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Have you ever been in a conversation and said something that you meant one way but the person you were talking to heard it completely differently? It happens all the time and can lead to deep divides. Intentionally chosen words, on the other hand, can lead to healing and reconciliation. Language is deeply nuanced, and word choice can, and often does, affect the overall message.

Talking pragmatically about a highly emotional issue like human trafficking is a challenge. Words carry many layers of meaning and a particular word choice can trigger trauma or an unintended emotional response. At The Exodus Road, we are intentional in the words we use, knowing they carry immense weight. Here are a few of the words we intentionally use (and a few we avoid) to help you understand the intricate nuance of talking about human trafficking.

A few initial thoughts to keep in mind before we dive in…

  • It’s easy to sensationalize stories of human trafficking. We won’t. We will purposely avoid language that evokes gratuitous emotion, outrage, or pity.
  • There is a real name and face behind every story we share. It’s easy to get caught up in the drama and lose sight of the fact that these are real lives we are talking about.
  • We are committed to honor the innate dignity of every single person whose story we share, regardless of circumstance.

Now let’s talk about how we talk about human trafficking.

Latin American woman smiling outside with city background

Victim / Survivor

This is a big one for us. People who are trafficked are of course, on one level, all victimized in the sense that they are actual victims of a crime. Our intentional word choice is more a matter of calling out the truth about who these people are.

Calling someone a victim highlights their helplessness.

Calling someone a survivor emphasizes their strength.

Talk to anyone who has experienced trafficking, and you will immediately recognize the immense amount of courage and strength it takes to survive a human trafficking situation. Any individual we help free is, first and foremost, a survivor.

At times, we may use the word “victim” either for clarity or in a legal context.

Raid / Operation

An operation is a strategically planned series of events in order to free a survivor. Operations are often a result of months of investigative work in which we build packages of evidence that we deliver to law enforcement to determine how to act.

A raid is an unexpected invasion by law enforcement on a business suspected of illegal activity. We sometimes support law enforcement during raids, at their request.


At The Exodus Road we use a group of highly trained staff and volunteers to gather evidence in human trafficking situations. We refer to them as investigators, and they are most often undercover, either online or in person. We protect the identity of these individuals, due to the dangerous nature of the work.

Human Trafficking / Modern-Day Slavery

The terms human trafficking and modern-day slavery are used interchangeably and essentially mean the same thing.

When a word is overused, it tends to lose some of its impact. As global awareness of human trafficking grows and it becomes more common in public discourse, the term shows up everywhere. Modern-day slavery is another way to refer to human trafficking, and implies the lack of freedom and absence of basic human rights for those trapped in it. We also use these terms, as they are used by the UN, US Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security.

Learn more about the types and definitions of human trafficking.

Child pornography / Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM)

In recent years there has been an intentional effort to replace the term child pornography with the term child sexual abuse material.

U.S. Federal Law defines child pornography as any visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct involving a minor (any person less than 18 years old.) This definition, while accurate, is clinical and does not convey the massive harm done nor the abuse involved in the creation of these materials.

Advocates, including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), are leading efforts to have the term child pornography outdated and replaced with the more specific term child sexual abuse material. Another term for this is OSEC, or the Online Sexual Exploitation of Children.

Intervention / Rescue

One of the three main strategies at the Exodus Road for fighting human trafficking is intervention. This is the act of working with law enforcement to find and free those trapped in  trafficking situations.

At The Exodus Road, we often refer to the individual acts of intervention as rescues. When we share statistics or talk about how many individuals we’ve helped free, we refer to it as the number of rescues.

However, there is controversy over the heroic connotation of the term rescue. It can imply a lack of agency or helplessness of the survivors. That’s why in many cases we avoid the use of this term and always make it a point to recognize and honor the true heroes — our law enforcement partners as well as the survivors themselves.

Prostitution / Sex Trafficking

This comes down to a matter of consent. In the case of prostitution, the person is choosing to participate in the sale of sex. In the case of sex trafficking, a person is compelled through force, fraud, or coercion, to sell themselves for sex.

We will never refer to someone trapped in human trafficking as participating in prostitution, because they do not have the choice.

Want to learn more? Read about the difference between prostitution and sex trafficking.

We hope this is helpful. The more people who educate themselves about human trafficking and are able to talk about it in a sensitive and informed way, the more of an impact those conversations will have.