Words matter: the importance of language in the anti-trafficking movement.

March 1, 2024

Language is a powerful tool. It is how we communicate meaning with one another. The words we choose and how we use them have the power to influence the way people think about and respond to an issue. Considering your words carefully is always important, but this is especially true in the context of human trafficking. Misused or incorrect language may cause further harm and damage to individuals who have experienced trafficking and may render data completely inaccurate.

Approaching our choice of words with intention can help us to better understand the issue of human trafficking, and how to properly respond to it.

Language can muddle the definition of human trafficking

The definition of human trafficking is an important tool in our comprehension of the issue. Having a widely used and recognized definition of human trafficking is important for several reasons:

At ACT we use the definition of trafficking found in the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, also known as the Palermo Protocol:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payment or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”​

To put this definition more simply, human trafficking is the act of forcing, coercing, or deceiving an individual into selling sex or labour to a third party’s gain.

Language can neglect to recognize the strength of survivors

Sometimes our language can centre us as the hero, as opposed to centering survivors as the hero. Language may reduce survivors to their circumstances, rather than emphasizing their strength, resilience, and ability to survive. Trafficking survivors do not need to be “saved”, though they may need help or access to services. When we use terms like “rescue”, “save”, and “voice for the voiceless”, we perpetuate a harmful saviour narrative that elevates the individual or organization providing assistance while disempowering survivors.

Language can shape public perception of what human trafficking looks like

The words we use can shape how people see human trafficking. We need to paint an accurate and respectful picture of what trafficking looks like. The use of sensational language and imagery creates an inaccurate narrative, and does not positively impact victims and survivors, or the anti-trafficking movement. Sensationalized language only serves to provide shock value to audiences, rather than providing accurate information and education.

Certain words may perpetuate stereotypes about victims and traffickers. This can make it more difficult to identify and support victims and survivors, and to prosecute traffickers. An inaccurate narrative can also prevent victims from self-identifying as someone who has, or is, experiencing human trafficking. This type of language can deter those in actively exploitative situations from accessing services, or it may affect how they trust the support being offered.  

The language we choose must be trauma-informed, fully account for both labour and sex trafficking experience (or differentiate between the two) and be respectful and inclusive of the diverse populations who may experience trafficking or be at a greater risk.  

Language may change statistics and data

The learning curve for understanding human trafficking is steep and complex. Critical thinking is imperative when looking at current data and statistics. Ask yourself questions like:

“Human trafficking” is often used as a blanket term when citing statistics but by using it in such a way, the data is often rendered inaccurate.  

For example, a common misconception we see is “50% of trafficking victims in Canada are Indigenous”. This should read “50% of SEX trafficking victims in Canada are Indigenous”. Clarifying the type of trafficking helps provide a more accurate portrayal of what is happening. (National Task Force on Sex Trafficking of Women and Girls in Canada).

Recruitment, grooming, risk factors, indicators and more can be very different depending on the type of trafficking that is happening.

Language can place the blame on victims

When it comes to the language used to describe survivors of human trafficking, the words we choose can either empower or cause actual harm. Human trafficking is never the victim’s fault. Victim-blaming relies on the perception that the victim had a choice – and that if we were in the same situation, we would make the “right” choice. We would not have accepted a job that was a trafficking scam, immigrated to another country, or fell in love with a certain person. Be cognizant of the words you choose, and avoid victim-blaming language, such as:  

Language is an important area of accountability. At ACT we strive to maintain an open dialogue about how the language we use affects survivors and recognize the impact our words have. Sometimes it can be hard to find the right words, but we continue to learn and be accountable for the language we use, especially when that language evolves. It is crucial that we work hard to ensure our language is respectful, sensitive, accurate and most importantly person-centred.