Implicit Bias and Human Trafficking

What is Implicit Bias?

Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. An implicit bias can make us susceptible to unintentionally acting in ways that are inconsistent with our values. Although you do not choose to have an implicit bias, you can choose to be aware of it and combat its effects.1

1 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services;

What is the problem with Implicit Bias?

Implicit bias results in subtle but highly impactful behaviors, messages, and other signals that send positive or negative messages. They reveal our unconscious thoughts and send messages of disapproval, dislike, or distaste and slights that cause others to feel devalued, slighted, discouraged and excluded.

What are some examples of Implicit Bias in human trafficking?

Since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, work has been done to identify some of the assumptions, notions, and preconceptions about human trafficking, and to address them. Common implicit bias in human trafficking includes quick judgements made about a person. For example, people used to say about a teenager trafficked into prostitution:

  • She’s a bad girl.
  • She likes that life.
  • She runs with the wrong crowd.
  • He’s acting out.

This resulted in years of minors being identified as juvenile delinquents or criminals when actually they were being exploited by pimps, pedophiles, and/or traffickers. Now we have laws that identify children in prostitution as victims, not criminals.

For adults, implicit bias may include snap judgements such as:

  • She’s just a prostitute.
  • He’s an illegal alien.
  • He/she is a common criminal.
  • She’s just a drug addict.

How Implicit Bias Prevents Identification of and Protection and Assistance to Victims and Services

Survivors tell stories about the way Implicit Bias negatively affected them. Here are some examples:

“I was always labeled the bad kid in school. Teachers couldn’t figure out why I was always misbehaving, angry, and acting out.” -- Jerome Elam, Survivor

“I must have run away a dozen times, but no one understood why. They just kept bringing me back home to the abusive situation in the group home.” -- Barbara Amaya, survivor

“I was a preacher’s daughter who was trafficked by someone who gained my parents’ trust. After it happened people said, “Oh she’s just a fast girl” I was anything but a fast girl, but no one looked beneath the surface.” -- Dr. Marlene Carson, survivor

“I was trafficked from Central America into a box-making factory in the U.S. People assumed I was an illegal alien, but I was a trafficking victim.” -- Ronny Marty, survivor

“My trafficker beat me, broke my cheekbone, and ruptured my ear drum, but I was afraid to get help because they would always say I'm a drug addict.”

What Can We Do About Implicit Bias?

Scientists estimate that 80 - 90% of our mind works unconsciously. New research says that bias, preconceptions, and interpretations are unavoidable and that people do not have insight into their own bias. One model for addressing implicit biases is the RAM Model (Recognize, Address, and Manage).2


  • Become more aware of your own and others biases through, self-examination and admission.
  • Seek opportunities to learn more about people/cultures that are unfamiliar.
  • Actively engage others and support diversity and inclusion events.


  • Assess training needs of you own and others’ implicit bias. Many excellent courses are available.
  • Incorporate training to address implicit bias within a chaplain setting.
  • Learn more about the social stigma associated with sex and labor trafficking.
  • If you see implicit bias in your staff or colleagues, provide feedback about the behavior not the person.


  • Seek out positive images/stories of victims/survivors of trafficking.
  • Take the DoD specialized micro-training on human trafficking tailored for chaplains.
  • Learn how to take the implicit and make it more conscious.
  • Create and ensure enhanced opportunities for staff engagement and learning. One survivor of human trafficking suggested holding “Lunch and Learns” or other events in which survivors can tell their stories and talk about their experiences.

2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and HHS Human Resources.