Scare Tactics: How We Talk About Human Trafficking
Have you read the stories? A strange male in a white cargo van pulled up and kidnapped a young girl. Her hands were restrained; perhaps she was given some type of drug to disorient her and things got worse from there. Or maybe you’ve read about the young mother at a big-box store who was being followed by several men. Fortunately she sought help from an employee of the store who made sure she was able to exit the store and get her kids into her car safely. And of course when she reached out to law enforcement, they informed her that the individuals following her in the store were (sex) traffickers targeting her young children.
Can we take a moment for some brutal honesty? These are just distraction techniques.
If those recruitment tactics were common, or even relatively consistent, reporters would be ALL OVER those stories. We would hear about it during every news hour. We would get news alerts on our phones. But we don’t. Because cases like that are the anomalies.
Recruitment into human trafficking is typically much more subtle than a white van kidnapping or a big-box “shadow.” The most common recruitment into sex trafficking that participants in the STOP-IT program report is a grooming relationship. It is a relationship in which the trafficker lavishes gifts and attention and love on a young person (or an adult). The trafficker begins to isolate the individual and creates a life in which the person feels like their entire world revolves around and depends on the exploiter. They get their basic needs met by, as well as receive love and safety from this one individual. Other people just let them down…or judge them…or abandon them. And so, because of the dependence that is established, there is a slippery slope. The person isn’t a trafficker; they’re a partner. The individual isn’t being trafficked; they are just doing what they have to do in order to contribute to the household. The manipulation, coercion, and even force are subtle enough that the power dynamics are hidden, there is a sense of false empowerment, and the general rhetoric around trafficking is inconsistent with their lived experiences. And when the dominant narrative about trafficking revolves around stories and images of kidnapping and physical restraint, and people desperately crying out to be rescued, our awareness efforts are lost. Not only are they lost, they do harm.
If these scenarios are inaccurate, why do we share them? Why do these messages continue to be perpetuated? Instead of focusing on the realities, the subtleties of trafficking, we go for shock and awe. We share the stories and post the pictures of the most dramatic scenarios (which often are not even trafficking) because they draw attention. These efforts can help us personally feel good because we are doing something to fight this horrendous crime and organizationally they help raise our public profiles and bring in financial donations that are so desperately needed by programs addressing human trafficking. We get it. We’ve grappled with this tension – the need to honor people’s lived experiences and restore power and also raise money to be able to continue to provide services.
Let’s be clear: these messages also benefit the traffickers. Human trafficking is financially lucrative. But also, people directly engaged with and benefiting from human trafficking are people we pass by on the street every day. So in order to keep things going, it is easiest to distract us from reality. If we are so focused on the scary white van kidnapping or the big-box store “shadow” and how the closest to us could be targeted by those tactics, we miss the indicators of people in our communities who are already being exploited. We get so inwardly focused based on fear that we neglect to take action.
Please don’t misunderstand – we should be focused on what human trafficking looks like in our communities. We must talk about human trafficking, both sex and labor. We should be sharing the articles about proven cases. We should be engaging in awareness efforts in hopes of preventing more people from experiencing human trafficking. We should be talking about barriers for people trying to exit their trafficking situations when then coercion has been more subtle, when the situation is more nuanced. We should be stepping up to do our part to restore choice (more on that next week). We must be responsible and trauma informed in all that we do. We must center our work on the experiences of the survivors with whom we work, engage with our multidisciplinary partners, collaborate to be informed by the collective experiences of the anti-trafficking community in our areas at large, and then speak to the entirety of what we know has been reported in our local communities rather than the one-off extreme cases that we see once every few years. Through this responsible awareness raising, we will be able to more accurately identify and respond to the wide variety of lived experiences of human trafficking survivors. It would be a disservice to the amazingly resilient people with whom we work to do any less.
This is a lofty goal. And this is our public commitment. We will do better. Will you join us?