Throughout the past decade, there has been more research about and discussion of human trafficking than ever before―and an increased need to refine the language we use.
During the late 1970s, the public was largely unaware of human trafficking, while after the Cold War discussions increased but were framed as a migration issue and based on limited research. Not until the 2000 Palermo Convention and the 2008 Vienna Convention have governments and organizations made a concerted effort to accurately understand human trafficking. Because of that increased research, we have see anti-trafficking laws passed, news stories about trafficking, and educational resources like the Polaris Project. All of this leads to increased public awareness.
Of course, awareness is key to ending a system that thrives in secrecy and isolation. However, we also need to ensure that we use language responsibly―as individuals or organizations―when discussing human trafficking.
Why worry about words?
Focusing on language may seem distracting in the midst of the serious trauma and exploitation victims face daily. However, unless we are cautious in our language, we risk further harm to survivors.
How can language harm survivors?
The first danger of careless rhetoric is re-traumatizing survivors. When discussing human trafficking cases, focusing only on shocking details both risks re-traumatizing the survivor and does nothing to educate the public about how to address human trafficking.
Our language also has the potential to re-exploit survivors. While allowing a survivor space to tell their story can be very beneficial, in some cases, people or groups overemphasize the violent details of a survivor’s story simply to garner more clicks or funding. This puts the survivor back in an exploitative position, with their experience being used for someone else’s gain. To avoid this, groups should:
- Be aware of the potential consequences of a victim retelling their story (such as re-traumatization).
- Allow the victim to set clear boundaries on how and what they will share.
- Address the survivor’s entire story, including restoration.
Lastly, not being aware of our language also influences the public’s perception of human trafficking. Whether it’s a conversation between friends or an organization’s report, words affect how others think about human trafficking. If we use language that casts survivors as simply helpless victims or willing participants, that could lead to a skewed understanding of a complex issue. Ultimately, framing victims in this black-and-white way can counteract anti-trafficking efforts, even if the speaker has the best intentions.
So, how should we talk about human trafficking?
Of course, there is no rulebook with the “right words” for discussing human trafficking. Words’ power comes from their connotations–the feelings and ideas invoked by words beyond their strict definitions. Connotations change with time and social context, so one set of words will not always remain best for discussions of human trafficking. Instead of trying to make a list of “right” or “wrong” words, it’s helpful to know general best practices.
- Avoid sensationalism.
- When talking or writing about human trafficking, ask yourself if the tone and content of your message promote something constructive, like providing new research or insight into the issue, or if it is focused on getting an emotional reaction with no further productive action.
- One source encourages organizations to approach survivors as industry experts rather than a simple product of their trauma, which easily becomes abuse-focused and sensationalist.
- Be aware of agency.
- In some contexts, the word “victim” is used to depict someone helpless and pitiful. One report found that this definition of victim leads to the stereotype of the “ideal victim:” someone who is weak, faultless, did not consent to the aggressor, etc. This “ideal victim” trope can influence social workers to think that any survivor not fitting the “ideal victim” mold does not need services.
- Therefore, it is important to be aware of both victims’ autonomy and vulnerabilities. We know that victims experience injustice and abuse and exploitation. But we also know that victims are free-willed, full individuals. Human trafficking often occurs when that free will is limited by any number of vulnerabilities, which leaves victims at a higher risk of exploitation.
- If we paint victims as wholly passive, we can easily misrepresent victims as helpless and dependent. On the other hand, depicting victims as wholly free to choose can turn into victim-blaming. So, it is important to acknowledge both victims’ autonomy and their vulnerabilities when discussing human trafficking.
Ultimately, it can be intimidating to think about the impact of our words. However, it’s important to remember that we are all learning and doing our best with the information we have. As long as we keep pushing ourselves to be mindful of our language and aware of new research, we are more likely to avoid harming survivors and victims with careless language.
 U.S Department of State, “Media Best Practices,” Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (June 27, 2017), https://www.state.gov/media-best-practices/.
 Karen Countryman-Roswurm & Bailey Patton Brackin, “Awareness Without Re-Exploitation: Empowering Approaches to Sharing the Message About Human Trafficking,” Journal of Human Trafficking (August 29, 2017), doi.org/10.1080/23322705.2016.1201374.
 “The Importance of Language in Anti-Trafficking Work,” Youth Collaboratory (September 30, 2019), www.youthcollaboratory.org/resource/The-Importance-of-Language-in-Anti-Trafficking-Work.
 Carolyn Hoyle, et al., “Labelling the Victims of Sex Trafficking: Exploring the Borderland between Rhetoric and Reality,” Social & Legal Studies (September 19, 2011), doi : 10.1177/0964663911405394.