Human Trafficking in the US: Misconceptions vs. Reality

Human trafficking in the United States has a racialized and classed history. Concerns about trafficking began with anti-slavery and anti-prostitution movements in the 1800s, and moved into a “white slavery” panic, the fear for middle-class white women’s innocence and place in society.  It is easy to see these fears manifested in discourses surrounding human trafficking today. Movies that center around human trafficking many times show “innocent girl-children exploited by treacherous, unscrupulous pimps and criminals,” (Szorenyi et al, 2014) with a racialization of the perpetrators. Human trafficking and sex trafficking have come to be synonymous, when in actuality there are many forms of trafficking besides sex trafficking.

The representation of trafficking victims in our media leads to a misunderstanding of who is at risk, which makes it harder to understand what victims actually need and what could prevent them from becoming victims of trafficking. The media shows a clear image of who a victim of sex trafficking might be, but many times this is not who it actually is. Instead of a white girl from a wealthy or middle class home, as we are lead to believe through media, it is more likely a runaway, girl of color, and/or someone who has been in the foster care system.

The Media and Trafficking Misconceptions

Human trafficking has become sensationalized in many films and TV shows, and can show American anxieties that are based in historical narratives. Media will often show a stereotyped trafficked innocent woman who is in need of rescue by a man. They are always individually based and don’t seem to suggest that trafficking is a system that relies on power structures of gender, race, and class. There is often an underlying theme that emphasizes the control of women’s sexuality and the need to increase border security (Szorenyi et al, 2014).

Many Americans will recognize the film Taken as a movie about human trafficking, however; there are many parts to it that are problematic. In the film, a wealthy, white, 17 year old girl travels to Paris. Within minutes of arriving in the airport she is kidnapped by East-European traffickers, d

rugged, sold, and finally rescued by her ex-CIA dad.

Taken is troublesome in its portrayal of trafficking

victims, as it where it takes place. Trafficking victims are not usually white girls or women from upper-class homes, and traveling abroad does not necessarily mean you will be trafficked. The movie leads us to believe that trafficking happens outside of the United States, but in reality it certainly does happen here. Taken, however; gives viewers an othering mentality, as the crimes are being committed abroad by foreigners who are attacking American values.

Certain populations are more vulnerable to become victims of trafficking,but sex trafficking discourse many times centers around non-Black women and girls. Advocacy campaigns will many times use white girls or women, which results in a sense of urgency for white audiences. It creates a panic and feeling that this crime is happening here to people who look like me, and disallows for the audience to continue to believe that it only happens abroad or to foreign women. While the use of white women or girls in campaigns has the ability to be effective in reaching white audiences, it is actually problematic, since it, coupled with the media’s portrayal of victims, allows no one to recognize who is truly as risk and why they are in that position.  

Characteristics of Trafficking Victims

Many anti-trafficking groups relay the message that anyone can become a victim of trafficking anywhere (Trafficking), but this is not always accurate. Black girls are disproportionately victims of sex trafficking. Black youth account for 62 percent of minors arrested for prostitution offenses (Phillips, 2014) while African-Americans make up only 13.2 percent of the United States population. Many social and racial factors account for why this number is so high.

There are many characteristics that increase someone’s likelihood to become a trafficking victim. Some examples are a relationship to the child welfare system, traumatic childhood experiences, and homelessness. Between 50-80 percent of exploited youth have been in some sort of foster care, group home, or other aspect of the child welfare system (Phillips, 2014). A study done in Connecticut showed that almost 100 percent of child sex trafficking victims were involved in the state’s child welfare system (Kreuser, 2007). Many times they have run away or aged out of the foster care system. Aging out of the system is a major issue, as 11-37 percent of youth face homelessness after (Landers et al, 2017). Exploiters also target runaways, one study suggesting that one in three runaways are approached by a perpetrator within 48 hours on the streets (Landers et al, 2017). Their homelessness and prior experiences in the foster care system make them targets for exploiters, due to their possible trauma, lack of family and support system, lack of supervision, and are many times easy to manipulate (Landers et al, 2017).

Black Girls’ and Their Lack of Victimhood

The victims label has certain assumptions and exclusions that come along with it. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) states that youth under 18 cannot consent to sex so they are victims without the need to show that there was any force (Phillips, 2014). The TVPA attempts to protect victims, however; it is clear it only has certain victims in mind. Victimhood has been racially coded, and Black women and girls have been historically unprotected. The framing of CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) has yet to engage with race and the impact intersectionality has on victim framing. Legal and advocacy interventions also do not engage with the racialized vulnerabilities victims and potential victims face, as there are particular needs of Black girls in low income communities (Phillips, 2014).  

