Why Human Trafficking Is a Bigger Problem Than You Think

With the Super Bowl nearly upon us, many advocates and news reports are focusing on an increase in sex trafficking, a problem that many believe to be related to the event. But amid police interventions and advocacy campaigns, it’s easy to forget the truth: Human trafficking is a problem the United States deals with all year long.

Human Trafficking: It’s Not Just About Sex

“Sex trafficking is when a person under the age of 18 is involved in prostitution or any form of commercial sex work, or when anyone over the age of 18 is involved in commercial sex work through force, fraud, or coercion,” says Holly Austin Gibbs, Patient Care Services Program Director at Dignity Health’s Human Trafficking Victims Program. “Wherever there is a demand for commercial sex work, there’s a chance that whoever arrives to meet that demand could be a victim of sex trafficking.” This includes sporting events, hunting competitions, and areas with a large adult entertainment market.

Labor trafficking is another form of human trafficking that is prevalent in the United States. “A lot of our fields are employed by victims of labor trafficking, and we want to be mindful that that’s an issue, as well,” Gibbs says. Restaurants, nail and hair-braiding salons, and even hotels may be staffed by victims of labor trafficking.

What Is It, and Where Is It Found?

Victims are often transported in from other countries with promises of jobs that turn out to be different from what was described or don’t offer full or consistent pay. “They may not recognize that they are victims because they don’t speak English or don’t know their rights in America. They are told that they owe money for being brought to the United States to work,” says Gibbs.

How Do People Become Victims?

“Traffickers and gang members will very often target young people — those who are angry or feeling isolated — which primes these vulnerable people to be targets,” Gibbs explains. She describes how the traffickers, often men, will say whatever they need to say to gain their victims’ trust. “If a girl has never had a boyfriend and is feeling unloved, he’ll pretend to be a boyfriend. If she feels like she never had a father or family, he’ll be that protector. If she’s looking for excitement, he’ll be that modeling agent or music talent scout. He’ll convince her to run away or get into a relationship, and he may use violence or coercion to get his way.”

The Internet also poses a problem, removing the visibility of these predators and making it easier to avoid being found out. “Any time a kid turns on his or her cellphone or computer, there is a chance they can cross paths with a stranger, including predators looking to target them,” Gibbs warns. This can make it easier for traffickers to go undetected, finding and communicating with potential victims on websites and message boards.

What Can We Do to Help?

The stigma toward people who currently work in the legal commercial sex industry is one of the biggest obstacles for victims. “A lot of times, victims of sex trafficking will feel reluctant to come forward and ask for help because of the amount of stigma placed on commercial sex work,” says Gibbs. She explains that all people see is a prostitute, rather than a possible victim, and the judgment and shame these people feel make it difficult for them to ask for help. By removing this stigma, we can make it easier for commercial sex workers, including victims of sex trafficking, to come forward for help if and when needed.

Other, more immediate things we can do to help include:

  • Raising awareness. Talk to friends and family about human trafficking. The more people who are aware, the fewer places traffickers can hide.
  • Supporting your community. Try volunteering at any kind of local organization that supports vulnerable populations in your community; this helps remove a trafficker’s ability to find potential victims.
  • Paying attention and offering compassion. If you see signs of a controlling companion, assault, or abuse, it’s possible the person is a trafficking victim. Offer a safe space where you can communicate with them privately, provide compassion and assistance, and/or call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
  • Patience. “If the victim is an adult, then we cannot force that person to accept help. It may take several offers of assistance before that person trusts us enough to accept help,” explains Gibbs. “The key is to respect the person’s wishes and make it clear that we can offer assistance if and when they are ready.” Earn trust by being calm and patient with the victim.

For other resources, check out the U.S. Department of State’s literature on identifying and assisting a trafficking victim.

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