Understanding the Modern Day Slave Trade: Sex Trafficking and the Criminal Justice System in the United States


Sex trafficking constitutes a form of modern day slavery[1] as it denies victims their agency and reduces them to mere object status by shamelessly exploiting their bodies for economic gain[2]. Current laws do not explicitly define “modern slavery”, yet the terminology refers to sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation that a person cannot escape due to threats, coercion, violence, deception, and/or the abuse of power (3). According to the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, people may be victims of trafficking: “whether they were born into a state of servitude, were exploited in their home town, were transported to the exploitative situation, previously consented to work for a trafficker, or participated in a crime as a direct result of being trafficked”.[3] Essential to the phenomenon of sex trafficking is the traffickers’ goal to (1) exploit and (2) enslave their victims through deceptive and controlling practices.[4]

In 2012, the International Labor Organization estimated that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking at any given time internationally.[5] 22% of these global human trafficking victims (4.5 million individuals), are specifically sex-trafficked[6]. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, sexual exploitation constitutes the most common form of human trafficking worldwide (79%), followed by forced labor at 18% in activities like agriculture, domestic work, or manufacturing[7]. Nonetheless, sex traffickers disproportionately prey on women, as females constitute 97% of victims of sexual exploitation worldwide, compared to other types of human trafficking, such as forced labor, where only 35% of trafficked victims are female[8]

In a domestic context, the best estimate for the number of trafficked victims comes from U.S Department of Health and Human services who cite that roughly 600,000 to 800,000 victims — half of whom are younger than 18 years old — are trafficked each year across American borders[9]. Roughly 80% are female, and 70% are believed to be trafficked into the sex industry as opposed to other forced labor industries[10]. Furthermore, 199,000 children annually are estimated to be victims of sex trafficking in the United States[11]. The U.S Congress reports that the sex trafficking of women and children is the third largest source of revenue for organized crime worldwide, following closely behind illegal drug and firearm sales[12]. According to the Urban Institute’s comprehensive 2014 report on the size and structure of the underground commercial sex industry in the United States, the city of Atlanta’s 2007 sex economy alone was estimated at 290 million dollars[13]. As world renowned activist and human trafficking expert Siddarth Kara states:

Drug trafficking generates greater dollar revenues, but trafficked women are far more profitable. Unlike a drug, a human female does not have to be grown, cultivated, distilled, or packaged. Unlike a drug, a human female can be used by the customer again and again[14]

Kara’s piercing words illuminate one of the many reasons why the sex trafficking industry has flourished, yet remains difficult to criminalize. In order to grasp the immense scope of the problem in the United States, it is important to first understand the reasons why criminalizing, controlling, and eradicating the industry prove difficult. (1) The Ills of Globalization details the adverse effects of globalization on women and illuminates how poverty increases their vulnerability to traffickers. (2) The high reward / low risk nature of the sex trafficking industry delineates the lucrative economy of the U.S sex trafficking industry. Lastly, (3) Ambiguity of the TVPA & Other Legislation unravels current understandings and legislative definitions for trafficking that lead to misunderstanding what constitutes sex trafficking and the uneven applications of the law.

  1. The Ills of Globalization

The top three types of sex trafficking services in the U.S as of 2016 are (1) Escort Services (2) Illicit Massage Businesses, and (3) Residential (e.g apartment brothels)[15]. Conditions of poverty, unemployment, and other forms of economic dislocation primarily force women and girls into sex trafficking, according to Article 6 of UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in its 11th meeting in 1992[16]. Specifically, runaway/homeless youth, victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, war or conflict, or other types of social discrimination are targets for sex traffickers[17]. Globalization plays a toxic role in the proliferation of the modern day slave trade as it creates circumstances which force women into sexual exploitation[18]. Namely, a widening divide exists between the rich and poor as a result of globalization due to the transfer of commodities and assets (e.g people) from developing nations into rich, already developed nations[19]. This freer exchange of goods and people catalyzed the sex trafficking industry. Women, children, and minorities are the hardest hit by socio economic crises, thus, these they are the most heavily trafficked groups[20].

