Economies of Human Trafficking: A Conversation with Melissa Hope Ditmore

By Eleanor J. BaderMay 8, 2023

Economies of Human Trafficking: A Conversation with Melissa Hope Ditmore

Unbroken Chains: The Hidden Role of Human Trafficking in the American Economy by Melissa Hope Ditmore

WHEN MOST OF US hear the term human trafficking, it immediately brings to mind a young woman or girl who has been forced into prostitution. But as Melissa Hope Ditmore, author of the new book Unbroken Chains: The Hidden Role of Human Trafficking in the American Economy, reports, involuntary sex work is just one of many occupations in which human trafficking is rampant. Ditmore’s definition of trafficking includes exploitation that involves fraud, force, or coercion by someone who has power over the victim. “The tactics used by traffickers differ across workplaces and forms of exploitation,” she writes. “Some tactics overlap, while others are particular to a specific field.” Among the most blatant means of control, she explains, are verbal, physical, or sexual abuse; threats against family; social isolation; the withholding of wages; and debt bondage.

“The end goal of all forms of forced labor is for the employer to get something for nothing, or nearly nothing,” she continues. “Various forms of trafficking and exploitation have allowed American employers to obtain labor for below-market wages—or no wages—for hundreds of years.” This exploitation, she concludes, extends into fields as diverse as agriculture, in-home domestic work, door-to-door sales, and the aforementioned sex trades. 

Ditmore spoke to me about her book, the extent of 21st-century human trafficking, and the human rights campaigns that are being led by trafficking survivors and their allies.


ELEANOR J. BADER: How did you connect the dots of human trafficking to link forced prostitution to other workplace abuses?

MELISSA HOPE DITMORE: In the 1990s, during the Clinton presidency, there was a lot of talk about human trafficking. Sex trafficking is always compelling, but exploitation in other fields was also blatant. There was a case in New York City, where I live, that involved a group of deaf people from Mexico who were being forced to sell pens and pencils on the subways. I eventually learned that this was happening all over the United States, not just in New York. People were being forced to beg or sell trinkets on public transit or in malls all over the country. They were stuck, isolated, because they communicated using Mexican Sign Language, which is different from American Sign Language. I began to see that isolation and domination were recurring themes for a lot of exploited workers.

At one point, I went to Washington, DC, to talk to lawmakers about the need for legislation to protect workers like the deaf Mexicans. I spoke with staffers for conservative senators Strom Thurmond [R-SC] and Orrin Hatch [R-UT]. They were very frank and told me that their constituency was business, not labor, and they would never support bills that protected workers’ interests over the interests of business owners. They made clear to me that they wanted the discussion of human trafficking to focus exclusively on sex, rather than on income inequality or workers’ rights. Sex proved to be a good way to divert attention from abusive labor practices.

Do you think that’s why discussions about human trafficking have always been so narrowly focused on sexual exploitation rather than other types of workplace abuse?

Trafficking brings up rescue fantasies in which people want to save the idealized young girl who has been sexually abused or exploited. But the ideal victim does not exist. Once you meet people who have been trafficked, you realize that they are human beings, flawed like everyone. Some have been unlucky in their lives. Some have made choices that were not the best. And some were actually the go-getters in their communities, the people who were motivated to get out and do something to better their lives. These people somehow got ensnared in something they did not anticipate.

QAnon conspiracy groups have zeroed in on this idea of rescue. They have promoted the idea that Democrats traffic children for sex, and while there is no truth to this, the rescue fantasy remains potent.

Unbroken Chains reports that while many of the most abused and exploited workers are immigrants, people born in the United States have also fallen victim.

Yes. The door-to-door sales industry is a perfect example. Young people are often looking for excitement. When they see an ad for a sales position that promises travel, housing, and a decent wage for selling magazine subscriptions or other products, it sounds appealing. In these jobs, time is a key factor; when people apply for a position, they are typically told that they have to leave that day or the next.

Once they sign on, what they find is a job with long hours, low (if any) pay, and a lot of exploitation. They are sometimes given alcohol or drugs, which keeps them disoriented. They stay in hotels that they have to pay for out of their wages. This typically leaves them without enough money for food, toiletries, or even a phone. Worse, they constantly move from one unfamiliar place to another.

The Fair Labor Standards Act and other wage-and-hour and safety protections exclude many workers, which allows exploitation to flourish. How and why did this happen? Is there momentum to change this?

When the Fair Labor Standards Act became law in 1938, it excluded agricultural, door-to-door sales, and domestic workers. Excluding farm and domestic labor was done as a concession to employers in the South, to enable them to continue to exploit the descendants of former slaves. Bosses were able to pay less than the work was worth. I am not sure why door-to-door workers were left out. It’s worth noting that door-to-door sales used to be a real career. The Fuller Brush man sold household supplies and, especially in areas without a department store, earned a living wage. People also sold linens house-to-house.

