The Definition of Trafficking: How Abuse Survivors Realize They Have Been Trafficked
Blog Post by Calion Smith for Artworks for Freedom
It isn’t always obvious to a survivor that they have experienced human trafficking. In many cases, survivors express that they have been abused—but aren’t aware of the signs of trafficking and how their experiences would fall under that umbrella. This appears to be even more common in conversations with survivors of child sex trafficking, where the individual doesn’t realize the abuse they faced was actually trafficking.
The aim of this blog is to break down the differences between abuse and trafficking, so survivors who are questioning their experiences have a reference point.
Note: This blog describes some potentially triggering scenarios of exploitation.
A dictionary definition of abuse reads something like “a cruel and violent treatment of a person,” making it a broad category. Abuse comes in many forms: sexual, physical, emotional, psychological, financial, and more. Essentially, any direct (and often repeated) mistreatment of a person could theoretically fall under the definition of abuse.
There is a lot of advocacy out there on topics of abuse. It’s easy to search for “signs of abuse” and find firsthand accounts from survivors who realized they were being harmed in this way. When a person googles “signs of trafficking,” the focus is almost entirely on the public noticing the signs in a survivor. There’s little help for a survivor who is independently asking “am I being trafficked?” This naturally makes it harder for the survivor to receive proper help.
Resources to help survivors who DO recognize they have been trafficked can be in short supply and hard to connect with locally when most needed. However, most communities do have some safe houses, recovery centers, and other organizations willing to assist trafficking survivors if you know where to look…but how do they help the survivors who don’t realize their experience is trafficking and think it is only a particularly horrific form of abuse? There is power in helping survivors label their experience and seek the help they most need.
Human trafficking is defined by the Department of Homeland Security as an act that “involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Breaking that down, it basically means money is involved—the trafficker is profiting off the exploitation of their victim.
So, an example of abuse could be a girlfriend being repeatedly sexually assaulted by her boyfriend and a friend he invites over. If the boyfriend had his friend pay to abuse his girlfriend, this would then become a situation of trafficking. The woman becomes a commodity who is exploited and abused in the process.
Trafficking doesn’t have to be sexual in nature. It could also be someone forced to work for an employer who is physically or verbally abused to “keep them in line,” or their wages are held from them, or they aren’t paid at all when they should be. Their family could be threatened if they don’t continue working. That would fall under the “coercion.” Trafficking comes in many forms.
Realizing You Are Being Trafficked, From a Survivor’s Perspective
There are a few simple questions that can help a survivor determine if they have been trafficked. “Did someone pay to abuse or exploit you?” “Did someone sell you as a commodity to be abused?” “Did someone force you into working for them, or coerce or force you into staying in that job?”
For instance, if a child is being sexually abused by a relative and that relative is the only one abusing that child, it wouldn’t be trafficking. But, if said relative recorded the abuse and sold copies of that, or invited others to participate in the abuse by paying for access, it becomes child sex trafficking.
If an abusive employer yells at their worker, but still pays them a fair wage and the worker has the right (and safe ability to) quit at any time, that would be abuse by the employer. But, if the employer threatened the worker’s family if they quit or took their ID so they couldn’t find another job, that would be called labor trafficking.
Overall, if money is involved in an abusive situation, it’s likely that trafficking is what is going on. Abuse often involves force and coercion, and when the commercial aspect is added in, the survivor is often being trafficked.
What to do if you think you may have been trafficked
There are many paths a survivor can take if they believe they have been trafficked. Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, call 1 888 373-7888, or text “Be Free” to 233733, or you can live chat with support here. If still involved in the situation, speaking with a safe support like a trafficking helpline, a recovery house, an abuse recovery agency, or some law enforcement agency could help.
If the survivor realizes after the fact, as many do, taking time to process this experience is so important. When a survivor discovers they have been trafficked, it can be a lot to take in. Trafficking is a serious crime. Finding immediate support through help centers, psychological care, or community can make a world of difference for the survivor. For legal help you can reach out to the Human Trafficking Legal Center which connects trafficking survivors with pro bono representation so they can seek justice and thrive. Demanding accountability from traffickers, from governments, and from corporations can be a big part of the healing process.
It’s essential that survivors know they are not alone. There are many service providers nationally dedicated to helping and other survivor advocates offering support work too. The National Survivor Network strives to bring together a community of survivors of human trafficking by creating a platform for survivor-led advocacy, peer-to-peer mentorship, and empowerment that embraces all survivors, regardless of gender, age, nationality or type of trafficking experience. Just knowing about and connecting with communities of people who have faced similar experiences can be not only healing but life-saving as well.
It’s also important to note there is no shame in realizing later on a situation was trafficking, not just abuse. Trafficking is rarely talked about, especially from a survivor’s perspective. This blog is part of changing that. Continued advocacy, sharing articles like this, and amplifying survivor voices will help even more.
If you want to learn more, or are a survivor and need to connect with services, here are some helpful links.
Survivor Support- the below links do not represent an endorsement of services and are by no means exhaustive. Please search in your local area for resources that are location based.
More Articles on Survivor Related Topics- type in “survivor” on HTS Global Database Search or tick the box “Survivors” on the right bar navigation to find more.
- Working With HT Survivors: LGBTQ+ Communities
- ‘Harbouring’ explained: New publication analyses act of people-trafficking
- Why Human Trafficking Raids Put Sex Workers At Risk
- Victims of human trafficking being ‘punished and stigmatized’
ArtWorks for Freedom is a global initiative that uses the arts to give a voice to the under-reported and rapidly growing problem of human trafficking by conducting multifaceted, arts-based awareness campaigns in cities and communities across the globe that combine exhibitions, performances, lectures and other events to draw attention to this widespread human rights atrocity.