[I]n practice, trafficking does not mean "modern-day slavery." Nor does it mean being transported across borders for purposes of sexual exploitation. Instead, it usually refers to one or more of the following: being underage and selling sex; illegally immigrating; being subjected to any kind of forced labor or abusive labor practices; engaging in consensual sex work.
"The public seems to believe that sex trafficking means forced prostitution,” researcher Tara Burns told me, “but when you sit down and read charging documents for sex trafficking charges, that is very very rarely the case." Sex workers are often charged with having trafficked themselves, Burns said. "Under different state laws, sex trafficking can also mean sex workers advertising for their own services or renting their own hotel rooms, or adults abusing children well outside of the commercial sex industry."
The word “trafficking,” then, becomes a way to leverage the image of young women kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery. After 9/11, [Alison Bass, author of Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law], the State Department was eager to embrace the language of trafficking as another way to justify immigration restrictions and surveillance inspired in the first place by anti-terrorism—which is why initiatives like the State Department "Human Smuggling and Terrorist Center" lump together "Human smuggling, trafficking in persons, and clandestine terrorist travel" as "transnational issues that threaten national security." "Trafficking" can also be used to make anti-prostitution laws seem compassionate rather than punitive, as in the New York trafficking courts, which frames those arrested as trafficking victims in need of help, even though in practice you still end up with police arresting people (especially minority women) on prostitution charges. In either case, the word is a way to target marginalized groups like immigrants and sex workers in the name of a (confused or cynical) humanitarianism."