Human Trafficking Legislation in the United States

At the beginning of July, Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, signed off on HB 1540 – a bill presented by the Human Trafficking Prevention Taskforce. The passage of this bill created a stir in the anti-trafficking community as Texas became the first state to classify the buying of sex as a felony. Human trafficking legislation in the United States varies from state to state, as well as sex work/prostitution laws. This development by Texas has started conversations about the effectiveness of human trafficking and prostitution laws and the effect they have on survivors. 

“A person commits an offense if the person knowingly offers or agrees to pay a fee to another person for the purpose of engaging in sexual conduct with that person or another… an offense under [this section] is a state jail felony.”

– Section 29 of HB 1540

Human Trafficking Legislation in the United States: A Summary

Human trafficking and prostitution legislation go hand in hand. Oftentimes, as we will see in the testimony below, victims of trafficking are not able to articulate their situation to authorities. They may not realize they are being trafficked or they may have a relationship with their traffickers that makes it difficult to criminalize them. Because of this, we must look at both human trafficking AND prostitution legislation. 

Human Trafficking Laws

Human trafficking was first criminalized by Washington state in 2003. Only 18 years ago, state legislation began addressing the issue of human trafficking. Even still, the qualifications for what constitutes trafficking vary from state to state and are extremely complicated. Generally, states follow the UN’s definition of trafficking as stated in the Palermo Protocol: 

“the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation…”

– Full definition under Article 3 of the Protocol

Differences arise when one looks at the “means” of trafficking as stated in the definition above. Some states focus on the use of physical force, while others include psychological control, financial control, legal harassment, or drug addiction in their legislation. Most of the time, prosecutors have to prove that the trafficker “compelled” the victim. 

“Every state has enacted human trafficking laws, but there are significant differences in the statutes and policies between jurisdictions. Laws criminalize trafficking activity, provide judicial protections for survivors, establish funding sources for anti-trafficking efforts, coordinate stakeholder efforts, regulate businesses to mitigate the impact of trafficking and educate the public on trafficking issues.”

– National Conference of State Legislatures

Prostitution Laws

human trafficking legislation in the united states
33 states penalize buying and selling the same way.

Outside of trafficking laws, every state around the country criminalizes both the purchase and sale of sex (apart from 8 counties in Nevada). Therefore, the (most often) women involved, whether trafficked or not, usually end up in some sort of detention center – including juvenile detention for minors found in this situation. As of 2018, 33 states have penalized the buying of sex and the selling of sex in the same way. Out of the 17 states that offer differing penalization for buyers and sellers, 15 instill harsher punishment on the buyer. In 3 of these states (WI, WV, and MS) the penalties are the same for buyers and sellers until the buyer’s 2nd or 3rd offense. Punishments are often stated as “up to” a certain amount of time in jail and/or a certain amount in fine and/or community service (in MN, OH, OK, and OR). Depending on the number of offenses, financial penalties vary from $100 to $150,000 and jail time varies from 10 days to 5 years (1,825 days).  

Financial penalty for buying sex per state
Financial penalty for selling sex per state
Jail time penalty for buying sex per state
Human Trafficking Legislation in the United States
Jail time penalty for selling sex per state
Human Trafficking Legislation in the United States

The statistics told here are to emphasize the vast difference between penalties for prostitution across states. While it would be ideal for the offense of buying or selling sex to be cut and dry, that is very seldom the case. When reviewing human trafficking legislation in the United States, one must look at both human trafficking laws and prostitution laws, since trafficking victims are often treated as independent sex workers. 

* Legislation changes quickly. The most up-to-date, compiled information found was from 2018. We understand that some of these laws have changed. In general, most penalties have only gotten harsher.

Doors Cracked Open by Texas’ Legislation

The bill passed by the legislature of Texas represents what may be a giant step forward in helping the victims of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. The movement to harsher penalties for buyers of sex and sexual services is encouraging, as it creates a deterrence for this sort of behavior. However, to fully support and help victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation, there would need to be additional resources allocated for three groups of people: 

  1. Law Enforcement Officers must be given the resources and incentives to enforce this law.
  2. Victims/Survivors must have resources made available to them that will empower them to move forward in their life free of sexual exploitation.
  3. The buyers (known as “Johns”) need the means to change their behavior (especially those with sexual addictions) as well as to be punished for it.

