2012 was a fascinating year in the fight against human trafficking. There were great moments, like President Obama’s keynote speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, where he offered more resources to combat trafficking at home and abroad. There were also major challenges: The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which clearly defines trafficking, poses penalties for trafficking, and offers protections and services for trafficking victims, has yet to be reauthorized, leaving a large gap in federal anti-trafficking policies.

But now more than ever, people are learning about trafficking, talking about it, and attempting to do something about it. And since January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, now is a great time to gain knowledge and take action.

As a researcher and lecturer in human trafficking, I work to portray the complexity and reality of trafficking to the public, debunk the myths, and answer some of the pressing questions. As I lecture around the U.S., I always get some unique questions (like, “What are the chances I will be trafficked? Answer: Next to zero) as well as many basic ones about the origins and nature of trafficking. Here are a few of the most common.

What exactly does trafficking entail?

As I discussed in my article last year, Human Trafficking: The Myths and Realities, the definition of human trafficking includes recruiting, moving, harboring, or obtaining a person through force, fraud, or coercion. Humans are trafficked for slavery, debt bondage, sexual exploitation, or servitude.

However, this definition needs to be expanded to accommodate the evolving landscape of trafficking methods and networks, as well as the many levels and degrees of trafficking, such as community-based trafficking (where a whole village or community is involved), legacy trafficking (where trafficking has been in the family for generations), and the varying levels of choice and agency in trafficking situations (some of those trafficked are aware of the exploitative situation they will end up in but remain involved because of economics or lack of opportunity).

How and where do people get trafficked? Does trafficking always occur because the people are desperate or extremely poor?

No. While some people do feel they have no choice but to sell themselves or their children into slavery, not all trafficking victims are extremely poor or desperate.

Many times the reason for trafficking is twofold—economics play an important role, as do levels of vulnerability. A family that may have enough food and shelter may actually choose to sell themselves or their children into an exploitative labor situation because they can get material goods such as cell phones, a new roof, or even high-end bags, or because they believe that the work will ultimately be profitable. Or, people who don’t have national status or are stateless often enter into exploitative situations under the promise of gaining citizenship into another country.

In other cases, those trafficked are particularly vulnerable. For example, they are seeking work in another country and fall into scams—where “legitimate” jobs turn out to be forced work. Runaways and those who are marginalized as groups and individuals are also vulnerable to this type of trafficking.

Are all sex workers trafficking victims?

While it’s easy to conflate sex work and trafficking because of media coverage, there is a major difference. In certain situations, some sex workers choose to go into this line of work for economic reasons or out of personal choice. There are even some sex workers unions, like the Empower Foundation based in Thailand. And while this is often challenging for us to comprehend, these women typically have agency and can make decisions about their work, particularly in places where sex work is legal or regulated.

On the other hand, those who are trafficked into sex work have no agency, and are often forced, deceived, or coerced into their situation. These women are not always kept where sex work is apparent (as in the tourist sex districts or hotels) and not always easy to identify, because they are "hidden in plain slight;" a trafficking victim could be seen in the open, but still be controlled by a mama san or pimp. It also becomes difficult to discern who is trafficked and who is there by choice in countries where sex work is legal and regulated because some are intimidated and threatened by their traffickers.

Where is trafficking a large problem? Does trafficking exist near my hometown?

We often think of human trafficking as only an international issue. But in reality, trafficking happens closer to home than you think, and it goes beyond sex work.

In recent years, trafficking awareness in the United States has increased, as has the ability of law enforcement to identify trafficking victims, so a better picture is emerging. For example, it was discovered that hair braiding salons in New Jersey were forcing trafficked women from Ghana to work 18-20 hours a day. Outside of Washington, DC, young women and men are often pimped for street prostitution. There is even trafficked labor in the service industry, particularly in restaraunts and local garment factories. It’s important to remember that trafficking is as likely to happen in the cities as in the suburbs and that businesses that use trafficked labor often appear legitimate; often times massage parlors and spas are used as a front for brothels, as are legit factories, and most of us are unable to identify trafficking victims in our daily life.

Now that more people know about the issue, are the trafficking numbers increasing or decreasing?

Unfortunately, trafficking numbers are increasing every year, and trafficking networks are getting savvier in the way they employ and exploit people. That said, there are also now better practices to identify trafficking victims, more organizations working on legislation, and better training for law enforcement on human trafficking.

But we still have a long way to go. Awareness is only half the battle—we must discover new and efficient methods to prevent trafficking, and work to rehabilitate those who have experienced it to break the trafficking cycle.

Where can I go to get involved or learn more?

Check out some important organizations working on trafficking issues or engage your school, workplace, or community on ways to take action. And, if you’re interested in interning or seeking a fellowship regarding human trafficking at home or abroad, feel free to comment on the article for guidance or any further questions about this field.

Photo of human trafficking courtesy of Shutterstock.