The Language of Human Trafficking


“Kiddie Stroll.”

“Lot Lizard.”

“Pimp Circle.”

Do you know what any of these phrases mean? They may make no sense to you, but for someone engaged in sex trafficking, their meanings are only too clear.

I can remember the first time I heard a racial slur. I was in preschool and I shared that word with the rest of my class. I had no idea what the word meant or why it was hurtful. I didn’t understand why my teacher was asking me to apologize when I hadn’t, to my knowledge, done anything wrong. It was only after my mother explained to me how that word had been, and continues to be used that I came to be aware of the power of words.

There are many reasons why we should seek to understand the language of human trafficking. If we have no grasp of the terminology, how are we to understand what victims are going through? How will we communicate with survivors about their experiences? How can we acknowledge the atrocities they have been subjected to?

Note: It is important to state that many of these words are connected to prostitution. Prostitution is not human trafficking, but can become human trafficking when force, fraud, or coercion is present.

Even if we are aware of the literal meanings of words, we need to be cognizant of their nuances. Some words that seem straightforward have historical usage that makes them inappropriate at best, or even dehumanizing. What comes to your mind when you read the following words? Do you associate them with victims or people making poor choices?

Let’s take a look at some of the words and phrases that can be associated with human trafficking:

That section of the street is known as kiddie stroll because the victims are usually under eighteen.”

  • Lot Lizard - a derogatory term for a person being prostituted at truck stops

Those women are lot lizards - they work from the truck stop down the street.”

  • Pimp - a person who controls and financially benefits from the commercial sexual exploitation of another person

That man is a pimp. He trafficks victims to make money.”

  • Pimp Circle - when several pimps encircle a victim in order to intimidate through verbal or physical threats

They formed a pimp circle around her to punish her for trying to leave.”

  • The Life - the subculture of prostitution, complete with rules, a hierarchy of authority and language

“Those women have been in the life for several years.”

  • John - an individual who pays for or trades something of value for sexual acts

“That john visits prostitutes on a regular basis.”

  • Survivor - someone who has escaped trafficking

“She was able to get help. She is a survivor of human trafficking.”

  • Victim - a person who is being exploited through trafficking

“He is a victim of labor trafficking.”

  • Trafficker - someone who exploits others for profit

“Pimps can be traffickers.”

“That woman has been keeping students in debt bondage. She is a perpetrator of human trafficking.”

  • Lover Boy - human traffickers who try to get potential victims to fall in love with them  

“That man is a lover boy. He compliments his victims to gain their trust.”

  • Choosing Up - the process by which a prostitute indicates she would like a different pimp to take “ownership” of her

“She indicated that she wanted a new pimp. She wanted to choose up.”

  • Squaring Up - attempting to escape or exit prostitution

Her pimp punished her for squaring up.

We also need to be informed when it comes to legal jargon used in relation to human trafficking:

  • 3P Paradigm - protection, prevention and prosecution; serves as the fundamental framework used around the world to combat human trafficking

The government seeks to fight human trafficking through the 3P paradigm -- protecting victims, preventing human traffickers from being successful and prosecuting traffickers.

  • Coercion - threats of serious harm or physical restraint; any plan intended to cause a person to believe that failure to perform an act would result in serious harm to or physical restraint against any person; or the abuse or threatened abuse of the legal process

She was coerced to work for no wages.

  • Debt Bondage - a condition where a person pledges to repay a perceived debt by serving the debt holder, but compensation is not applied to the debt or the conditions of repayment are not clearly defined

The farmer charged so much for room and board that she was never able to pay off her debt to him. She was kept in debt bondage.

Many people in the U.S. don’t believe domestic trafficking occurs. They are unaware that U.S. citizens are bought and sold every day.

  • Labor Trafficking - the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude

She was a victim of labor trafficking. Her boss refused to pay her and threatened to have her deported if she tried to leave.

  • Sex Trafficking - the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the 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

He is a victim of sex trafficking. He is being forced to sell his body and the pimp gets the proceeds.

As you can see, the language of human trafficking is complex with a great many subtleties. It’s vital we be able to discuss this crime knowledgeably and with sensitivity. We can only do that if we have a clear understanding of the jargon used both by those in trafficking situations and those who fight for its eradication. The more we understand about human trafficking, the better able we are to advocate. Arm yourself with knowledge; it’s your best weapon!

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About the Author

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Jeanette Bouchie is an adult services librarian at the Vigo County Public Library, where she has worked for 18 years. She is also a freelance writer and is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Dressember to increase awareness of human trafficking. She also enjoys reading, tap dancing, traveling, getting dressed up, and attending the occasional comic con.