Human Trafficking Initiative
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Did you know?

What is Human Trafficking?

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Human Trafficking: Myths vs. Reality

General information on human trafficking

What is human trafficking?

Human trafficking is a multimillion-dollar industry around the world that steals the lives of children, teens and men and women. Traffickers employ force, fraud, manipulation and/or coercion to compel their victims to sell sexual activity or labor, but the traffickers are the ones who make or keep the profit.

“A big myth that we should all recognize — there’s not some white van coming to a mall and kidnapping people to force them into trafficking,” says Jomel Aird, the Human Trafficking Initiative’s director of victim services. “A lot of traffickers come in as boyfriends or girlfriends. Under that guise, they build rapport, they build trust.”

Common terms

Pimp — Also known as a sex trafficker, this is a person who controls and financially benefits from commercial sexual exploitation of another individual. The relationship often is abusive and possessive, with intimidation, manipulation, violence and threats commonly made against the victim or her/his family and friends. To maintain control, the pimp may also employ forced drug use and shame.

John — The buyer of sex, who pays for or trades something else of value for the sexual acts.

Prostitute — Commonly and previously understood to be any woman or man who engages in commercial sex work, breaking the law in Ohio. This definition is often now viewed as outdated because it doesn’t take into account the experience of human trafficking victims, who are forced or coerced into sex work.

Bottom girl — A female designated by the pimp or sex trafficker to supervise others and report violations. Operating as the “right hand,” they may help instruct other victims, collect money, pay bail, book hotel rooms, post ads, recruit or inflict punishments on other women and girls. But the bottom girl also usually is a victim herself.

Branding — A tattoo or carving that a pimp or trafficker inflicts on a victim to indicate ownership.

More human trafficking-related terms

State and federal laws on human trafficking

Busting myths

Many false narratives about human trafficking exist, often with the unfortunate result of making people believe that the scourge doesn’t — or won’t — affect them or their families. The truth is that anyone can be in danger — no matter your race, country of origin, place of residence or socioeconomic status — and the best defense is arming yourself and your loved ones with knowledge.

You also can help save lives by not perpetuating myths. For example, if you see an idea on social media that echoes the items below, don’t pass it on. Sharing bad information doesn’t raise awareness. It puts vulnerable people in greater danger of being trapped by traffickers, trapped for longer and deprived of the services that could help them reclaim their lives.

Myth: Human trafficking victims start out as kidnapping victims who are grabbed by strangers in, say, a van at a shopping mall.

Reality: Traffickers typically already have an established relationship with their victim. They are frequently romantic partners, spouses or direct family members to whom the victim feels indebted because of the love, attention or other form of stability they have provided. This is how traffickers flip the script, by gaining their victim’s trust, then abusing it.

Myth: All human trafficking involves sex.

Reality: Labor trafficking and sex trafficking both fall under the umbrella of human trafficking. Although many Americans assume that labor trafficking happens in less-developed countries, in truth it happens everywhere, including the United States — and Ohio.

Myth: Only undocumented immigrants are trafficked in the United States.

Reality: U.S.-born people make up a large percentage of human trafficking victims nationwide. Also, in many of the cases involving people born in other countries, the victims came to the United States through refugee, asylum or other legally authorized immigration programs.

Myth: Traffickers always, or usually, employ violence.

Reality: Human trafficking sometimes does involve traffickers physically forcing their victim into the situation, but not always. Traffickers use psychological means — fraud, manipulation, shame, tricks and/or threats — to compel victims to provide labor or commercial sex. Drug addiction is also a common factor in the relationship.

Myth: Trafficking victims are physically locked in their situations, being held against their will.

Reality: This can be the case, but victims of trafficking more often stay with a trafficker for reasons that are highly complicated. The trafficker holds power and control over the victim, creating a dependency relationship. Some victims fear for their own safety and/or that of loved ones, and some have been so manipulated, coerced or compelled that they are unable to recognize the control that a trafficker has over them.

Myth: Human trafficking must involve moving, traveling or transporting a person across state or national borders.

Reality: Human trafficking is often confused with human smuggling, which entails illegally taking people across borders. With human trafficking, victims can be recruited and trafficked in their own home, hometown, state or country. (Human trafficking exists in rural, suburban and urban areas alike.) Victims may be moved to other states or countries, but that component needn’t be present for a case to constitute human trafficking.

Myth: “I’ve never seen human trafficking. That happens in places like the dark web and black markets. I don’t go to those kinds of places.”

Reality: Just as human trafficking can be found in rural, urban and suburban areas alike, human trafficking victims have been found in all walks of life — restaurants, cleaning services, construction sites, factories, farms, nail or massage parlors, and many more places of employment. Traffickers work hard to keep their victims from being noticed so upstanding citizens don’t see them.

Myth: Women and girls are victims of human trafficking. It’s a women’s issue.

Reality: Boys and men, both straight and from the LGBTQ community, also are targeted by both sex and labor traffickers. Males make up an estimated 25% of human trafficking victims, according to some estimates; among child victims, 1 in 3 is a boy. For gay youths specifically, the population faces stigmas, marginalization and a higher chance of being homeless — all factors that make a person more vulnerable to trafficking.

