The Elastic Meaning(s) of Human Trafficking

60 Pages Posted: 30 Dec 2019 Last revised: 29 Apr 2020

Date Written: December 7, 2019


What is human trafficking? When is an expansive definition of trafficking justifiable? How does trafficking relate to other concepts—like domestic violence, sexual assault, labor exploitation, and prostitution—with which it often overlaps? These questions have become increasingly salient after the U.S. Congress defined the crime of human trafficking in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (“TVPA”). Since then, all fifty states have passed legislation with varying definitions of the crime. Congress also has re-entered the field with subsequent legislation, expanding the crime to capture new conduct.

As a result of legislative advocacy and judicial interpretation, the legal definition of human trafficking in the United States has now broadened to include a remarkably wide variety of actors and conduct. This is particularly evident in the context of sex trafficking. Buyers of sex, online platforms, and hotels increasingly have been caught in the anti-trafficking crosshairs and targeted with increased criminal and civil liability. In addition, prosecutors, plaintiffs, and legislators have reframed new conduct as trafficking. In some states, for example, almost all commercial sex is now sex trafficking. In other contexts, previously discrete gender-based crimes, such as domestic violence and sexual assault, are categorized as trafficking.

This Article examines the historical and continuing expansion of trafficking definitions in the United States with a particular focus on sex trafficking. It posits that the broadening trafficking framework offers solutions to intractable problems that have bedeviled prosecutors and victim-rights advocates since 2000. However, the expansion also poses risks of its own to the rights of victims, defendants, and the continued viability of the trafficking framework. This Article argues that the next wave of reform should involve selective broadening and pruning. It cautions against an overly ambitious future expansion, arguing that it risks endangering the strength and legitimacy of the trafficking concept itself.

Keywords: human trafficking, trafficking, smuggling, sexual assault, domestic violence, gender-based violence, prostitution, commercial sex, sex, labor, TVPA, FOSTA, online platform, buyer of sex, customer, victim, civil damages, hotel, third party liability

Suggested Citation

Dahlstrom, Julie, The Elastic Meaning(s) of Human Trafficking (December 7, 2019). 108 California Law Review 79 (2020); Boston University School of Law Public Law & Legal Theory Paper No. 20-1. Available at SSRN:, Available at SSRN: or

Julie Dahlstrom (Contact Author)

Boston University School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
(617) 353-2807 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics