This paper explores the disconnections between anti-trafficking discourse and the local experience of responding to human trafficking as indicated in ethnographic data from Bosnia and Kazakhstan. Using the concept of “uptake,” I examine how anti-trafficking discourse operates as a master narrative, drawing on techniques of emotion and logic, as well as a specific type of victim story. I also consider how, despite an emerging counter discourse that questions the data and challenges current policy, human trafficking discourse continues to be retold in media and reproduced in popular culture, often in ways that actually diverge from the current version of the grand narrative. In contrast to these uncritical representations, ethnographic data from Bosnia suggest that the master narrative is selective in how it represents the history of the problem and that it does not “take up” important details about the context that fosters sexual exploitation, despite Bosnia’s compliance with US policy. Conversely, Kazakhstan suffers a liminal status regardless of local efforts to prevent the problem from happening within its borders as well as evidence that the crime is not widespread. While perhaps not mythical, I suggest that the master narrative contains the stuff of legend as it occupies the critical spaces of policy, activism and development, leaving open the question of how to address the nuances and needs of responding to victims of gender violence.