There has been some headway in expanding worker protections. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has made progress in winning labor benefits for nannies and other in-home workers. Agricultural workers have also mobilized. In California, the United Farm Workers have protested unfair labor practices and recently pushed Governor Gavin Newsom to expand protections for farmworkers. Likewise, in Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has developed an effective peer-education program that teaches farmworkers their rights and helps them file complaints when there are violations. In the book, I feature a woman named Marlyn who is an example of the empowerment that is possible once someone gets free of trafficking.

Trafficked immigrants are entitled to apply for T visas, which enable them to stay in the United States legally. There is currently a 5,000-person annual cap on the number of people admitted with this status. Is this adequate?

Actually, the US has never met this cap since so few people apply for T visas. The process is slow and applications with letters of support from law enforcement agencies are more likely to be successful. In fact, law enforcement authorities are supposed to provide a letter to victims stating that they were subjected to human trafficking. Unfortunately, issuing these letters has never been a law enforcement priority. It should just be a form letter they print out, but it’s not. Law enforcement’s focus is not on helping the person who has been victimized. Basically, law enforcement is trained to do one thing, and that is not to de-escalate a crisis. Likewise, local officers are not trained to do deep investigations or help get people out of trafficking situations. They are trained to make arrests, and that’s what they do.

You write that trafficking is the only crime in which victims are routinely arrested. How does this happen?

When police conduct raids at a particular worksite, they typically arrest everyone who is there. Some people who have been trafficked are undocumented and have been repeatedly told to be afraid of the police and immigration authorities. They don’t want to be deported, but often this is what happens. When law enforcement officers conduct a raid and everyone is rounded up, it plays right into the narrative that the police and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers are going to arrest them and deport them, and thus can’t be trusted.

You report that men and boys are rarely seen as trafficking victims. You attribute this to sexism and the idea that only “weak” women and girls can be victimized. 

This is particularly true for men and boys in the sex industry. Some became trafficking victims because they are queer and were rejected by their families. Many young people have few skills, so they tend to rely on their youth and beauty. It’s sad that young boys and men do not get the attention they deserve as victims of exploitation.

Another group of exploited males gets even less attention: prisoners. Here, the power dynamic is obvious. As an article in The Washington Post noted, prisoners run the café in the Louisiana State Capitol. They get no pay whatsoever even though they are doing a public-facing job. This is an issue with so many layers, touching on who is criminalized, who gets what sentence, and for how long. The forced labor of prisoners existed in the colonies even before the US was a country and has long been an accepted practice. Incarcerated women are also exploited in prison labor.

You conclude that legislative protections have done little to help trafficking victims end workplace exploitation. Instead, you write that a human rights framework, led by survivors, is needed. Can you describe what this framework would include?

A human rights framework emphasizes the needs of victims and begins by getting the trafficked person out of the exploitative situation. Once out, people need long-term affordable housing, not short-term placements. Putting someone who has been traumatized into transitional housing and expecting them to be able to live on their own and be self-supporting in six months is unrealistic. Survivors also need money, access to education, jobs, and healthcare.

But the bottom line is that what people want and need varies. Some people want to go to court and bring a case against their abusers, and others just want to move on with their lives.

Counseling falls into the same category. Sometimes people are sent to a trafficking court where they may be mandated to attend counseling sessions. This does not give them agency. Counseling can be a helpful step and should be available from trauma-informed specialists, but it should never be required.

Have any of the laws passed by Congress—the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act [FOSTA], the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act [SESTA], or the Trafficking Victims Protection Act [TVPA]—been helpful in any way?

Former president Trump signed FOSTA-SESTA in 2018. Since then, a lot of internet sites have closed down out of fear that they might be seen as promoting sex or prostitution online. Even sites like, for people who cosplay as animals, shut down because the site owners worried that they might be mistakenly charged with promoting sexual commerce. They recognized that court cases can be long, drawn-out, and expensive, and they did not want to take the risk. Instead of helping trafficking victims, these laws have reduced free speech protections.

The TVPA was signed in 2000 and created a new legal framework specifically for the prosecution of human trafficking, but the process for cooperating with law enforcement was not standardized. Worse, as I said earlier, police don’t see supporting survivors as part of their job, and they tend to focus on punitive criminal actions over helping victims. I’d prefer to see us develop a support system that does not rely on law enforcement at all.


Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn, New York–based freelance journalist. Bader’s work frequently appears in TruthoutThe Progressive, LilithThe Indypendent, and Rain Taxi.

LARB Contributor

Eleanor J. Bader is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. Bader’s work frequently appears in TruthoutThe ProgressiveLilithThe Indypendent, and Rain Taxi.


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