Sex trafficking victims themselves often respond that economic hardship and childhood trauma pushes them into the trade, thereby making them susceptible to countless methods of control by traffickers, like force, fraud, and coercion[21]. Traffickers commonly withhold victims’ travel and identity documents and threaten that they will call police or immigration authorities (if the victim’s country of origin is not the United States) if the victim attempts to escape, according to a foundational 2005 Dept. of Justice report analyzing the American sex-trafficking epidemic[22]. Pimps also recruit young U.S women in malls or clubs, typically befriending them first, and creating emotional and/or drug dependencies as a method to maintain control[23]. Consequently, fully eradicating the industry lies in abolishing the forces which drive women into the sex-trade, specifically economic globalization and poverty, which proves a monolithic undertaking[24].

  1. The high reward / low risk nature of the sex trafficking industry

The economics of the U.S sex trafficking industry itself also make it difficult to criminalize and eradicate long-term. According to the 2014 Urban Institute report on the sex trafficking industry across eight major American cities, 142 interviewed (and convicted) pimps said that there exists a perception that trafficking is far less risky than other crimes, like drug trafficking, for example[25]. While pimps have varying degrees of knowledge regarding the law itself, they overwhelmingly believe that arrest remains the foremost risk of pimping[26]. Multiple offenders in the study expressed that “no one actually gets locked up for pimping”, despite their own incarcerations[27]. From an economics stance, forced sexual exploitation proves incredibly lucrative due to constant demand since men will always desire to pay for sex[28]. The low price of sex from slaves incentivizes men to participate in this illicit activity (as opposed to more expensive prostitutes or escorts)[29]. Slaves become commodities, where price drives demand, rather than empathy for their condition[30]. Beneath the surface of massage parlors and escort services, there exists an extensive network of conventional business techniques like “advertising (e.g online ads, social media), renting business locations, the transportation of workers, communication, internal business structure organization, and financial transactions and recordkeeping” that keeps the illicit industry alive[31]. One of the main issues that arises from attempting to criminalize sex trafficking is that pimps consciously elude law enforcement by using coded online ads and coded communications between themselves and employees, for example, while employing tactics to proactively identify law enforcement stings[32].

  1. Ambiguity of the TVPA & Other Legislation

Despite popular sentiments among traffickers that sex trafficking does not constitute a crime,[33] the U.S enacted its first anti-trafficking legislation in October 2000, called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, or TVPA[34]. A federal policy advisor who took part in drafting the law contends that the TVPA provided a new and highly needed category under which sex trafficking cases in the United States could be prosecuted. He notes that everything prosecuted under the TVPA technically could have been taken to court under pre-existing statues; nonetheless: “it was very important from the United States’ perspective to be seen as a leader in the area and pass a statute that had a crime called ‘trafficking’ because we were encouraging everybody else in the world to do it, and other countries did not have the tools that we already had.”[35]

Several high profile cases brought sex trafficking to the national agenda in the 1990’s, highlighting the pre-existing law’s insufficiency to criminalize the complex issue[36]. The TVPA outlines an operational definition for “severe forms of trafficking” (which includes trafficking for forced labor/servitude and trafficking for sexual exploitation) and a non-operational definition for non-severe types[37]. Nonetheless, “severe” forms of trafficking embody the core of the law and include:

(A) sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; or

(B) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery [38]

The U.S definition requires the presence of 1. a process (e.g recruitment, harboring, or transportation), 2. occurring by means of certain methods (e.g force, fraud, or coercion) and 3. ending in exploitative conditions of labor or commercial sex to qualify as a severe form of sex trafficking[39]. Reauthorizations of the TVPA took place in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2013[40] to: strengthen its prevention strategies, create programs to assist state and local law enforcement to combat trafficking, and expand protections available to non U.S citizens with the T-visa program (special, three-year-residency visas provided to victims of severe forms of human trafficking), to name a few addendums.[41]

TVPA legislation coincidentally coincided with the drafting of international UN sex trafficking protocol[42]. In December 2003, UN Nation States entered into legally binding guidance in The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, that establishes a definition of trafficking in persons to facilitate convergence in approaches across countries to criminalize human trafficking[43].The TVPA and UN Protocol, however, boast holes in their policies[44]. Their ambiguous and subjective language primarily leads to confusion and implementation of the law[45].