The racialized vulnerabilities that lead to sex work are intertwined with the economic and social realitiesthat serve as pathways to sex work. Conceptions of consent and sexuality are informed by race (Phillips, 2014), and the economic disparities and limited social support place many Black women and girls in insecure circumstances that lead to trafficking, whether it be that they are hyper-vulnerable to trafficking or hyper-exposed to prostitution as a way of survival (Phillips, 2014). Black women’s lack of victimhood stems from the historical discourses surrounding Black women’s bodies. The Black female body has been a source of economic growth in the United States, as with it came a valuable commodity: their enslaved children (Phillips, 2014). Their sexuality has made them vulnerable to sexual domination, and their blackness denied them the protection they deserve (Phillips, 2014).  

Black girls and women occupy a contested victim position, stemming from past and present representations and discourses surrounding Black femininity and sexuality. In The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen, Ange-Marie Hancock explains how the discourses surrounding Black women are rooted in slavery and racism. Black women are seen as “overly fertile,” “lazy,” and “system abusers” (Hancock, 2004). These easily relates to why it is so hard for the United States to see Black women and girls as victims of trafficking, we see them as perpetrators instead of victims. Instead of seeing them as victims, we prosecute them, leading to the overrepresentation of Black girls and women in prisons for prostitution. In 2013, Black women accounted for almost half of those arrested for prostitution (Phillips, 2014), even though the population of African-Americans is so relatively small. Even worse, in 2013 61.9 percent of minors arrested for prostitution were Black girls (Phillips, 2014).

The lack of intersectionality in the discourses surrounding human trafficking is detrimental for communities of color. The common discourse and framing of human trafficking, and more specifically sex trafficking, is a victim versus exploiter narrative. We are set up to blame the exploiter, however we still end up blaming and punishing the victim, especially if they are a girl or woman of color. The conversations surrounding victims and their stories are so individualistic and many times whitewashed, because the image of a white girl or woman in “modern day slavery” gives people a sense of urgency (Phillips, 2014). In actuality, there is a system in place that accounts for why many people of color are in sex work and why we do not see them as victims.    


Human trafficking is a complex issue that encompases many forms of forced labor, sex work, smuggling, and more. It is a global issue that stems from colonialism, power structures, racism and sexism. It happens both in the United States and abroad. Within the United States, victims are disproportionately girls and women of color, and have been in contact with the child welfare system. Many sex trafficking victims in the United States have run away from home or foster homes, are homeless, or have aged out of the foster care system and face unstable housing situations.

However; due to media representation, most Americans would not realize that who we see represented as victims of trafficking or potential victims of trafficking may be far from the truth. Anti-trafficking campaigns rely on images of white girls and women, sometimes with physical chains or bondage, because it elicits and creates a sense of urgency that we wouldn’t otherwise get if the factual victims were represented. This is due to the historical unprotection of Black women and girls and how we have framed their femininity and sexuality.


Szorenyi, A., & Eate, P. (2014, August 30). Saving virgins, saving the USA: Heteronormative masculinities and the securitisation of trafficking discourse in mainstream narrative film. Retrieved March 27, 2018, from

Trafficking. (n.d.). Retrieved March 27, 2018, from

Phillips, J. (2015, September 01). Black Girls and the (Im)Possibilities of a Victim Trope: The Intersectional Failures of Legal and Advocacy Interventions in the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors in the United States. Retrieved March 27, 2018, from

Kreuser, H. (2007). Globalization, Prostitution and Sex Trafficking. doi:10.4324/9780203945421

Landers, M., Mcgrath, K., Johnson, M. H., Armstrong, M. I., & Dollard, N. (2017). Baseline Characteristics of Dependent Youth Who Have Been Commercially Sexually Exploited: Findings From a Specialized Treatment Program. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 26(6), 692-709. doi:10.1080/10538712.2017.1323814

Hancock, A. (2004). The politics of disgust the public identity of the welfare queen. New York: New York University Press.


11 thoughts on “Human Trafficking in the US: Misconceptions vs. Reality

  1. I am glad to see your are writing about the myths of human trafficking. It is a much needed discussion. I just wanted to quickly chime in on 2 points.
    I have worked on the issue for over 15 years. I have built task forces, rescued victims, testifed as an expert and made documentaries.
    Human Trafficking does not discriminate – its victims come from every age, socio economic status, race, ingelligence, and gender.
    The only place you see a discrimination is commercial sex which is marketed overwelmingly to men.
    The Trafficking Victims Protection Act does not say minors cannot consent to sex but that minors are unable to consent to COMMERCIAL sex, big difference. Also, the law states that minors may not be charged for prostitution. If you are seeing minors prosecuted this needs to be attended to immediately.
    Some of the studies you quote may have some percentages but they are focused specific populations so their scope is limited. We need much more research on this issue. In my experience the victims are there no matter the population I have focused on serving -immigrant, US citizen, wealthy, poor, margionalized, priviledged, Asian, African, African -American, Hispanic, European and any other group.
    I have seen very little addressed about the children born into, one or both parent trafficked or having a parent as a trafficker, or otherwise touched by trafficking and how it will affect their lifespan.
    Keep the discussion going.

