In my thirty years as a journalist I’ve come face to face with scandals, corruption, greed and crime of all kinds. I’ve seen tragedy of monumental proportions – the desperation of famine, the ravages of war. I’ve witnessed the loss of life and hope in the Middle East and Africa – in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Iran. Yet never before have I been as struck by the senseless disregard for human dignity as I have been these last two years while researching this book [on the new global sex trade].” – Victor Malarek

What is human trafficking?

“Trafficking” is a verb. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it has one and only one meaning: “to deal or trade in something illegal.”

“Human trafficking” therefore means dealing or trading in human beings. You can only deal or trade in things that you have the power of ownership over. Therefore human trafficking is about the power of ownership over another human being, treating her as a commodity, for personal gain, whether that’s financial or material gain, or sadistic pleasure. Ownership of another human being is slavery.

As a noun, ‘traffic” has several meanings, one of which is “the action of dealing or trading in something illegal.” This is the meaning that applies when we say, for example, “the traffic in human beings.”

The other meanings of the noun, traffic – those that relate to transportation and vehicles – are used more often. This is probably why there’s so much confusion about the meaning of “human trafficking” and why it’s so frequently confused with moving people around, and people smuggling (in which a payment is made to transfer a person across an international border illegally) and migration (which means a person moves from one country to another by legal or illegal means).

Under international law, human trafficking is a serious crime and a gross violation of human rights and not an immigration issue.

United Nations definition of human trafficking

The internationally agreed definition of human trafficking is laid out in Article 3 of the “United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children” (the Palermo Protocol). This UN human rights treaty was ratified by the UK in 2006, which means we have a binding obligation to implement its terms.

The following infographic provides a summary of the definition. There are three elements: acts, means and purpose. Any one of the acts listed is sufficient to fall under the definition if any one of the means is used for the purpose of exploitation.

The elements of the international definition of human trafficking

Sex trafficking

Notice there are four different types of exploitation. The first type is the “exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation.” This is clearly separated from forced labour, which implies that prostitution cannot be considered a form of labour and that the harms are of a different nature. It is this first type of exploitation that we are concerned with here. For convenience and simplicity, we refer to human trafficking for this type of exploitation as sex trafficking.

Let’s look at what “exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation” means in more detail, because we’ve noticed some confusion about this as well.

The key word here is “exploitation.” Here is the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

The phrase, “exploitation of the prostitution of others,” uses the second meaning of the term: “The action of making use of and benefiting from resources” – the resources being the prostitution of another person. In other words, simply profiting from the prostitution of a woman is sufficient to meet the definition of this type of exploitation.

Examples of sex trafficking

A 14-year old girl is befriended by an older boy or man. He starts by showering her with gifts and attention, so she becomes infatuated with him. He encourages her to tell her parents she’s staying over with a friend, and to truant from school. He may give her cigarettes, alcohol or drugs, hoping she gets addicted. He may use pornography to soften her up to exploitative sex. He initiates sexual contact. If she’s reluctant, he reminds her she owes him for the gifts he’s given her. Soon he starts demanding she perform sexual acts for others. If she resists, he threatens her – perhaps using physical violence, perhaps by threatening to publicise photos taken of her during sexual acts or to tell her school or parents she truanted. She may or may not be aware that money changes hands for the sexual acts. She’s unlikely to see any of it.

Let’s compare this with the international definition. She’s under 18 and therefore it’s not necessary to show that he used any of the defined “means” – although clearly he did. He abused his power and her vulnerability as a child, and he coerced and threatened her. He recruited her in order to exploit her prostitution – to freeload off her. She may consider him to be her boyfriend. But we can see that he is in fact her pimp – and under the international definition he is a human trafficker.

Now suppose she manages to break free and get away from him. He goes looking for another meal ticket. He finds a young woman who’s 18 and just out of local authority care. He repeats the script. Even though she’s older, her loneliness and lack of family support make her easy to groom. He quickly starts a sexual relationship with her and soon coerces her into prostitution and lives off her earnings.

He recruited her, abused his power and her vulnerability, and used coercion, all so he could freeload off her prostitution. This again fits the international definition of sex trafficking.

“Sex trafficking is straight-up pimping”

A common argument by those who oppose the Nordic Model is that its proponents conflate prostitution with trafficking. But from these examples it’s clear that most pimping fits the international definition of sex trafficking. As Catharine MacKinnon memorably put it, “sex trafficking is straight-up pimping.”

When we consider that most women in prostitution have a pimp, it’s not surprising that Sigma Huda, UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking 2004–2008, observed that “prostitution as actually practised in the world usually does satisfy the elements of trafficking.”

It is therefore of the most grave concern that some human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, lobby for the decriminalisation of pimping. They usually obfuscate this by renaming pimps as “managers,” “organisers,” or even “sex workers,” and referring to the “decriminalisation of sex work.” Most people assume this means that only the prostituted persons should be decriminalised, when in fact they mean all of the actors (prostituted persons, punters, pimps, brothel owners, etc.).

