What is Human Trafficking?

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. It is a crime involving the exploitation of someone for the purpose of compelled labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Where a person younger than 18 is induced to perform a commercial sex act, it is a crime regardless of whether there is any force, fraud, or coercion. Victims can be women and men, adults and children, citizens and noncitizens. Trafficking in persons occurs throughout the world, including in the United States.

Many victims of human trafficking are forced to work in prostitution, but trafficking also occurs in forms of labor exploitation in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Victims of labor trafficking who have been identified in the United States include domestic servants, restaurant staff, hotel employees, factory workers, and agricultural laborers.

Traffickers use various techniques to control their victims and keep them enslaved. Some traffickers hold their victims under lock and key. However, the more frequent practice is to use less obvious techniques such as the following:

  • Isolation from the public by limiting contact with outsiders and making sure that any contact is monitored or superficial in nature;
  • Isolation from family members and friends;
  • Confiscation or control of passports or other identification documents;
  • Use or threat of violence toward victims or their family members;
  • The threat of shaming victims by exposing humiliating circumstances to their families;
  • Telling victims they will be imprisoned or deported for immigration violations if they contact authorities;
  • Debt bondage through enormous financial obligations or an undefined or increasing debt; and
  • Control of the victims' money:  e.g., holding their money for "safe-keeping."

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) made trafficking in persons a federal crime. It was enacted to prevent severe forms of trafficking in persons, both in the United States and overseas; to protect victims and help them rebuild their lives in the United States; and to prosecute traffickers in human beings and impose federal penalties. Prior to enactment of the TVPA, no comprehensive federal law existed to protect victims of trafficking in the United States or to prosecute their traffickers. Congress has reauthorized and amended the TVPA several times, but its fundamental purpose and legal authorities remain the same. 

The TVPA, as amended, defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as:

  • Sex trafficking [i.e., the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act] in which a 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; or
  • 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.

A “commercial sex act” means any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person.

Additional Information

Last Reviewed: December 29, 2015