  2. In today’s modern society, we often times have to deal with the same and similar inknowns that faced many peoples in other centuries. Where as then it was legal, to sell ones own blood or family in religions and cultures that knew no other or better way to live in a sin ridden world. HOwever in Christian culture is was not so. There were indeed options and many more so all protecting, and cherishing one’s own and others virtue and innocence.
    Thusly the portrayal today of an unfaithful culture and the dire remnants of ones own society at having no other way and or option no outcome then slavery. Is the pitiful sorrowful heartbreaking truth of not the lesser borne, by of the unloved and untaught and of the unloving. I am sure if we look at the rich heritage not o fathers tyrannical, nor the grading, nor overly ambitious. NOr the bullies , or of the self seeking no true justice beloveds does not indeed live nor come from such degradation.
    Yet of the strong the enduring, the appropriately affectionate, the tender, the kind, the sensible, the open, the lovely of these and such like character does salvation come. It’s a trith that if we are to truly rescue and be rescued we should all know and accept. Of such comes friendship, trust, protection, love and other such invaluable virtues and characteristics.
    IT is not with bitterness and pride that one manages a household, takes care of a homestead, manages and cares for a farm. Yet wth knowledge wisdom and understanding and mostly love, one has keys to doors that no evil can shut. Opportunities of such wonder and privilege and sacricy that no one can undo. IF then we are not to be hidden from this blessed light, we must then be taught and able to hold on to it boldly, to cling to it, to know and think, and love, it, us, them. Such parting the world has should never come of who and what awe aim and should be.
    We should then trival not, at the expense of such a rare and invaluable gift a gem of peace that is to not be shunned. It is with the turning, of a page and the hearing of the ear, the smellling of a fragrance and the seeing of the eyes, the beauty, freedom, love should be known. The how tools of salvation are and were not meant for just one person, but for all men, nations, kindred, and peoples.
    As we see often times in period films where the management of households and the places in societies are known. We see the importance of holding on to proper existence, and securing it and ones and others, futures. There is no doubt just duty, responsibility, and surety that as simple as it is good always overcomes evil. More then just a mere thought but a solution, a goal, something that is necessary to do and have and give. In order to have justice we have be just and give it.
    Yet in scripture we also have that blessed hope and assurance. That in the end every knee will bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus is Lord according to the Glory of the father. And we shall hunger no more, neither shall we thirst, and God shall wipe away every tear from our eyes. There will be no more dying and no more crying. When we reach that other shore.
    May the blessings of the Lord make us rich and with it addeth no sorrow.
    Merry Christmas and happy new year, holiday blessings. God is love!!!

    • KM
      I may have misunderstood your reasoning, but it almost seems these victims are victims of culture rather than the sick acts of monsters. It is never a victims fault no matter the conditions of their life. Since Biblical times, every tribe/ society has a duty to protect their own.
      I agree that such perverse & unwanted acts of domination will be punished if not in this world then the next. Jesus clearly calls out anyone who harms a child. However,
      Sex trafficking is a global issue and persists because evil people carry out such controlling & beastly acts. All God-fearing and faithful people around the world know what it means to be a loving parent or guardian. As a Christian I believe every person is a child of God and subject to the same human dignity. The fact that this occurs so readily in the US is a wake-up call to those who are not directly impacted by trafficking here. As we proudly say God Bless America, we must remember not every citizen is rightfully blessed. As faithful people we must attempt to eliminate the effects that lead to targeting victims: better foster & child care, run-away prevention, homelessness, etc. It is detrimental that we don’t turn a blind eye to those “lost children” we have the capacity to spread awareness & become involved in prevention one step at a time. It is not enough to say everything will be better in the next life. (Which from your bullying remark is want many hurt children come to believe.) We are all connected and part of the human family. While the fortunate families seemily are not afflicted trafficking affects & dehumanizes the culture (As seen in the many scandalous & violent headlines.) We all have a responsibility to protect the innocence and must pray for community guidance, involvement and assistance when it comes to addressing such inhumane acts.

    • I’m so tired of reporting trafficking and told , only if it’s from my phone network , community it’s only if there was a forced sex act. I think the 800 main number for trafficking needs to learn to identify what exactly human trafficking is . They need more training . As well as the family court clerk here in Las Vegas. Trafficked Victim by forced labor & identity theft, vanishing…in a community HOA.

  3. I am sorry but the emphasis on sexual exploitation and trafficking being greater among African Americans is very frustrating. It doesnt matter what color skin a victim has. They are victims. I am a white female who was brutally trafficked as a gery young child. The fact that I am white doesn’t make my pain and my experiences less important or less of a tragedy.

  4. How can I contact the author of this publication? I work with human trafficking in my area and it only focuses on wealthy white female and I know African American women are victims of sex trafficking, also.

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