Domestic Response

Luckily, America boasts federal legislation unlike many countries who comprise the UN, nonetheless, TVPA guidelines remains far from comprehensive in combating sex trafficking. Although elements of “force, fraud, or coercion”, as cited above, are required for a case to qualify as trafficking, precisely determining what circumstances and conditions constitute these elements proves complex[46]. “Force” may sometimes be apparent to an outsider immediately, yet other times, it takes a highly experienced professional to recognize its nuances[47]. The TVPA also proves problematic as it excludes cases of sex trafficking for which the acts were deemed absent of force, fraud, or coercion[48]. In many cases, according to world renowned sex trafficking expert Siddarth Kara, people are judged to not be ‘severe’ victims of sex trafficking if they “originally agreed to work as prostitutes, albeit under false promises of rosy conditions that turned out to be slavery”, for example[49]

TVPA legislation similarly excludes illegal immigrants who fall victim to exploitation within U.S borders. Although implementation of T-visas to protect non-citizens arose through TVPA reauthorizations, in reality, many criticize the program’s protracted application process that leaves victims’ statuses unresolved. Furthermore, upwards of 50 percent of T-visa applications are denied because the individual is deemed to not be a victim of “severe” human trafficking[50]. Although programs exist to assist victims of sex trafficking, the reality of the law and its implementation does not live up to the law in its ideal sense.

Moreover, barriers to the criminalization of sex trafficking stem from the fact that state enforcement of human trafficking does not match federal TVPA laws, which results in many severe trafficking cases to be prosecuted as lesser crimes, like pandering, for example[51]. Additionally, some states entirely lack legislation which defines domestic trafficking as a crime[52]. In a report to the National Institute of Justice, Doctors Kevin Bales and Steven Lize discovered that state law enforcement agencies largely report having insufficient tools to attend to sex trafficking cases[53]. Moreover, even in states with explicit anti-trafficking legislation, interpretation and application of the laws have been excluded from police training[54]. The average officer remained unaware of their state’s anti trafficking laws in Dr. Bales’ and Dr. Lize’s extensive research[55]. There is much work to be done in the domestic context as those who even receive basic training still note that limited resources plague their agencies’ ability to investigate cases and identify victims[56].


As author Dvora Yanow states in her novel How Does a Policy Mean?, “There is no single, correct solution to a policy problem any more than there is a single correct perception of what that problem is”[57]. I believe that Yanow’s words ring incredibly true in combating the sex trafficking industry in the United States. Based on my research, I believe that the best and most comprehensive way to rightfully criminalize and eventually eradicate the sex-trafficking industry is by developing a multi-faceted government/law enforcement and civilian approach.

First, I think that public awareness of the issue must increase exponentially in order to assist victims of sex trafficking. Yes, documentaries exist to educate the mass public, yet people often do not realize the extent to which the problem persists in their immediate community. Sex trafficking is undoubtedly “otherized” and carries connotations of being an international problem. This remains so far from the truth. As Kara states in his novel, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, “Approximately one-third of trafficking victims in the United States are discovered by individual citizens, not the police”[58]. That is why movements like CNN’s Freedom Project[59] and other public awareness campaigns are of the utmost importance because everyday citizens have the power to be vigilant and save potential victims in their own communities. Raising public awareness of the general public goes hand in hand with increasing training and awareness of law enforcement agencies and police departments towards this issue. In trainings, specifically for the police, I believe it is important to have highly skilled experts in the field of human trafficking to educate police teams as to the intersectionality of the problem. Often, the drug, sex, and weapons trade go hand in hand, thus, officers must be aware as to the nuances of the industry in order to best identify victims.

Second, I believe that U.S federal policy makers must address holes in implementing the TVPA, especially in regards to the effectiveness of issuing T-Visas to non-U.S citizens victimized by the sex trade. Oftentimes, victims cannot afford to wait months before they know they are safe within national borders; thus, T-Visa programs must expedite their process in order to issue the most effective help and assistance to non-U.S resident victims of forced sexual exploitation. For actors in the UN as well, although protocol to punish sex traffickers exists, it proves useless as I enumerated above unless nation states draft their own guidelines to prevent sex trafficking. Since sex trafficking plagues every nation, it must be combatted transnationally in order to best criminalize and abolish it. I strongly believe that sex trafficking must be treated as a human rights issue as opposed to an immigration one as the latter poses problems of stereotyping the trafficking industry and its victims.

