Considerations For Human Trafficking Imagery in the U.S.A.

Images are used throughout almost every major advocacy campaign because they are powerful. However, this also means that you must be responsible and thoughtful in choosing images; otherwise, you could misrepresent your efforts. This is especially true in the field of human trafficking, which is plagued by myths, misconceptions, and a lack of accurate data. These realities coupled with irresponsible representations of trafficking can diminish the impact of anti-trafficking efforts, even those that are well-intended.

For any budding or established anti-trafficking advocates, we would like to encourage you to consider the following four points before choosing an image to represent your anti-trafficking campaigns or activities.

Consideration #1: Sensationalism hurts the progress of the anti-trafficking movement.

Sensationalism refers to the use of shocking and sensational stories, images, and language to grab the public’s attention. This practice is harmful because it can distort the reality of victims and survivors of human trafficking [1].

  • In the United States, these shocking images are more likely to be manufactured misrepresentations of domestic trafficking. While it is true that shocking and sensational realities are sometimes observed (e.g., labor trafficking conditions in Southeast Asia where fishermen were caged in a remote island) [2], in the United States, such complete confinement using physical restraints (e.g., chains and ropes) is rare [3].
  • Shocking and sensational images can re-traumatize victims and survivors of human trafficking.
  • Sensational images distract us from fully understanding and facilitating the inner resiliency of victims and survivors of human trafficking.

Consideration #2: Sensational images of sex trafficking in the U.S. that are posted on websites and in print media are often racially-biased.

The majority of victim images that pop-up on websites are girls, which is statistically correspondent to reality (though we recognize that men and boys can also be trafficked). However, these images most frequently show pretty, white girls, which doesn’t necessarily reflect real cases. It is true that the demographics of trafficked individuals and survivors vary dependent upon geographic location and that even “guestimates” are difficult to ascertain and may be unreliable. Nevertheless, in our Midwest, it is estimated that 40% to a majority (in the case of St. Louis City) of trafficked individuals are black girls [4].

Consideration #3: Sensational images mask the root causes of domestic human trafficking and exploitation, which undermines the public health approach to human trafficking.

Through various clinical studies and analyses of hospital and direct service provider data, the risk factors of domestic human trafficking (mostly sex trafficking) have been well-documented [5]. These include:

  • Having a history of childhood abuse, neglect, and/or other adverse events;
  • Having a history of sexual abuse by family members;
  • Experiencing placement in foster care;
  • Experiencing homelessness; and
  • Running-away (sometimes called “throw-away”).

These risk factors are significant and overlap with other forms of violence such as sexual abuse and domestic violence. However, there is a stark contrast in how human trafficking is portrayed as opposed to the other two forms of violence. With just a quick search, one can see that, while some images surrounding sexual abuse and domestic violence may be offensive, they are more subtle and thus more representative of the less-obvious ways that these offenses occur. Images surrounding trafficking, on the other hand, are much harsher and more obviously depict violence, even though data has shown that trafficking is a hidden crime and often not obvious.

Continuing to present shocking and sensational images hinders the advancement of an evidence-based public health approach to combating trafficking because it provides an inaccurate representation of the realities of trafficking to the public. This results in a “rush-to-the-rescue” mentality that does not actually prevent the root causes of trafficking but instead supports a retroactive response to a small proportion of trafficking experiences [6]. Studies have made clear that the reality of domestic human trafficking is much more varied and far from what those images portray. In my opinion, we should approach human trafficking as any other similar violence to humans: let the data guide us without sensationalizing it.

Consideration #4: Images should reflect an agency’s core mission.

The United Nations is an example of an international body with offices in many countries and localities that has gone to great lengths to support work against and to provide information regarding trafficking in persons. Unsurprisingly, they have to use different forms of media to market their campaigns. However, they, just as any agency, have to heavily consider their goals and who they are trying to communicate with.

In the United Nations’ Sustainable Goal Target 8.7 (SDG 8.7), they take a firm stand on trafficking. They call on all nations to “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms” [7].

Because of its reference to global efforts, they should consider well-established international estimates of trafficking, or the Global Slavery Index (GSI). The GSI 2018 estimates found 24.9 million people in forced labour and 15.4 million people in forced marriage [8]. While the methodology of GSI is continuously criticized and the estimates may be over- or under-estimated, it does appear true that forced labor (including child labor) is the most common form of what is termed as “modern slavery.” Again, the imagery that they select in this case should be representative of this reality. Using an imagery that does not correspond to the global reality may send a message that could only be understood in the context of the distorted media’s treatment of human trafficking in the U.S.

Moving Forward

As you move forward in your journey as an advocate to combat human trafficking, please be considerate of what your messages convey. Are you considering only incredibly rare and sensational images of trafficking that take away the agency of trafficked individuals? Or are you demonstrating the truth: that trafficking is complicated and can affect all individuals, regardless of whether they fit a specific stereotype?

Written by: Rumi Kato Price, PhD, MPE (Co-founder HTCN)
Edited by: Chase Latour

[1] Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force, “Myths & Misconceptions: Myth-Busting Common Misconceptions Within the Anti-Trafficking Movement.” [Online]. Available:
[2] E. Htusan, M. Mason, M. Mendoza, R. McDowell, and The Associated Press, Fishermen Slaves: Human Trafficking and the Seafood We Eat. Mango Media, 2016.
[3] M. Withers, “How U.S. Citizens Become Human Trafficking Victims,” Psychology Today, 2016. [Online]. Available:
[4] B. Carter and M. Hatcher, “Black Women Speak For the Children,” World Without Exploitation, 2019. [Online]. Available:
[5] J. Raphael, K. Feifer, J. Bigelsen, M. Dempsey, and S. Rhodes, “What We Know About Sex Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sexual Exploitation in the U.S.,” New York, NY, 2017.
[6] E. Albright and K. D’Adamo, “The media and human trafficking: a discussion and critique of the dominant narrative,” in Human Trafficking is a Public Health Issue2, M. Chisolm-Straker and H. Stoklosa, Eds. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2017.
[7] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Sustainable Development Goals,” United Nations, 2019. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 06-Apr-2019].
[8] Walk Free Foundation, “The Global Slavery Index 2018,” The Minderoo Foundation, 2018. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 10-Dec-2018].

* Note for reference [3]: The statistics used as estimates of children and youth at risk are likely incorrect because the most-used reference was more than 15 years old. Additionally, the film American Love Story (referenced in the article) contains some sensational images.

** Note for reference [8]: The GSI reference is used to illuminate heterogeneous forms of their umbrella term “modern slavery.” This term, however, is often considered inappropriate in the U.S. context because of the U.S.’s history of enslaving people of African descent.