If you’ve spent any time on social media recently, you’ve undoubtedly seen the hashtags and read the sensational accounts of human trafficking and child sexual abuse happening right under our noses. The horrific stories are often accompanied by terrifying photos of children bruised and in chains. The implication is often that a nefarious and well-organized group of evil doers are stealing and smuggling children while the rest of us are completely oblivious to the danger at hand.
As a person who has spent their entire career in child welfare and violence prevention, there is a small part of me that is thrilled that human trafficking and child sexual abuse are getting much deserved attention on social media. However, that tiny feeling is overshadowed by the anger I feel at the inaccurate information being widely shared.
Myths about who victims and perpetrators are, what trafficking looks like, and how to help are spreading like wildfire. These myths are hurting victims and allowing the real criminals to fly right past our radar.
"Myths about who victims and perpetrators are, what trafficking looks like, and how to help are spreading like wildfire. These myths are hurting victims and allowing the real criminals to fly right past our radar."
Human trafficking and sexual abuse are certainly horrific crimes. They happen much more often than any of us want to believe, in our communities, to people just like us. But the stories we’re seeing on social media right now are typically NOT what human trafficking and sexual abuse actually look like. If we truly want to make our communities safer, if we want to protect our children, we have to first have the facts straight. We cannot successfully prevent violence without accurate information about what is happening.
The Facts About Human Trafficking
Let’s start with numbers: human trafficking and sexual exploitation are happening at astounding rates but the actual data is very hard to come by. Due to the nature of the crime, we know that human trafficking is severely underreported and difficult to track. In 2019 alone Polaris, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, identified 22,326 victims and survivors of trafficking in the United States.
The U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 victims are trafficked internationally each year and about half of these victims are under the age of 18. And the International Labor Organization estimates that there are over 12 million victims of human trafficking worldwide at any given moment, some estimates put the number as high as 27 million.
What exactly is human trafficking though? Most of us imagine something out of a movie like Taken, the 2008 blockbuster hit starring Liam Neeson, where two American teenagers traveling abroad are abducted and auctioned off as sex slaves.
What human trafficking actually is, as explained by the Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, is not as sensationalized and can be hard to miss:
- sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or
- the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.
Force, fraud, coercion, and age: these are the factors at play.
"Force, fraud, coercion, and age: these are the factors at play."
Although it is widely believed that it’s physical force, like a child snatched from their home or grocery cart, is how human trafficking most often happens, this is a myth.
Instead, most traffickers use psychological means to coerce victims into commercial sex acts. There is a long list of risk factors that put young people at higher risk of becoming trafficking victims (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2009), these include but are not limited to:
- Sexual abuse
- Family substance/physical abuse
- Individual substance abuse
- Learning disabilities
- Loss of parent/caregiver
- Sexual identity issues
- Lack of support systems
Know the Truth About Human Trafficking
In our efforts to end the trafficking of minors we must address the root causes that allow children to be easy targets for traffickers. We must also acknowledge how traffickers come by their victims.
The pervasive myth is that stranger abductions are the most common way for a child to enter the human trafficking world. Unfortunately, the truth is that most trafficking victims—just like most victims of sexual abuse—know their perpetrators.
“Unfortunately, the truth is that most trafficking victims—just like most victims of sexual abuse—know their perpetrators.”
In, fact, the most common recruitment tactics for sex trafficking in the United States are intimate partner relationships, marriage proposals, familial relationships, job offers, posing as benefactors, and false promises or fraud.
Our children are not being perpetually stolen out of homes and shopping centers; instead, it’s the children and teenagers living in our communities with violence, physical and emotional, and lack of support, who are being taken advantage of by traffickers and submerged in a world of endless violence and lies.
How to Help Combat Human Trafficking
There are organizations who have been doing the difficult work of combatting human trafficking in the United States for decades. If you’re looking for a cause to support or get involved in these are the places to seek out:
- If you believe someone may be a victim of human trafficking, you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline run by Polaris at 1-888-373-7888 or call 911 to report an emergency to your local law enforcement.
- Cast (Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking) is a coalition of agencies across the country and the world working to end modern day slavery. They not only make up a powerful movement to end the modern-day slave trade, they also provide services to victims and training to communities.
- The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children does important work providing support to families, law enforcement and children in the effort to recover missing children and raise awareness on preventing child abduction and sexual abuse
- National Children’s Advocacy Center provides an excellent online library with the most up-to-date academic research on human trafficking and sexual abuse of minors. They are a leader across the country on prevention and response to child abuse.
- National Sexual Violence Research Center provides access to information and resources to assist those working to prevent and respond to sexual violence. The organization is funded through the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention and is a pioneer in creating resources and promoting research.
The next time you see a post promoting misinformation and myths on social media, point your friends to one of these organizations and provide them with the information we actually need to stop human trafficking.
And if you’re looking for ways to get involved beyond sharing a hashtag on social media, start with research. Make sure you’re coming from an informed place by checking out the resources listed here.
Next, take action: donate money or host a fundraiser for an organization nationally or in your community working to support survivors. Volunteer with agencies doing the work and contact your legislators to make sure they know that human trafficking is a priority of their constituents.
There is so much we can do to end human trafficking and support survivors in our communities, but it has to start with accurate information—and that begins with you, right now.