What Is Human Trafficking?

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.

The foundational elements that make up the trafficking process include one or more of the following: recruiting, harboring, transporting, provisioning, or obtaining of a person. For a person to be a victim of human trafficking, at the end of this process, the individual must find him or herself in a context of exploitation—either being exploited for their labor or for the sexual use of their bodies. Accordingly, human trafficking can be divided into two broad categories: labor trafficking and sex trafficking.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Trafficking Protection Act (TVPA) which is the cornerstone of U.S. federal law criminalizing TIP. 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 incorporate acts associated with commercial sexual exploitation. Thus, sex trafficking now is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provisioning, patronizing, soliciting or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.”

The organization, My Life My Choice, which serves survivors of sexual exploitation stated that approximately half of the survivors they work with were trafficked online. The National Center on Missing and Exploited Children has reported that 73% of all child sex trafficking cases its handled involved Backpage.com. With operations in 97 countries and 943 locations worldwide, Backpage is likely the largest facilitator of sex trafficking in the world.


According to the TVPA, whether in instances of labor trafficking or sex trafficking, those cases in which the elements of force, fraud, or coercion are involved in the trafficking process elevate the nature of the trafficking offense. Therefore, when human traffickers utilize force, fraud, or coercion against their victims such cases are referred to as severe forms of human trafficking.


An exception to this standard 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.



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, on the other hand, involves the exploitation of the victim in the commercial sex industry 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 such a context, the principle nature of their exploitation is that of rape and the abrogation of their individual autonomy. The victim’s experience of rape is substantially intensified by the serial sexual assaults perpetrated against them by untold numbers of people who pay money to their traffickers/pimps in order to sexually use them.


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 continuum of “enterprises” makes 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.



Once trafficked into the commercial sex industry, victims endure unspeakable acts of physical brutality and violence; suffer serial rape by so-called customers and pimps; undergo forced abortions; acquire drug and alcohol dependencies; live in fear of their lives and for the lives of their family and friends; suffer acute psychological reactions as a result of their ongoing, extreme physical and emotional trauma; and contract sexually transmitted diseases, which all too often bring life-long illness and hasten death. If they survive the physical abuse, the psychological and spiritual impacts of these experiences on victims are devastating and enduring.



In closing, it must also be recognized that the institution of prostitution is inherently harmful and dehumanizing, and 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][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.

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.


#TraffickingTruths: Realities of child sex trafficking!

Right now, we are experiencing a cultural moment centered on combatting the devastating and very real issue of child sex trafficking. However, despite the well-meaning intent behind much of this national discussion, many of the theories and social media posts being passed around are riddled with misconceptions that actively harm the anti-trafficking movement. For instance,…

Justice Denied as Man Behind Horrific “Welcome to Video” Child Sexual Abuse Site Walks Free

In July 2020, the South Korean man responsible for operating “Welcome to Video” — one of the world’s largest child sexual abuse material (often referred to as “child pornography”) websites — appeared to escape the full extent of justice after the Seoul High Court denied his extradition request to the United States. Such a rejection…

Image of a man holding a cell phone with a blurred screen to represent the injustice of Son Jong-woo, operator of "Welcome to Video," escaping true justice for his crimes

Real Sex Trafficking Statistics: A Look at the Federal Human Trafficking Report

Note: While the National Center on Sexual Exploitation prefers to use the term “survivor” rather than “victim,” in order to accurately reflect the report’s findings and remain consistent with language used in the TVPA, this blog uses the word “victim.” The 2019 Federal Human Trafficking Report is a compilation of all United States federal human…

Screenshot of an infographic from the 2019 Federal Human Trafficking Report

National Center on Sexual Exploitation Supports “Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act”

Washington, DC (July 31, 2020) – The National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE) has announced support for the “Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act,” which allows for law enforcement to gain lawful access to encrypted data. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-MO) filed the House companion bill to the one introduced by Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) on…

On Wayfair and Viral Conspiracy Theories About Sex Trafficking

Recently the media and social media platforms have been flooded with claims that the popular furniture company, Wayfair, is participating in or complicit with child sex trafficking. Beginning as a random musing from one individual who noted a perceived discrepancy on a web page for a specific Wayfair product, theories have since taken on a…

On Wayfair and the Problem with Sex Trafficking Conspiracy Theories


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 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.