Rethinking Human Trafficking Representation

Photograph of a blue ribbon
Photograph provided by Leanne McCallum

By Leanne McCallum, Rachel Gutfreund, Hanni Stoklosa

If you google “human trafficking”, you may see images of light-skinned girls being physically restrained. You may read articles with faulty statistics that claim the average age of entry into trafficking is 13, or that the Super Bowl being the ‘biggest trafficking event’ of the year. These factoids represent a small number of the numerous sensational and problematic narratives common in anti-trafficking awareness materials.

Human trafficking is a crime in which a person is forced or coerced into providing sex acts or labor services for some one else’s profit.

Medical and other health professionals are perfectly poised to identify and care for trafficked persons. One study found that 68% trafficking persons visited health care during their victimization. Despite this, individuals who have experienced trafficking often go unrecognized when they seek healthcare services. Thus, health professionals must be exposed to information that allows them to “see” all trafficked persons they come in contact with.

HEAL Trafficking and the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force created a “ethical representation” webinar for health care providers about victim-centered, trauma-informed, authentic representation practices for medical trafficking educational efforts.


When people hear information, they remember only 10% of that information three days later. However, if a relevant image is paired with that same information, people retain 65% of the information three days later.

The images that we consume tell us “who is trafficked” and “what trafficking looks like”.  Consider this: Who is not represented in the common images of people who have experienced trafficking? For example, racism has impacted perceptions of who is considered a victim or perpetrator of the crime. The first official anti-trafficking legislation in the United States was known as the ‘white slavery act’, which aimed to protect white women from being lured into commercial sexual activities. In addition to this, one study found that young black men are disproportionately prosecuted for sex trafficking, even though experts claim that anyone- any gender, age, race, or otherwise- can be a trafficker.


As trafficking is a complex crime, a major challenge is an overall lack of reliable data or verifiable information about victims. According to a 2019 study by the National Institute of Justice, “Only a fraction of the estimated human trafficking victimization is captured in either law enforcement and service provider data”. For example, in a US community of 2.3 million, researchers estimated that less than 20% of those persons experiencing human trafficking were identified by either police or other community service providers.

In addition to scant information, the anti-trafficking movement has a plethora of commonly-shared yet disproven statistics.

When selecting statistics to educate health professionals on trafficking, we suggest using the following questions for guidance:

  • Where did these data come from?
  • How was this information gathered?
  • What is the benefit of sharing these data?
  • What types of trafficking are not represented by this data? Ultimately, if the original source or methodology cannot be determined, consider using a different source. And when a source and methodology are known, it is important to or explicitly mention the information’s limitations.


Storytelling in the form of articles, stories, news, film, and survivor testimonial is a powerful part of the human experience. Storytelling gives people who have not experienced trafficking insight into the experience and focuses the health professional’s eye on the issue.

The use of sensationalistic, shocking language at the expense of accuracy is often used in storytelling with good intentions to attract attention. However, sensational stories may have negative consequences, such as undermining the credibility of the anti-trafficking movement as well as propagating misinformation, which can ultimately lead to resources being allocated away from those most in need.


What can you and your organization do with this information?

  • Watch the webinar.
  • Apply this framework to the content you share.
  • Include trafficking survivor-leaders in the creation of content.
  • Avoid common missteps even if other health care organizations use them.
  • Ask for a second opinion.
  • Focus on medical aspects and public health aspects of victimization.
  • Create a representation protocol.

You can spread the word to others in health care:

  • Share this information with other practitioners
  • Kindly and respectfully use teachable moments if colleagues use questionable content
  • Publicly post your commitment to ethical representation


One might ask why ethical representation matters. When we frame a narrative, we are teaching others what trafficking does and doesn’t look like. If all of the survivor stories we show are female sex trafficking survivors, we are less likely to notice the male labor trafficking survivor. If we only depict cases in which people are kidnapped and desperate to escape, we will not be able to see the survivors who fall outside of that narrative. Cases like those of Cyntoia Brown or Chrystul Kizer have demonstrated the ways that harmful misconceptions can negatively impact survivors. Health systems serving trafficked persons are stewards of knowledge. Every day we must commit to self-reflection in how we respond to trafficking victims and survivors. A place to begin this journey of reflection is to consider the way we represent trafficking through storytelling, visual media, and data.

Survivor-Leader Rachel Lloyd said it perfectly- “What we don’t need any more of is good intentions that aren’t backed up by thoughtfulness, integrity, common sense values and an educated, informed approach.”

In conjunction with the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force

Prepared through the Research-to-Policy Collaboration.

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