What Is Trafficking in Persons?

Trafficking in persons (TIP) is the illegal commerce in human beings. It can be helpful to conceptualize TIP (also known as human trafficking) as a process through which a person loses his or her freedom and is reduced to the status of someone else’s “property.” People who live through the trafficking process ultimately experience slavery, because they become people over whom others assume the powers and rights of ownership.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Trafficking Protection Act (TVPA) which is the cornerstone U.S. federal law criminalizing TIP (today most states also have their own anti-trafficking laws). As defined by the TVPA the foundational elements, commonly referred to as “acts,” that make up the trafficking process include recruiting, harboring, transporting, provisioning, or obtaining of a person. Upon experiencing one or more of these acts a victim of human trafficking finds him or herself in a context of exploitation—being exploited either for their labor or services in involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, slavery, or for the commercial sexual exploitation of their bodies. Accordingly, human trafficking can be divided into two broad categories: labor trafficking and sex trafficking.

Severe Forms of Trafficking

According to the TVPA, whether in instances of labor trafficking or sex trafficking, cases involving the use of force, fraud, or coercion to carry out acts of trafficking trigger federal criminal penalties and are referred to as severe forms of trafficking in persons.

An exception to this is made in cases of sex trafficking in which the person induced to perform commercial sex acts has not yet reached 18 years of age. While such cases are also considered severe forms of human trafficking because the victims are minors, it is not necessary for authorities to prove that the elements of force, fraud, or coercion occurred in order for those who sexually traffic minors to be convicted.

Additionally, sex trafficking cases lacking evidence of the elements of force, fraud, and coercion can be prosecuted under the provisions of the Mann Act. Passed in 1910, the Mann Act is a federal law which created a felony offence for engaging in interstate (i.e., across state lines) or foreign commerce the transporting of any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution.

In either instance, victims may also have civil remedies—meaning, they can pursue justice in civil court by holding their perpetrators, or even corporate actors who knowingly benefitted from their trafficking, accountable in the form of money damages. Civil remedies are also an effective measure to shut down these enterprises and prevent future victims, raise awareness, and change society for the better.

Important Legal Changes Addressing Other Bad Actors

The TVPA is periodically “reauthorized” by the U.S. Congress; through the reauthorization process the TVPA is refined. Of particular importance, the TVPA’s definition of “sex trafficking” was expanded to clarify its inclusion of commercial sex buyers in its definition. The possible elements of sex trafficking now include recruitment, harboring, transportation, provisioning, obtaining, advertising, maintaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act. This means buyers can be criminally charged with sex trafficking.

Another important change was made in the 2008 reauthorization which expanded civil liability to include those who knowingly benefit financially from participating in a sex trafficking venture.

Labor Trafficking

Some victims of TIP are trafficked into a variety of work settings for the purpose of exploiting their labor, ergo the term labor trafficking. Frequently victims of labor trafficking find themselves working in restaurants, hotels, fishing boats, and sweatshops, or as domestic servants in private homes or as farmhands in agricultural settings. Victims of labor trafficking may experience a variety of physical, psychological, and sexual abuses while “working,” but the principle nature of their exploitation involves the theft of the wages of their labor and the abrogation of their individual autonomy.

Sex Trafficking

Sex trafficking involves the exploitation of the victim in the commercial sex industry (i.e. prostitution marketplaces) where the victim is expected to provide commercial sex acts on demand. Commercial sex acts are any sex acts on account of which anything of value (e.g. money, clothes, shelter, food, drugs, etc.) is given to or received by any person.

Because a person has no meaningful right to refuse sex in the context of sex trafficking, the principle nature of their exploitation is that of rape and the abrogation of their individual autonomy.

Whether or not the commercial sex buyer is aware that the individual they have purchased is trafficked or not, does not mitigate the victim’s experience of their sexual encounter as one of rape. As individuals compelled to sell themselves, the individuals providing sex are not “consenting,” thus the sex acts in which they are involved are inherently sexual assault and rape. As psychologist Wendy Freed has observed, “When an individual has been beaten into submission, and has become passive and accepting of what is done to her because she is a captive, then any sexual encounter she has is rape. Even if she has worked hard to attract the customer, because she has no right to refuse consent, she is being raped.”[1]

A range of prostitution marketplaces make up the commercial sex industry. These can include:

  • pornography production studios,
  • strip clubs (e.g. table and lap dancing),
  • live-sex shows,
  • peep shows,
  • Internet, “virtual,” or cyber-based prostitution,
  • escort or outcall services,
  • “sex tour” operators,
  • International marriage brokers,
  • brothels (frequently operating behind fronts such as massage parlors, saunas, bathhouses, bars, cabarets, clubs, cinemas, beauty salons, barber shops, and restaurants), as well as
  • pimp-facilitated, street-level prostitution.