International sex trafficking

There have been reports in the media of women being auctioned off in pubs and airports on arrival in the UK; her ownership being transferred from one criminal to another. The criminals who brought her to this country and sold her to the highest bidder are usually recognised as sex traffickers, but those buying her are less commonly recognised as such. It should be clear by now that both the buyer and the seller at such an auction would fit the international definition of sex traffickers.

On arrival in this country, her trafficker (whether he’s the one who brought her here or a different one), typically tells her she owes him a debt to cover the passport, visa and transportation. In practice the debt bears little relationship to the actual costs and is invariably vastly inflated. Her passport is confiscated and she’s told she must “work” to pay the debt. She cannot refuse customers, sex acts, or sex without a condom. She must “work” long hours, have 20 or more punters a day, often seven days a week. She’s unlikely to get to keep any of the money she earns. The trafficker may arbitrarily increase the debt at any time as punishment for resistance. This is debt bondage, a recognised form of slavery, prohibited under international law.

Note that she is being trafficked and her trafficker makes vast profits from the exploitation of her prostitution. It would be incorrect to describe her situation as having been trafficked into prostitution – because she continues to be in a state of being trafficked.


The clause in the international definition on consent is important because it’s a common misconception that if the woman knew she was going into prostitution (or acquiesced through her inability to see an alternative), she implicitly consented and therefore was not trafficked. But if the elements of the definition of trafficking are met, it’s not relevant whether she consented. Just as it’s not relevant whether someone consented to any other form of human rights abuse.

The deception can be about the conditions as well as the type of work. She may have known she would be involved in prostitution but she expected to live in a nice flat, make good money, have two days off a week and work out of a bar where she could choose her clients. She didn’t expect to have her passport confiscated, and be forced to work seven days a week even when she has her period or is sick.

Inadequacies of the sex trafficking law in England and Wales

The human trafficking legislation for England and Wales is defined in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Shamefully, it does not use the Palermo Protocol definition of human trafficking. Instead it separates out slavery, servitude and forced labour from trafficking, and redefines trafficking as “travel.” It replaces the clear and unambiguous “exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation” with the vaguer “sexual exploitation,” which is then defined as something that involves an offence under Section 1(1)a of the Protection of Children Act 1978 or Part 1 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. This is entirely inadequate.

The Act replaces the exquisitely simple “the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability” in the Palermo Protocol definition with a more limited clause that requires a direct comparison with someone without the specific vulnerability. This obscures the structural and cultural power inequalities within society that make it so easy for those in more favourable positions within those hierarchies (for example, adult males) to take advantage of those in less favourable positions (for example, poor young females). This makes it hard to get convictions and for officials and the media to recognise the true extent and nature of the problem.

While we applaud Part 6 of the Act, which requires bigger businesses to provide an audit of their supply chains, we deplore the lack of any mention that men’s demand for prostitution acts as the driver of sex trafficking, or of the role that entrenched poverty and inequality have in making girls and young women, in particular, vulnerable to it, nor of our binding obligation under the Palermo Protocol to tackle these underlying causes.

It is particularly reprehensible that the Act is weakest on sex trafficking, given that it is widely acknowledged that it is the most common form of human trafficking, particularly in Europe, and that women and girls make up an estimated 96% of the victims. We call on the UK government to address these shortcomings as a matter of urgency.

Estimated worldwide sex trafficking statistics

We believe that the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) – the framework for identifying and supporting victims of human trafficking – is also in urgent need for review. It also needs to be brought into line with our binding international obligations and to be firmly separated from the immigration authorities.

Misleading research findings

Given that even Westminster lawmakers appear not to understand the international definition of human trafficking, it should come as no surprise that many researchers suffer from similar misconceptions.

Many of those who lobby for the blanket decriminalisation of the sex trade (including pimps) in the UK often quote research by Professor Nicola Mai, who found that only 6% of the migrant “sex workers” he interviewed “felt that they were exploited and trafficked.” This research is used to back claims that sex trafficking is an insignificant problem in the UK.

He appears to have taken what the women said at face value, and made no effort to measure their experiences through the lens of the international definition, nor to have explained what trafficking actually means before asking them whether they felt it applied to them.

The notion of “abuse of power or a position of vulnerability” in the definition is a recognition that trafficking can take the form of taking advantage of people’s vulnerability within structures of inequality based on aspects like age, sex, race, caste, immigration status, and poverty. This may not be apparent to the person being taken advantage of. Not recognising the true extent of one’s lack of options is a normal psychological mechanism of those who are oppressed. It helps to maintain the hope and sense of control without which life becomes intolerable or even impossible.

In the light of this, Professor Mai’s results cannot be taken as a realistic measure of sex trafficking in the UK.

Watch Catharine MacKinnon on Trafficking, Prostitution, and Inequality

Further reading

Article published: 5 January 2018