Season 1, Episode 1: An Introduction + "Defining" Human Trafficking


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You’re listening to Episode 1 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. This episode will outline the purpose and goals of this podcast, and will discuss the intersections between human trafficking and other human rights issues.

Before we jump into discussions about human trafficking, I want to explain why this podcast was created and how The Trafficking Dispatch team hopes our content will fit into the greater anti-trafficking field.

I’m Victoria Erdel, the founder and one of the hosts of this podcast. I’m a junior in college, but I’ve been interested in anti-trafficking work for a while. When I was thirteen, I met the founder and CEO of an anti-sex trafficking social enterprise. My brief conversation with the founder inspired me to learn more about human trafficking. After six years of researching the subject, I was offered an internship position at this same organization.

During my internship, I was exposed to a lot of anti-trafficking work, like conferences, workshops and even other podcasts. However, I noticed that a lot of it was targeted toward professionals, like police officers, lawyers, and doctors. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have any of those jobs, and I also knew I didn’t want to wait that long to find out. I wanted to know how students can have more of an impact now.

There are a lot of anti-trafficking clubs on college campuses, but most of the time these are individual initiatives that aren’t part of a larger group. I’m hoping this podcast will change that. I’m hoping this podcast will engage young adults, advocates, and professionals all across the country – the world even – in discussions about human trafficking, and will encourage us to work together to end it.

But, I also realize it can be hard to find the time to fight or even learn about human trafficking when we’re trying to balance school, extracurriculars, and hopefully a social life? That’s why every episode will be 15 minutes or less – about the length of time it takes to walk to your next class – so that you can engage more with human trafficking issues without upsetting the balance of your busy student life.

But what are these issues I keep talking about? I’ve said it eight times already, but what is “human trafficking” in the first place? It’s often called “modern day slavery”, but if you Google it, this phrase is not one of the first things you’ll see. Instead, the first result is a definition from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. They split up human trafficking into three parts: the act, the means, and the purpose. The act is what is done, like recruiting, transferring, harboring, receiving, or buying trafficked people. The means are how these actions are done, whether it’s by forcing, grooming, kidnapping, or deceiving a person into a trafficking situation. The purpose is why these crimes are committed. We often hear about trafficking people for sex slavery, but it can happen for other reasons too, like forced labor, organ harvesting, and sadly, for many other reasons.

This definition seems pretty comprehensive when you first hear it. But like all “human trafficking” definitions, it’s not perfect. The UNODC’s definition excludes some aspects of trafficking, like the degree to which consent plays a role. It’s also too vague at some parts, like the difference between trafficking and slavery.

Why does this matter? Well, like I always say, when it comes to human trafficking, the way we define it is the way we fight it. We’ll probably never have a perfect legal definition for human trafficking, but we do need to keep improving what we currently have. If our definition is too narrow, we run the risk of overlooking people in trafficking situations. If it’s too broad, we can seriously harm and stigmatize people that we believe are traffickers or trafficked people.

What do I mean by this? As an example, let’s take a look at an exposé that was recently published about R&B icon R. Kelly. You may not recognize his name, but you’ve probably heard his songs, most notably “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Trapped In the Closest”. Buzzfeed News was the only media outlet willing to publish a shocking piece about the supposed cult Kelly is running. The article provides countless evidence that casts Kelly in a negative and potentially criminal light, but we’re not here to support or deny these claims. Instead, we are using this article to illustrate the difficulties faced when trying to classify a certain situation as either human trafficking, or something else.

The article follows multiple families who claim their daughters have been lured into a sex ring run by Kelly. Many of the women’s stories are similar: they were young, aspiring musicians who entered into a musical mentorship with Kelly. While their parents were aware of their musical interactions, they were not aware of their daughters’ texting and even sexual relationships with him. Eventually, the women ran away and moved into living quarters provided by him. Former members of Kelly’s inner circle claim that every aspect of their daily lives were controlled. What they ate and wore, when they bathed and slept, when they could leave and who they could contact were all controlled by Kelly. Their cell phones were confiscated and replaced by Kelly-approved ones, so they could not contact their family and friends. Their house was also guarded by men in SUVs to prevent them from leaving.

