subtler” forms of coercion and to broaden previous standards that only considered bodily harm.

Reality: Victims of human trafficking often do not seek help or self-identify as victims of a crime, including the crime of human trafficking. They do not disclose for any number of reasons including lack of trust, self-blame, fear of repercussions from the trafficker or from law enforcement authorities. They may not even understand that they are victims of a crime. It is important to avoid making a snap judgment about who is or who is not a trafficking victim based on first encounters. Trust often takes time to develop to get the real story of what a victim has gone through.

Reality: Although poverty can be a factor in human trafficking because it is often an indicator of vulnerability, poverty alone is not a single causal factor or universal indicator of a human trafficking victim. Trafficking victims can come from a range of income levels, and many may come from families with higher socioeconomic status.

Reality: The federal definition of human trafficking encompasses both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, and a number of cases of labor trafficking have been uncovered and prosecuted in the U.S.

Reality: Trafficking can occur in legal and legitimate business settings as well as underground markets. In the Department of Defense, human trafficking has been reported in sectors such as food services, construction, mining, fishing industries, factories and manufacturing plants, security services, healthcare, and the transportation industry, as well as underground commercial sex markets such as brothels, online exploitation, and street based commercial sex.

Reality: A minor cannot consent to prostitution or any other form of commercial sex. Any minor found in commercial sex is per se a trafficking victim. Only an adult may consent to being involved in commercial sex. Even then, if an adult engaged in commercial sex is subjected to force, fraud, or coercion to recruit, transport, obtain, or sell them, they may be a trafficking victim under U.S. law.

Reality: A renewed focus on human trafficking in the last twenty years has increased the knowledge base that we have of the crime of human trafficking, the victims and survivors, and the perpetrators. However, even with an emphasis on evidence-based information and data, there will always be some limitations and biases in empirical research in the trafficking field. For example, one limitation is the fact that most of the research conducted on survivors is from a convenience sample rather than probability sample findings. In addition, self-reporting retrospective surveys, while a time-honored method of gathering information may have several limitations, the main ones being bias in reporting. The participants may not always answer honestly; they may choose the more socially acceptable answer rather than the truthful answer. In addition, participants may not always have the required introspective ability: they may not be able to assess themselves accurately. Participants also may not remember the past accurately—particularly if they involve traumatic events. As long as there is an acknowledgement of these limitations in the research, sound empirical research that enhances our knowledge in this field is possible.