Third, in order to get at the root of the problem, policies need to be in place to fund public programs which connect at-risk youth to helpful community services, rather than wait for them to matriculate into juvenile detention centers. Taking a proactive approach to engaging particularly at risk girls is incredibly important and has the ability to save countless lives from being trafficked. Service programs in public schools and in communities, with a focus on programming for girls, will hopefully prevent the typically marginalized and vulnerable individuals from entering into the sex trafficking industry.

Lastly, I think that the best way to criminalize sex trafficking within our borders is to make economic and prison penalties as steep as current drug offenses. Traffickers themselves cite that they often get involved in the sex trafficking trade because it carries less risk than the drug trade. Pressure must be placed on the domestic and global community to increase penalties for human slavery to at least equal to that of drug trafficking in order to deconstruct the current, pervasive low-risk perception that modern day slavery carries.

[1] “Sex Trafficking.” Polaris Project. October 26, 2017. https://polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/sex-trafficking.

[2] “United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.” General Assembly President Calls for Redoubling of Efforts to End Human Trafficking. April 3, 2012.

[3] “What Is Modern Slavery?” U.S. Department of State. https://www.state.gov/j/tip/what/index.htm.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage.” Report: Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage. September 19, 2017. http://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_575479/lang–en/index.htm.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Global Report on Trafficking in Persons: 2014. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 2014.

[8] Ibid, 37

[9] Clawson, Heather J., Nicole M. Dutch, Amy Saloman, and Lisa Goldblatt Grace. “Study of HHS Programs Serving Human Trafficking Victims.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, December 2009.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Estes, R., & Weiner, N. (2001). “The commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico”. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

[12] Territo, Leonard, and George Kirkham. International Sex Trafficking of Women & Children: Understanding the Global Epidemic. Flushing, NY: Looseleaf Law Publications, 2015.

[13] Dank, Meredith, Bilal Khan, P. Mitchell Downey, Cybele Kotonias, Debbie Mayer, Colleen Owens, Laura Pacifici, and Lilly Yu. “Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities.” Urban Institute. March 11, 2014. https://www.urban.org/research/publication/estimating-size-and-structure-underground-commercial-sex-economy-eight-major-us-cities/view/full_report.

[14] Kara, Siddharth. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, pg 12

[15] “More Assistance, More Action: 2016 Statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline and BeFree Textline.” Polaris. December 2016. Accessed December 16, 2017. https://polarisproject.org/resources/2016-hotline-statistics.

[16] “General Recommendations Made by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.” United Nations. Accessed December 16, 2017. http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/recommendations/recomm.htm.

[17] “Sex Trafficking.” Polaris Project.

[18] Kara, pg 55

[19] ibid.

[20] ibid, pg 59

[21] Dank, Meredith et al, pg 2

[22] Bales, Kevin, Ph.D, and Steven Lize, Ph.D. Trafficking in Persons in the United States: A Report to the National Institute of Justice. Report. U.S. Department of Justice, 2005, pg 5

[23] Territo, pg 7

[24] Kara, pg 31

[25] Dank, Meredith et al, pg 8

[26] ibid

[27] ibid, 3

[28] ibid, pg 210

[29] Kara, pg 268

[30] ibid

[31] Dank, Meredith et al, pg 192

[32] ibid, pg 286

[33] ibid

[34] Peters, Alicia W. Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex, Gender, and Culture in the Law. University of Pennsylvania PR, 2015, pg 63

[35] ibid, 57

[36] ibid, 63

[37] ibid

[38] Bales, Kevin, Ph.D, and Steven Lize, pg 11

[39] Peters, pg 63

[40] “Current federal laws”. Polaris Project. https://polarisproject.org/current-federal-laws

[41] Kara, pg 258

[42] Peters, 49-50

[43] “United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime” United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/organized-crime/intro/UNTOC.html.

[44] Kara, 255

[45] ibid.

[46] Peters, 80

[47] ibid, 78

[48] Kara, 70

[49] ibid, 255.

[50] ibid, 258

[51] Dank, Meredith et al, pg 8

[52] Clawson, Heather, pg 19

[53] Bales, Kevin and Steven Lize, 12.

[54] Clawson, Heather, pg 19

[55] Bales, Kevin and Steven Lize, 6.

[56] Clawson, Heather, pg 19

[57] Peters, 43

[58] Kara, 256

[59] “CNN Freedom Project.” CNN. March 31, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/specials/world/freedom-project.


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