While this legislation from Texas could potentially decrease the amount of sex bought and sold within the state, there is no language within the bill to suggest additional resources for any of these groups. Only time will tell if it has an effect on the prevalence of trafficking within the state. For reference, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 1,080 cases of human trafficking in Texas in 2019 and 5,877 cases since 2007. 

A Survivor’s Take on Legislation in the United States

Christina was trafficked in the United States as a young adult. At the age of 21, she was sentenced to two years in prison for a crime her trafficker forced her to commit. She was convicted of identity theft, which seemed unrelated to any form of trafficking. Because of this, she fell through the cracks of the justice system and was gravely misidentified so she never had access to resources or help. Even though trafficking is illegal in all 50 states and by federal law, her case was missed, just like many others.

Why didn’t she tell anyone she was being trafficked? Christina recalls, “no one ever asked… I didn’t have the language to say I was being trafficked.”  Although she knew she did not belong in prison, she didn’t realize she was a sex trafficking victim until after being released from prison. Equipping the justice system – law enforcement, lawyers, judges, and all actors that play a role in the justice system – with the resources to identify sex trafficking victims and to ask the right questions could be the difference between a life of freedom and a life of continual imprisonment – both from their traffickers and the legal system.

Unfortunately, Christina met many women in her exact situation while in prison – victims of sex trafficking who had been forced to commit other crimes, seemingly unrelated to trafficking. Because they weren’t arrested for prostitution, no one questioned if they were being sex trafficked.

When asked if she ever thought or knew she was being trafficked prior to her release from prison, Christina explained that she thought her trafficker was her abusive boyfriend that was forcing her to work as a prostitute. Since state law prohibits prostitution in all 50 states, she believed that if she told authorities that she was involved in prostitution it would incriminate her. This is why prostitution and human trafficking laws go hand in hand. Additionally, to expect young women and girls to understand AND put language to their situation as trafficking victims is unrealistic.

Christina has now worked in the anti-trafficking arena for over 13 years. She focuses on advocating for survivors throughout the legal process. Her background and experiences have equipped her to have a fundamental understanding of the justice system and how survivors of trafficking are often treated. In regards to recent developments in legislation, Christina emphasizes that there needs to be specific language within the laws, as well as training for all involved, that puts survivors first and specifically aims to help them. An example of this would be similar to how victims of crimes receive resources, compensation, and help from the state. People being trafficked, for sex or other forms of labor, are victims. However, they are often seen as co-conspirators in their own exploitation, as opposed to victims. Therefore, while updated legislation is exciting and potentially promising, that is not the end for survivors.  

“Legislation is great and we need it but if we stop there these girls will not get the direct services they need to recover.”

How Can You Support Human Trafficking Legislation in the United States?

Anti-trafficking legislation in the United States has come a long way, but there is a long road ahead. To ensure survivors are being cared for, supported, and empowered, everyday people must come together to help. The legislation will not be enough. Human trafficking in the United States and around the world is a complex issue. There are countless meaningful and helpful ways to get involved. To advocate for children in the foster care system who are specifically vulnerable to trafficking, you can become a CASA volunteer. To ensure survivors are being taken care of, you can raise money for an aftercare shelter. To be a conduit for good and raise awareness on the issue, you can use your voice on social media. Check out the resources below to find more ways of how to stop human trafficking


This easy-to-use worksheet will help you brainstorm all of the ways you can use your gifts in the fight against trafficking. This is a great way to start your journey!


In a simple PDF, all of the information given on this page has been provided for your convenience to share with friends, family, and those interested in the fight.


Raising awareness is a great first step. You can’t fight trafficking if you don’t know it exists. Share the graphics above with your friends so they can join the fight with you!

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