Annual reports

Human Trafficking Initiative

Leaders & contacts
  • Carol O'Brien, Chief Counsel
    CAROL O’BRIEN | Chief Counsel

    O’Brien oversees the departments of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office that focus on law enforcement and criminal justice. Among them is the Human Trafficking Initiative. Before joining the office, she spent eight years as Delaware County prosecutor.

  • JENNIFER RAUSCH, Legal Director
    JENNIFER RAUSCH | Legal Director

    As legal director for the Human Trafficking Initiative, Jennifer Rausch focuses on education and assisting task forces and prosecutors with building better cases. She previously led the Special Victims Unit at the Franklin County Prosecutor’s Office.
  • JOMEL AIRD, Director of Victim Services
    JOMEL AIRD | Director of Victim Services

    Jomel Aird focuses on connecting and strengthening human trafficking services throughout the state. Before joining the initiative, she worked as a victim advocate with the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force and Salvation Army, as well as the Palm Beach County’s State Attorney’s Office.
  • Carol O'Brien, Chief Counsel
    EMILY BILLMAN | Anti-Human Trafficking Coordinator

    Emily Billman helps identify gaps in victim services and spreads awareness across the state. The 2019 graduate of Miami University also has led street outreach teams in Columbus for Out of Darkness, an anti-trafficking organization.

Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission

This commission, which includes a diverse membership of law enforcement officers, social service providers, academic experts and government partners, works collaboratively and comprehensively to enhance Ohio’s response to human trafficking. It compiles information, makes recommendations and meets quarterly.


The Ohio Organized Crime Investigations Commission, led by the attorney general, forms special task forces by teaming up local law enforcement agencies to fight organized crime in Ohio. Multiple task forces target human trafficking. In 2019, those task forces arrested more than 200 people, rescued 120 human trafficking victims and referred almost 250 more to services.


The Ohio Peace Office Training Academy, part of the Attorney General’s Office, trains law enforcement officers to both identify and investigate cases of human trafficking throughout Ohio. All new peace officers have been required to participate in an OPOTA-approved course on the topic since the state’s Safe Harbor Law was enacted in 2012.


The Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation processes evidence from human trafficking cases across the state, has agents and intelligence gatherers who investigate such cases (including crimes against children) and helps put together prostitution stings. BCI also is responsible for compiling human trafficking data from local agencies once a year, numbers that are reported in the Ohio Attorney General’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking.

Legislative initiatives

Our understanding of human trafficking dynamics has evolved. Where once we regarded prostitutes as lawbreakers responsible for their crimes, we now understand that, overwhelmingly, they are victims. The criminals are the people who exploit them, whether they are the customers who buy sex or the slavers who supply that demand. Attorney General Yost and the Human Trafficking Initiative are working to update Ohio’s law to match society’s new understanding.

Bills stemming from our proposals:

As of February 2020

  • Receiving Proceeds: Prohibits a person from receiving money, or anything else of value, from a prostitute engaging in sexual activity and makes it a felony-level offense. The bill also adds “receiving proceeds of prostitution” to the list of crimes that can warrant RICO charges.

    The point: This change in law would help officers charge pimps.

    Status: Introduced as HB415 by Rep. Jena Powell

  • Public Johns Database: Creates a “Sexual Exploitation Database” that would list the names of those convicted of prostitution-related offenses — specifically, people who buy sex in Ohio. Their names would stay on the registry for five years after their conviction and would automatically be removed unless they reoffend.

    The point: The name of the game is shame. Making names of “johns” an easily accessed public record will likely discourage people from buying sex. “The buyers of sex are never forced into it and are never victims,” Attorney General Yost said. “They are sating their own appetites at the expense of another human being, predators who take what they want without regard to the costs of their feeding.”

    Status: Introduced as HB431 by Reps. Cindy Abrams and Rick Carfagna

  • Soliciting vs. Engaging: Separates the two sides of the transaction into distinct parts: basically, buying and selling. The bill also increases the penalty for paying a person for sexual activity, with stronger punishment for those engaging teens age 16 and 17 or anyone near a church or school.

    Key definitions in the legislation: Buying, or “Engaging in Prostitution,” is a new charge defined as “inducing, enticing or procuring another to commit sexual activity.” Selling, or “Soliciting for prostitution,” is defined as anyone who “knowingly solicits another to engage in a sexual activity for hire in exchange for the person receiving anything of value from the other person.”

    The point: Currently, the victims of human trafficking and those buying them face the same charge of “soliciting.” This long-overdue change would make buyers face tougher penalties and treat victims more fairly.

    Status: Initially introduced as HB128 by Rep. Kyle Koehler

  • Companion Bill: Summarizes the above three bills

    Status: Introduced as SB247 by Sens. Tim Schaffer and Teresa Fedor

Other human trafficking measures supported by AG Yost and the Human Trafficking Initiative:

  • Protect Trafficked Minors Act: Would ensure that the law treats 16- and 17-year-olds the same as younger victims of human trafficking. The bill would also require that any child charged with a prostitution-related offense or thought to be a victim of human trafficking be assigned a guardian ad litem in addition to a lawyer, and it would adjust the process by which the charge can be set aside for diversion actions.

    The point: Current law treats 16- and 17-year-olds like adults when they are charged with soliciting, instead of like children 15 and younger.

    Status: Introduced as SB13 by Sen. Teresa Fedor, passed by the Senate, being considered by the House