These sexually oriented businesses (SOBs) profit by supplying sex to those seeking it, and constitute a “global supply chain of sexual exploitation.” In order to supply sex, the commercial sex industry must provide sufficient access to bodies. Because most women prefer not to sell sex, some SOBs must depend on sexually trafficked women and girls (and boys) to make up a sufficient supply of bodies available for sex. Not all people in the commercial sex industry have gone through the trafficking process, but participation in the commercial sex trade is inherently harmful to the individuals in it whether they have been sexually trafficked or not.

SOBs, whether in legal or illegal environs, can range in sophistication from mom-and-pop operations and decentralized criminal networks, to syndicates with multiple illicit businesses, or highly, sophisticated corporate enterprises with publicly traded stock. Those involved in, connected to, or with self-interest in commercial sex industry enterprises extend well beyond the commercial sex buyers, sex traffickers (a.k.a. pimps) or owners and investors. In fact those with a stake in the commercial sex industry can include taxi drivers, hotel owners, travel agents, waiters, newspapers and media groups. Thus, many people and sectors of the economy profit from participation in the global supply chain of sexual exploitation. Factors such as globalization and industrialization, lax laws or the legalization of prostitution, the pervasive demand for commercial sex, and attractive financial incentives, have spurred the growth of the sex industry and established it as a recognized “business sector” figuring significantly into the national economics of countries around the world.

Victim Impact

Once trafficked into the commercial sex industry, victims endure:

  • acts of physical brutality and violence;
  • serial rape by so-called customers and pimps;
  • forced abortions;
  • drug and alcohol dependencies;
  • fear of their lives and for the lives of their family and friends;
  • acute psychological reactions as a result of their ongoing, extreme physical and emotional trauma; and
  • likely contraction of sexually transmitted diseases, which all too often bring life-long illness and hasten death.

The psychological and spiritual impacts of these experiences on victims are devastating and enduring.

Further, in the Internet age the crime of sex trafficking is magnified when images and videos of sex trafficking victims are disseminated online using “tube” pornography websites. When this occurs, the abuse and exploitation of the trafficking victim are enshrined on the Internet where it can be incredibly difficult to remove and to find justice for the continued crimes. In many cases, the “tube” pornography websites resist removal of the material at all until they are faced with legal action.

In cases where material showing their rape is disseminated, especially when it is distributed online like in the case of the plaintiffs who won a sex trafficking civil case against GirlsDoPorn, the victim’s experience of rape is magnified exponentially by the serial nature of their sexual assaults being consumed by myriad individuals on pornography websites.


It must also be recognized that the institution of prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing. Prostitution significantly contributes to the phenomenon of sex trafficking by providing societal structure and sanction for the buying and selling of persons for sex. Any payment for sex constitutes a form of sexual coercion, ergo prostitution is inherently a form of sexual exploitation.

Pornography is also innately harmful and dehumanizing. It contributes to sex trafficking by conditioning men to view females as mere objects for their sexual use, and by leading some men to seek sex through prostitution.

[1] Freed, W. (2003). From duty to despair: Brothel prostitution in Cambodia. In M. Farley (Ed.), Prostitution, trafficking and traumatic stress (pp. 133-146). Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Maltreatment and Trauma Press.

NCOSE Campaigns

Demand is the fulcrum on which all sex trafficking rests. Failure to combat demand guarantees the survival of sex trafficking and the creation of future generations of victims. NCOSE’s main page on Demand.

Those who make up the “demand” are the individuals with the desire, along with the ability and willingness, to purchase people in the prostitution marketplace to use for sex. Learn about the sex buyer.

Internet-based bulletin board-type advertising forums have contributed to an explosion in prostitution advertising and sex trafficking.

dirty dozen list

Naming and shaming mainstream entities that facilitate sexual exploitation through poor policies and profit-seeking helps to dismantle the marketplace which allows sex trafficking to thrive. Take action. 

International meeting uniting movement leaders who want to work together to create a world free from sexual exploitation. Join us!

Backpage sex trafficking website

Backpage.com is a website where sex buyers shop to buy adults and children for sex. We are demanding Backpage stop promoting and profiting from sexual exploitation.

