Human trafficking advocacy in the United States gained momentum in 2000 with the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), the first federal law to address the issue. Human trafficking, also referred to as modern-day slavery, is defined by the TVPA as:
(a) the recruitment, harboring, transporting, supplying, or obtaining a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of involuntary servitude or slavery; or
(b) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform sex acts is under 18 years of age.
In addition to defining the issue, the TVPA also, “modernized the involuntary servitude and peonage statutes originating from the Thirteenth Amendment that had been limited by the Supreme Court to physical coercion, which is far less prevalent in human trafficking than psychological coercion” (Heinrich & Sreeharsha, 2013, para. 4). It also created new offenses for the tools traffickers often use to control victims, made sentencing commensurate with other serious crimes, and included protections for victims of human trafficking. The forms of human trafficking recognized by the U.S. Department of State include: forced labor/involuntary servitude, sex trafficking, bonded labor, debt bondage among migrant laborers, involuntary domestic servitude, forced child labor, child soldiers, and child sex trafficking.
The BLUE CAMPAIGN’S “Out of the Shadows” PSA
Since the implementation of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, 49 states have adopted laws to fight human trafficking, including Massachusetts. However, very few cases have their day in court, as only 7 percent of human trafficking cases in the United States lead to a formal charge. Strengthening laws to prevent the trafficking of humans is an accomplishment to be celebrated; however, advocacy does not end there, for a law is only as successful as it is implemented. In the fight against human trafficking each piece of the puzzle-victim services, law enforcement, state prosecutors, and local citizens-needs to be aligned to keep the momentum moving forward to end this atrocity. As Professor Gail Dines, Chair of Wheelock’s American Studies department, said during Wheelock’s Global Challenges and Opportunities international conference “societies that do the best are those that work collectively and collaboratively.” To this end the Massachusetts law is significant because it has written collaboration into the legislation. The act established the Inter-agency Human Trafficking Task Force comprised of sub-committees focused on demand, public awareness, victim services, data collection, and education and training.
Strong anti-trafficking laws must be supplemented with public awareness in order to be effective in ending human trafficking here in Massachusetts and across the country. Being able to answer the questions of where does trafficking occur, and who are the victims are essential in understanding the purpose of the law and aid in ensuring its effectiveness to increase the number of formal charges beyond 7 percent.
As part of my coursework in Lesley University’s Intercultural Relations program, I recently conducted an ethnographic qualitative research study on Anti-Human Trafficking Professionals in the Greater Boston area. I spoke with many people involved in all facets of the issue-policy, victim services, grassroots campaigners-and the one issue that consistently arose in all my conversations was the need for greater public awareness. Many people still do not fully understand what human trafficking entails. This is partly related to the term “human trafficking” itself. Debates exist over the definition of human trafficking because of the different interpretations of the term. The word “trafficking” implies movement. Therefore, the misconception exists that for a crime to be labeled as human trafficking, a border must have been crossed. The reality is trafficking can happen within a victim’s nation, state, or hometown. Additionally, due to the idea of movement, the smuggling of people across borders has been confused as human trafficking. Although smuggling often turns into human trafficking, in the form of debt bondage, it is done with the consent of the individual and ends once that person has reached their target destination.
Furthermore, there is urgency among advocates to explain who victims are to ensure they receive the help they need. Human trafficking is a clandestine industry where victims are often kept out of the public eye, whether they are physically separated from the general population, or kept hidden because of the language we use to talk about them. Many victims of trafficking are labeled with terms like “prostitute” or “illegal immigrant.” These terms demonize the victims and place the blame on them for their situation; when the full blame should go to the trafficker who is exploiting others for personal gain and in cases of sex trafficking, to the “Johns” who drive the demand for this type of trafficking.
It is not necessary for everyone to be experts on the topic of human trafficking to ensure the laws which exist to help victims are employed effectively. If we as a community have a basic understanding of what human trafficking is, that in turn means that our law enforcement officers have a greater understanding, our prosecutors have a greater understanding and our juries, staffed by local citizens, have a greater understanding. This collective understanding can only help, not hinder, cases from moving through our judicial system and victims finding the justice they deserve.
Like many professionals and advocates I spoke with, my hope is that public awareness about the realities of human trafficking will galvanize citizens to become active members in the fight to end modern-day slavery.
To learn more about the realities of human trafficking visit:
Heinrich, K., & Sreeharsha, K. (2013). The state of state human-trafficking laws. The Judges’
Journal, 52(1), 28-31.
Logan, T.K., Walker, R., & Hunt, G. (2009). Understanding human trafficking in the United
States. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 10(1), 3-30.
Polaris Project. (2008). Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act – Fact Sheet. Washington, DC.
U.S. Department of State. What is modern slavery? Retrieved from
About the Author:
Cara Dembkoski is a student in Lesley University’s Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences studying Intercultural Relations. Her current role is International Conference and Community Relations graduate intern in Wheelock College’s Office of Government and External Affairs. Previously Cara worked in the event management field focusing on fundraising and development for non-profit organizations.