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Press and News: Education

Practice Tip of the Week: Talking About Human Trafficking

Tuesday, February 18, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Roy Muyinza
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By: Kanaka Sathasivan, MPH

Last week, Jessica Peck, DNP, APRN, CPNP-PC, CNE, CNL, FAANP, presented the most viewed Nurse Talks we’ve had yet on human trafficking. Statistics on human trafficking, which encompasses sex trafficking and labor trafficking, must be viewed through a critical lens and any responses need to be evidence based.

More than two-thirds of trafficking victims have had multiple health care encounters without being identified. However, the challenge is for nurses to recognize victimization in patients. Part of becoming a strong anti-trafficking advocate is understanding that how we talk about human trafficking can prevent nurses and other health care professionals from recognizing victims and can keep victims in the trafficking situation.


The way we tell stories about trafficking plays into stereotypes, and these stereotypes can prevent victims from getting the assistance they need. Many people may imagine a human trafficker as someone who waits with a van to kidnap young girls and boys, specifically those from low-income families or troubled home situations.

In reality, a trafficker is simply someone that takes advantage of vulnerabilities. Victims come from all socio-economic levels and can be approached in many ways. For example, sex traffickers might find and groom a victim through a social media chat over a long span of time to build trust. Like victims, traffickers can come from all backgrounds: soccer coaches, veterans, pastors, teachers. They could even be family members.

The news media also reports on human trafficking in a way that builds stereotypes. Human trafficking is a traumatic event, but news coverage is not always trauma-informed and may lack context, including social patterns, public policy, or other information that contributes to the situation. When reporting on the sex trafficking ring NXIVM, media outlets emphasized the cult aspects and the association of celebrities such as Allison Mack of Smallville, rather than the criminal aspects of the manipulation, sex trafficking and labor trafficking that took place.

Visual images also play into stereotypes, such as the common conceptualization of human trafficking victims as white women chained up. Not only does this image erase people of color, boys, men and victims of varied ages, but many victims are not controlled with physical force but through substance use, so the victim is both more pliable and dependent on the trafficker for continued access to both prescription and illicit substances. Because visual media images most often portray victims of sex trafficking, nurses need to broaden their views to include labor trafficking so victims aren’t missed.


Without the right terms, people may unknowingly use words and phrases that perpetuate stereotypes. For instance, “child prostitute” or “child sex trade” carry connotations of agency, suggesting that the underage person is a willing participant. Children cannot consent to sexual activity. The correct term for referring to children engaged in acts of sex trafficking is “child victims of sexual abuse.” Similarly, the term “child pornography” should be replaced with “child sexual abuse images” or “child abuse images.”

Other common terms that appears with sex trafficking are “pimp, “relationship,” or “john.” Traffickers are the same as pimps in that they both control other people and sell sexual encounters, but anti-trafficking advocates avoid the word because it glorifies the idea of sex trafficking and minimizes the crime occurring. Relationship is also inappropriate because it assumes a consensual or equal position among both parties. “Exploitation” or “abuse” are the appropriate words to use.  Likewise, those who purchase commercial sex acts are not “customers,” “johns,” or “clients.” Instead, they should be called “sex buyers” or “perpetrators” to avoid normalizing the economic transactional nature of the abuse.

As trafficking is a crime, the people exploited in the trade are considered “victims.” However, they may not recognize that they are victims of a crime—the situation has become normalized to them—nor identify themselves as a victim. It is not necessary for them to do so in order to exit the situation. Those who have exited the trafficking situation may also self-identify as “survivors.” Those who have progressed in their survivorship journey may refer to themselves as “thrivers.”

When possible, it is best to take a person-centered language approach and frame the trafficking as an event, rather than an identity (unless the victim or survivor chooses to do so). For instance, speaking about the person “experiencing trafficking” or “escaping trafficking,” rather than “being a trafficking victim.” In this article, especially as we are talking about the crime of human trafficking, we have used the word victim for concision.

Nurse’s Role

The nurse’s responsibility when they suspect human trafficking is to provide a safe environment, address immediate clinical needs and connect the person to appropriate services.

Nurses and other reporters are not “rescuing” victims but rather helping them “leave or exit the trafficking situation.” As explained in the article, by rescuing someone, you take their agency or power and create a demeaning and demoralizing role that mirrors the power dynamics of the abusive situation. Instead, nurses need to make victims feel empowered to leave.

In addition, victims are often bonded to their traffickers through trauma and may find solace in the situation they already know, versus leaving into a new and foreign situation. They may not see themselves as needing “rescue.”

Nurses must take a trauma-informed and victim-centered approach to speaking to victims. The word rescue connotes a simple, singular event, but sex trafficking situations can be complex, and recovery from trauma takes time and ongoing support. Rescue also implies a heroic nature, when the reality of identification, reporting and assistance is much more common and mundane.

By challenging stereotypes and changing our language, we can help make anti-trafficking advocacy part of the nurse’s everyday toolkit.

Dr. Peck’s Nurse Talk will be available to view on the Learning Curve next week. To view this talk and earn CNE contact hours, visit the Learning Curve. The Learning Curve now comes with a yearly subscription for unlimited CNE.

We do not yet know whether this presentation will meet the continuing education requirements for human trafficking. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission has not yet published the criteria for the mandatory education, which goes into effect September 1.


How to Not Talk about Human Trafficking

Trauma-Coerced Bonding and Victims of Sex Trafficking

Texas Nurses Association

Texas Affiliate of ANA | 4807 Spicewood Springs Rd., Bldg 3, Suite 100, Austin TX 78759

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