Individual Actions

The city-wide blitz and billboard campaign raises awareness about sexual exploitation. Individuals in any town or city can conduct this grassroots campaign.

coalition to end sexual exploitation

The Coalition to End Sexual Exploitation (CESE) unites groups and advocates addressing diverse issues of sexual exploitation for joint projects and the CESE Summit.


dirty dozen list

NCOSE’s annual Dirty Dozen List names 12 mainstream facilitators of sexual exploitation and provides easy actions that individuals can take to make a difference.

pornography in hotels

Sex trafficking, sexually oriented events, and pornography in hotels all need to be addressed as a cohesive effort to make hotels sexploitation-free.

This groundbreaking campaign serves to shed a light on the victimization of boys and men, regarding all forms of sexual exploitation.

Snapchat discontinued Snapcash—which was being used to buy and sell pornographic images and videos, often acting as advertisements for prostitution and sex trafficking. The removal of Snapcash was one of the key requests we made when Snapchat was placed on the 2018 Dirty Dozen List.

Sex trafficking and prostitution have flourished online for years as one loophole in the federal law protects trafficking and prostitution websites. NCOSE is calling on Congress to fix the law and stop online commercial sexual exploitation.

stop trafficking demand

The booming demand for trafficked women and children in recent years is due in part to the proliferation of pornography. This project collects research and personal accounts.

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has developed this agenda to provide Congress and the executive branch with critical recommendations that combat sexual exploitation and preserve human dignity.


STATEMENT – Louisiana Bill Would Decriminalize Exploiters and Fuel Exploitation, Sex Trafficking

WASHINGTON, DC (May 3, 2021) – The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) warned that Louisiana House Bill 67 would decriminalize exploiters—sex buyers, pimps/traffickers, and brothel owners—and thereby fuel exploitation and sex trafficking of vulnerable populations. The bill will be discussed at a hearing on Tuesday, May 4. “Louisiana must protect survivors, not exploiters. If Louisiana wants to protect…

Podcast: How Sexual Exploitation is Facilitated by Google Chromebooks, Amazon, OnlyFans, and More

Did you know that mainstream companies you interact with every day may be facilitating sexual exploitation, or leaving children vulnerable to abuse or graphic content?  During this episode of the Ending Sexploitation podcast, Haley McNamara interviews Lina Nealon, Director of Corporate and Strategic Initiatives at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation.  They discuss mainstream corporations…

Atlanta Spa Shootings: Decriminalizing an Inherently Violent and Bigoted System of Disparity Cannot Make It Safer

Fully decriminalizing an inherently bigoted and violent system of disparity can never make it safe. In March 2021, our nation once again faced a terrible mass shooting as eight victims (seven women and one man)—six of whom were women of Asian descent—were murdered while working in massage parlors in Atlanta. It took no time for…

Double exposure silhouette of woman, tree, and ocean

The Class Action Lawsuit Against Pornhub and MindGeek, Explained

The NCOSE Law Center is helping victims of Pornhub bring a class action lawsuit against MindGeek in order to see justice served. Here’s how.

MindGeek class action lawsuit: "Our exploitation was Pornhub's profit."

STATEMENT – Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against Pornhub by Two Survivors of Childhood Sex Trafficking

WASHINGTON, DC (February 12, 2021) – An accomplished assembly of survivor-focused and commercial litigation law firms have jointly filed a class action lawsuit against MindGeek, the parent company of Pornhub. The representative class members are two survivors of childhood sex trafficking whose videos and images of their sexual abuse were posted on Pornhub and other…


Sign the Petition for Wyndham to Change Its Policies

Pledge To Help Stop The Demand for Sex Trafficking

Stop Trafficking Online – Fix the Law!

Thank You Oracle For Opposing Online Sex Trafficking

Host a Screening of the “I Am Jane Doe” Documentary

The documentary “I AM JANE DOE”  chronicles the epic battle that several American mothers are waging on behalf of their middle-school daughters, victims of sex-trafficking on Backpage.com, the adult classifieds section that for years was part of the Village Voice.  Reminiscent of Erin Brockovich and Karen Silkwood, these mothers have stood up on behalf of thousands of other mothers, fighting back and refusing to take no for an answer.

This film is currently on Netflix! View the I AM JANE DOE trailer on Vimeo.

To inquire about hosting a screening of this documentary in your community, watch it on Netflix or contact office@50eggs.com.


Report Suspected Sex Trafficking

If you suspect sex trafficking, or human trafficking, report the tip to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1 (888) 373-7888.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 911.

Fight Trafficking. Take a Photo!

Help fight trafficking by uploading photos of your hotel room. These photos will be used to determine where perpetrators of sex trafficking are committing their crimes.

Download the app, TraffickCam. Details here.

Share your STORY

Personal stories help elected officials and business leaders to see the grave harm associated with this material and can be very helpful in getting them to change their policies. All will be shared anonymously. Please email your story to public@ncose.com.