They all engaged in sexual acts with Kelly, and some of the women claim they were unknowingly recorded during these encounters. It is also claimed that these recordings are then shown to the men in Kelly’s inner circle. If the women break one of his rules, they are physically and emotionally punished. Despite all of this, during the few times the women are able to contact their families, they tell them that they are fine, that they want to be left alone, and that they love Kelly as much as he loves them.

Let’s break this situation down according to the UNODC’s definition of human trafficking. If this is a situation of trafficking, then the act would be recruiting and harboring victims. The article claims that Kelly and his crew would often search for new women at his concerts or public outreach events. He would then recruit them into his inner circle by grooming them and promising to help them with their music careers. He would harbor them into his home once they joined him.

The means in this situation would be the deceit used to get new women to join his cult, and the physical and emotional force used to keep them there. Signs of deceit and force could be seen in the women’s desires to be left alone. This could be an indicator of trauma bonding, a phenomenon that occurs when the victim feels attached to their abuser because of emotional and physical manipulation. Even if the women were not physically trapped by the guard in the SUV, they would probably still want to stay with Kelly because they have been emotionally manipulated into wanting a relationship with him.

Finally, the purpose would be for sexual exploitation. While the article never says whether Kelly makes money off of the videos he allegedly records, it is clear from his conversations and interactions with the women that it’s a purely sexual relationship, not a musical one.

Other details from the article are common in sex trafficking cases, like Kelly’s “den mother” who trains new recruits, his rule that says the women must call him “Daddy”, and the fact that like many pimps, it’s claimed that when talking to outsiders, Kelly sometimes talks for the women instead of letting them speak for themselves.

However, some details in this exposé have made the human trafficking position debatable. First of all, all of the women in the story are legal adults. Now, anyone of any age can become a victim of course, but the law treats legal minors and adults differently. If a legal minor is involved in a case of trafficking, their “consent” doesn’t count because they are not of a legal or mental age to give permission. Even if they agree to their situation, their trafficker is still supposed to be held accountable for their actions. However, it’s different with adults. Even if there is a possibility of abuse or trauma bonding, if it appears that the women consent to their situation, then there is nothing anyone can do to legally stop it. As outsiders, we can’t know if the women really do want to be left alone because it’s a conscious choice they’re making, or if it’s because they are being forced or brainwashed into wanting it. Either way, the fact that they are adults makes their “consent” that much harder to interpret.

Another thing that could make this hard to classify as a case of human trafficking is the money issue. The UNODC’s definition includes buying a trafficked person or their services as an act. Most of the time, sex trafficking involves making money off of someone else’s nonconsensual sexual deeds and giving them little to none of the profit. But the article never mentioned if the women are paid or if Kelly makes money off of the pornographic videos he shows to his inner circle. Because of the uncertainty surrounding consent and money, we don’t know if this is a case of trafficking, prostitution, or just extreme groupie culture.

The case of R. Kelly and his alleged cult highlights how difficult it can be to define human trafficking, at least according to the UNODC’s definition. So why not just use a different definition? Because they’re all imperfect; they’re all missing something or overcompensating for something else. Pointing this out wasn’t meant to confuse or overwhelm you. Hopefully it just pointed out the gray areas in defining human trafficking, and how these gray areas influence how we fight it. Should we help these women because they’re victims of trafficking? Should we leave them alone because they’re consenting adults? If we struggle to define human trafficking, then how do we fight it?

These kinds of complex issues and more will be discussed in future episodes. Until then, The Trafficking Dispatch team encourages you to ponder these discussions and talk to us and your peers about them! Feel free to leave comments discussing the issues mentioned in today’s episode.

This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on September [3]*, 2017 at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.

*Correction: In the episode, Victoria says that the next episode will be released on September 1, but it is really September 3.

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