Sex Trafficking is Modern Slavery Hiding in Plain Sight

The following article contains content that may be upsetting to some, especially victims of abuse or sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking in the US is modern day slavery hidden in plain site, like this woman with a barcode on her back.

Today more than ever, our culture is interested in where materials are sourced, and for good reason! Does the meat you’re eating include hormones that will have adverse effects on us? Does the coffee you’re drinking come from companies that pay unfair wages to workers? And what services and products can we support that actually put funds toward making the world a better place?

As we do our Christmas shopping, many of us are inspired by companies whose products support great causes. One of my favorites is Purpose Jewelry, which sells beautiful items made by women who have escaped the devastating world of sex-trafficking in places like India.

Supporting groups like these, that charitably contribute to helping people get back on their feet after such traumatic experiences, is so important.

But what many of us don’t think about as much when it comes to atrocities like sex trafficking, is how we can curb it with our own everyday behavior as well — in what we choose not to do.

Sex trafficking in the United States

For many, sex trafficking seems like a distant problem — one that only could happen in developing countries devastated by poverty, and certainly not in the US. But the facts show this is mistaken thinking.

Sex trafficking, unfortunately, takes place all over our country, trapping numerous girls (and boys, too) between the ages of 12–18 in a dark underworld that becomes no less coercive and confining after they turn 18.

Many of us imagine trafficking to look as portrayed in the 2008 film Taken, wherein Liam Neeson’s daughter is violently kidnapped and sold into sex slavery; but the most common ways girls are trafficked in the United States are more subtle, insidious, and based on psychological manipulation.

The story often goes like this: Traffickers, otherwise known as pimps, target vulnerable girls who appear to have little support structure, befriend them, gain their trust, and then invite them to join them on an adventure; it isn’t until the “adventure” has taken off, that the girls realize it’s a nightmare they never could have imagined. The man they thought was their friend turns out to be their sex-trafficker.

Victims suffer repeated rape and are often threatened that if they don’t do as they’re told, they or their family will be harmed. The girls often feel so ashamed they can’t imagine telling their families or reaching out for help; over time, they become accepting of their fate.

Many girls who have escaped trafficking report the manipulation of the pimp is remarkably strong, making the girls feel they freely chose a life of prostitution and deserve what they get, when in reality they were coerced every step of the way, and would be too young to make such decisions even if they knew what it entailed.

Learning from sex trafficking survivors

I learned all this while researching sex trafficking in America for my 2012 Robert Novak Journalism Fellowship. During that time, I spoke with women who had escaped their traffickers and told me that trafficking intersects every area of the sex industry — even the parts we like to think are harmless.

One woman was photographed in pornography while she was being trafficked. Others report performing in strip clubs while trafficked — their pimps stopping at no opportunity to make money off of them. Most of all, the girls and women were advertised online and sold for sex in prostitution, from hotels to truck stops.

The most effective way for women to escape trafficking these days in America is by being caught by law enforcement working with trafficking survivor-led groups that know how to speak to the victims in a nonjudgmental way and help peel back the layers of shame, manipulation, and confusion. This helps the girls and women finally get the real help they need, and while also finally becoming equipped to share valuable information with law enforcement about their traffickers so they can stop trapping other women.

What can be done to stop sex trafficking?

There are many ways to help fight sex trafficking in America. First, we can support groups like Catholic Relief Services that fight trafficking on a national and global level. We can donate money and time to local shelters that give much-needed services to victims. Many local homes have trouble providing enough beds to keep up with the needs in the community, and your donations can make a big difference to a woman who needs a safe place off the streets.

We can share the alerts for missing children in our communities on social media, and we can take photos of hotel rooms we stay in to help investigators locate victims based on the photos that advertise them online. You can put the National Human Trafficking Hotline number (1–888–373–7888) on your cell phone and be prepared to call it if you recognize any signs of trafficking in your community.

But in addition to supporting those who fight trafficking, each of us have enormous power to stop supporting practices that perpetuate the demand for sex trafficking.

We can choose to never watch pornography and inform others about its links with trafficking. We can decline invitations to strip clubs, even when it’s awkward and it’s our buddy’s bachelor night out. Those who have porn addictions or buy sex can get help to stop through 12-step groups like Sexaholics Anonymous and Certified Sex Addiction Therapists (they have CSAT listed among their credentials).

For a long time, our culture has bought into a fantasy that activities like pornography and strip clubs are harmless fun. Armed with these facts, it’s about time we start paying closer attention to our actions and stop furthering the dangerous cycles these activities perpetuate.

It’s about time we start caring more about the adverse effects of sexual coercion in the products we consume, and stop being part of the problem and become part of the solution.

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