Let's Define Human Trafficking


Human trafficking is a topic that currently is receiving unparalleled recognition. There are campaigns, laws, detectives, books, documentaries and podcasts that are all striving to make the world more aware of modern slavery - the atrocity it is and the horrific traumatizing outcomes that it creates. But, in order for any of this information to be effective, we need to know what human trafficking really is, and what it truly encompasses. Not only do we need to have a knowledge of what human trafficking is, but we need to be able to articulate the complexity of it to whomever we may be speaking with, whether or not that be someone who has known about modern day slavery for years, or someone whose first knowledge about human trafficking is coming from us.

The team here at Dressember wants you to be educated and up-to-date so that you can be informed, making you the best advocate that you can be. So, here are some terms and their definitions that we think you should know!


The definition put out by the United Nations is the one that we use to frame our thinking and shape our language about human trafficking. Taking a look at this definition piece by piece, there are some other words in here that it would be helpful to define.


These words help us to define what “improper means” of transporting, recruiting or harboring people looks like. Breaking it down in plain language: human trafficking starts when someone is being used or made to do something against their will. It could be by force or violence, physically movement, threats, or deceit. When someone is forced, abducted, defrauded or coerced into something that is an “improper purpose,” it becomes a case of human trafficking. Some examples of improper purposes are below:

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When someone says “human trafficking” this is probably the area most people think of first. Sex trafficking, “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act,” is by far the most well-known form of human trafficking, and is avidly fought against by many people, including those who join us through Dressember. However, it is not the only form of trafficking. In recent years, the public has become more aware of labor trafficking that is particularly prevalent in the fashion and manufacturing world, as well as in agriculture, health and beauty services, construction, domestic work and more. Victims of labor trafficking are often made to work in poor conditions, paid very little or not paid at all, and subject to violence and crime. Labor trafficking can also include debt-bondage (working to repay an obligation or debt with no hope of ever actually paying the debt off).

Children are included by definition in sex-trafficking, forced labor and debt bondage, but it is particularly helpful to look at them as a separate facet of human trafficking. Many countries have stronger consequences for those who are found guilty of trafficking children, and in the United States, sex-trafficking is partially defined as “someone under the age of 18 performing commercial sexual acts”, (regardless if they performed these acts by force or of their own free will). Another issue that is not often discussed is that of child soldiers. This is a foreign concept to much of the Western world, but happens regularly in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Child soldiers are considered part of the human trafficking scheme, as they are often forced into violence and killing, often times experiencing acts of mutilation and sexual abuse.

Below are some other words you should know that are common terms and phrases used in conversations about human trafficking.


One thing that is important to note when we use the word exploitation is that it commonly has a stronger connotation than the definition might suggest. It carries with it the idea of truly misusing resources, and in the case of human trafficking, misusing and mistreating people. Interestingly enough, historically, the word was considered very positive, but started to develop a negative connotation, in part because of anti-slavery writings in the United States in the mid 1800s.


It was hard to find a clearly defined definition for this one, so here are the basics to understanding human smuggling. Although at times smuggling can fall under the umbrella of human trafficking, it is not slavery in and of itself, but is a separate crime. The United Nations says that human smuggling, “generally involves the consent of the person(s) being smuggled. These people often pay large sums of money to be smuggled across international borders. Once in the country of their final destination, they are generally left to their own devices. Smuggling becomes trafficking when the element of force or coercion is introduced.

Last but not least, below are words that have the potential to incite hope in our movement. Many more people today are aware of human trafficking, because of people just like you who have sought to bring about knowledge of modern slavery. By being a part of the fight against trafficking, you can help make the world a place where these terms and definitions are things of the past and not the future.



It is not too late to be a part of the impact!

Right now, thousands of people around the world are taking on the creative challenge of wearing a dress or tie in the month of December. The reason? To bring freedom to the 40+ million around the world still trapped in slavery. Your donation or participation in Dressember 2018 is part of a movement to end human trafficking for good.

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About the Author

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Amanda Kinney is a recent graduate of The Master’s University and calls Southern California home. She enjoys long walks, rain, photography, and all things peppermint. On a daily basis she can be found eating vegan food and talking with her peers about ethical issues. She is enthusiastic about joining the Dressember team and plans on being a lifelong advocate against slavery.