Useful Terminology for Spiritual Guidance for Human Trafficking Victims

It is important for Chaplains to know common terminology to help identify victims and pick up on subtle indicators during conversations and interactions.

Victim vs. Survivor:

The term “victim” describes someone who has been subjected to a crime; However, the word does not imply weakness, assume guilt, or assign blame.

“Survivor” is generally used to convey that a person has started the healing process and is regaining control over their life.


The term perpetrator is used widely to describe someone who exploits a victim with force fraud or coercion. The perpetrator may be the trafficker or the buyer of sex in sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, sextortion. In forced labor (labor trafficking), the perpetrator may also be a trafficker or a buyer of forced labor. Traffickers can be any demographic, gender, age, socioeconomic group, any affiliation (military, civilian, non-DoD connection) business owner, gang member, part of organized crime, contractors, coaches, teachers, family members, and in some cases, even members or leaders of a religious or spiritual group. The Department of Defense has had cases of active military members who were traffickers and buyers. Unfortunately, many perpetrators are not easily detected.

Other Terms Important to Healing in Human Trafficking

Meaning-Making and Purpose

“Meaning making" is a widely used term in psychology and social theory, and in religion and learning theory. It is the process by which people make sense of the events that happen to them, particularly negative events that include great pain, suffering, and loss.

Meaning-making in its broadest sense comes from holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning. In the book, he hypothesized that the primary motivation of a person is to discover meaning in life. He said that meaning can be discovered under all circumstances, even in the most terrible suffering, loss, and tragedy. He theorized that people could recover from the most traumatic events if they understood and made value from the suffering. He said, "If there is meaning in life, then there must be meaning in suffering," and that "We must never forget that we may find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation." He believed that each person must do the work of finding that meaning, and when they do, resilience will spring from that, and they will begin to heal.

Moral Injury

Moral injury is a response to traumatic events that causes people to question the existence of good and evil, both in the world and in themselves. Once applied mainly to military veterans, the concept of moral injury is now used in the medical professions, by first responders, and others who work or take action in high stakes situations. When a person violates a deeply held ethical code, such as a soldier taking a human life, moral injury can occur. In the medical profession, if doctors or first responders do everything they can to save a patient but fail, due to circumstances beyond their control, they may experience moral injury. If trafficking victims are forced to commit crimes while being trafficked, or witness violent crime against others, they may experience moral injury. Even when an action is taken in obedience to authority, for the greater good, or under compulsion, moral injury can cause shame, reduced trust in others, and ethical confusion. New research is showing that behaviors consistent with moral injury are found in those who survive human trafficking.

Moral Repair

Moral repair involves moving from secrecy and isolation into a supportive community where naming traumatic events, and their moral ambiguities, is possible. A Chaplain supports trafficking victims and survivors by creating a space of unconditional love and connection to assist with healing the feelings that arise with moral injury.

Adapted from “Human Trafficking and Moral Injury”
Haralson, Debra,  Mercer University, 2023