Human Trafficking Initiative
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What is Human Trafficking?

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Human Trafficking: Myths vs. Reality

General information on human trafficking

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a multimillion-dollar industry around the world that steals the lives of children, teens and men and women. Traffickers employ force, fraud, manipulation and/or coercion to compel their victims to sell sexual activity or labor, but the traffickers are the ones who make or keep the profit.

“A big myth that we should all recognize — there’s not some white van coming to a mall and kidnapping people to force them into trafficking,” says Jomel Aird, the Human Trafficking Initiative’s director of victim services. “A lot of traffickers come in as boyfriends or girlfriends. Under that guise, they build rapport, they build trust.”

Common terms

Pimp — Also known as a sex trafficker, this is a person who controls and financially benefits from commercial sexual exploitation of another individual. The relationship often is abusive and possessive, with intimidation, manipulation, violence and threats commonly made against the victim or her/his family and friends. To maintain control, the pimp may also employ forced drug use and shame.

John — The buyer of sex, who pays for or trades something else of value for the sexual acts.

Prostitute — Commonly and previously understood to be any woman or man who engages in commercial sex work, breaking the law in Ohio. This definition is often now viewed as outdated because it doesn’t take into account the experience of human trafficking victims, who are forced or coerced into sex work.

Bottom girl — A female designated by the pimp or sex trafficker to supervise others and report violations. Operating as the “right hand,” they may help instruct other victims, collect money, pay bail, book hotel rooms, post ads, recruit or inflict punishments on other women and girls. But the bottom girl also usually is a victim herself.

Branding — A tattoo or carving that a pimp or trafficker inflicts on a victim to indicate ownership.

More human trafficking-related terms

State and federal laws on human trafficking

Busting myths

Many false narratives about human trafficking exist, often with the unfortunate result of making people believe that the scourge doesn’t — or won’t — affect them or their families. The truth is that anyone can be in danger — no matter your race, country of origin, place of residence or socioeconomic status — and the best defense is arming yourself and your loved ones with knowledge.

You also can help save lives by not perpetuating myths. For example, if you see an idea on social media that echoes the items below, don’t pass it on. Sharing bad information doesn’t raise awareness. It puts vulnerable people in greater danger of being trapped by traffickers, trapped for longer and deprived of the services that could help them reclaim their lives.

Myth: Human trafficking victims start out as kidnapping victims who are grabbed by strangers in, say, a van at a shopping mall.

Reality: Traffickers typically already have an established relationship with their victim. They are frequently romantic partners, spouses or direct family members to whom the victim feels indebted because of the love, attention or other form of stability they have provided. This is how traffickers flip the script, by gaining their victim’s trust, then abusing it.

Myth: All human trafficking involves sex.

Reality: Labor trafficking and sex trafficking both fall under the umbrella of human trafficking. Although many Americans assume that labor trafficking happens in less-developed countries, in truth it happens everywhere, including the United States — and Ohio.

Myth: Only undocumented immigrants are trafficked in the United States.

Reality: U.S.-born people make up a large percentage of human trafficking victims nationwide. Also, in many of the cases involving people born in other countries, the victims came to the United States through refugee, asylum or other legally authorized immigration programs.

Myth: Traffickers always, or usually, employ violence.

Reality: Human trafficking sometimes does involve traffickers physically forcing their victim into the situation, but not always. Traffickers use psychological means — fraud, manipulation, shame, tricks and/or threats — to compel victims to provide labor or commercial sex. Drug addiction is also a common factor in the relationship.

Myth: Trafficking victims are physically locked in their situations, being held against their will.

Reality: This can be the case, but victims of trafficking more often stay with a trafficker for reasons that are highly complicated. The trafficker holds power and control over the victim, creating a dependency relationship. Some victims fear for their own safety and/or that of loved ones, and some have been so manipulated, coerced or compelled that they are unable to recognize the control that a trafficker has over them.

Myth: Human trafficking must involve moving, traveling or transporting a person across state or national borders.

Reality: Human trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, which entails illegally taking people across borders. With human trafficking, victims can be recruited and trafficked in their own home, hometown, state or country. (Human trafficking exists in rural, suburban and urban areas alike.) Victims may be moved to other states or countries, but that component needn’t be present for a case to constitute human trafficking.

Myth: “I’ve never seen human trafficking. That happens in places like the dark web and black markets. I don’t go to those kinds of places.”

Reality: Just as human trafficking can be found in rural, urban and suburban areas alike, human trafficking victims have been found in all walks of life — restaurants, cleaning services, construction sites, factories, farms, nail or massage parlors, and many more places of employment. Traffickers work hard to keep their victims from being noticed so upstanding citizens don’t see them.

Myth: Women and girls are victims of human trafficking. It’s a women’s issue.

Reality: Boys and men, both straight and from the LGBTQ community, also are targeted by both sex and labor traffickers. Males make up an estimated 25% of human trafficking victims, according to some estimates; among child victims, 1 in 3 is a boy. For gay youths specifically, the population faces stigmas, marginalization and a higher chance of being homeless — all factors that make a person more vulnerable to trafficking.

Annual reports
News reports
From the Attorney General’s Office