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This article was originally published in the Florida Justice Association’s Jan/Feb 2023 Journal Issue. To view the article with footnotes, click here. 

The Human Trafficking Epidemic

The United States recognizes two primary forms of trafficking in persons: forced labor and sex trafficking. Forced labor, or labor trafficking, encompasses the range of activities involved when a person uses force, fraud, or coercion to exploit the labor or services of another person. Sex trafficking encompasses the range of activities involved when a trafficker uses force, fraud, or coercion to compel another person to engage in a commercial sex act or causes a child to engage in a commercial sex act. Human trafficking is a $150 billion industry. Of that $150 billion, every year, nearly $100 billion comes from commercial sexual exploitation. Approximately $50 billion comes from forced labor exploitation. Profits per victim are highest in forced sexual exploitation due to the demand for such services and the prices that “clients” are willing to pay. The disturbing reality is that traffickers understand business. They know that you can sell an illicit product, like a drug or weapon, only once. But a human or vulnerable child can be sold multiple times — over and over again. Where there is demand, traffickers and exploiters will create supply by any means necessary. Disturbingly, children account for over a quarter of all human trafficking victims worldwide. Studies have shown that up to 300,000 children in America are at risk of sexual exploitation on any given day. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (“NCMEC”) is inundated with thousands of child sex trafficking reports every year. In 2021, NCMEC received more than 17,000 reports of child sex trafficking.

Myths and Misconceptions of Human Trafficking

Some of the most common misconceptions of human trafficking involve what human trafficking looks like and who the victims are. The most pervasive myth about human trafficking is that it involves strangers kidnapping or physically forcing someone into a situation. The reality is that traffickers use a variety of methods, including psychological abuse, mental abuse, manipulation, and fraud. Traffickers often groom their victims using love — friendship, romantic love, or familial love — to manipulate them into cooperating in their own exploitation. Traffickers often lure victims from foster care, haphazard homes, or dysfunctional families through empty promises of love, affection, or financial support. Traffickers and exploiters seek vulnerabilities to create dependency and maintain control. Traffickers use a variety of methods of abuse to keep their victims under their control, such as physical, emotional, and economic abuse. Traffickers leverage vulnerabilities such as mental health concerns, substance use, homelessness, economic need, or recent migration or relocation to maintain dependency. Sex trafficking victims can be any race, gender, or nationality, and can come from any socioeconomic group. However, because of current and historic discrimination and inequity, minority groups such as people of color, immigrants, and people who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to be exploited for their vulnerabilities and face sex trafficking.

Immigrants, including immigrants who are in this country legally, are particularly more vulnerable to labor trafficking because many come to the United States due to violence or severe poverty in their home countries. Thus, the effortless threat of deportation holds significant power. Debt bondage and the minimal amount victims of labor trafficking may be paid in the United States often outweighs the alternatives. Unfortunately, human trafficking exists in every country, including the United States. In fact, Florida is third in the nation for reported human trafficking cases, following California and Texas.

Online Sex Trafficking

With the recent boom in technology and the rise of the Internet, there has been an explosion in the market for child pornography and child sex trafficking. The Internet has created and emboldened an unrealistic and uninhibited demand for sexual deviance, leading to the unbridled victimization of sexual abuse of children online. Unfortunately, the horrors of sex trafficking and child sexual abuse material (“CSAM”) no longer remain secluded to the dark web, where traffickers and criminals are forced into hiding. Individuals can now use websites and social media to advertise, schedule, and purchase sexual encounters with victims, including children. The Internet has also broadened the scope of clientele within reach for traffickers and exploiters. Traffickers have free rein to use every day websites to exploit their victims and those online platforms are complicit in these crimes without consequence. Despite widespread knowledge of sex trafficking occurring online, web companies are often shielded from liability by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Your Call to Action

During a speech in New York City in September 2012, then President Barack Obama stated that human trafficking “ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime.” The horrendous crime of human trafficking targets the most vulnerable members of our society. Plaintiff’s attorneys are vital to the fight against human trafficking. Plaintiff’s attorneys have the power to give victims of human trafficking their day in court. Plaintiff’s attorneys can empower victims of human trafficking to have their voices heard. Plaintiff’s attorneys can bring lawsuits against the industries that perpetuate trafficking and hold them accountable for their complicity and willful blindness. While the legal landscape for civil human trafficking lawsuits is far from polished, good case law precedent and legislative reform can help pave the way to justice for these victims.

is an associate attorney at Levin Papantonio Rafferty where she manages the firm’s rapidly growing Human Trafficking and Sexual Assault Departments. She represents survivors of human trafficking against the industries and corporations that benefit from their suffering and advocates for social change to promote the prevention of human trafficking within those industries. Kathryn is an active member in the FJA. She is the secretary of the Minority Caucus and is on the board of the Women’s Caucus and the Young Lawyers Section.


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