Redefining Sex Trafficking

“We have to expand our definition of sex trafficking to include the ways of how it most often occurs.”

Redefining Sex Trafficking

While I was getting my blood drawn, a friend was listening to the testimony I gave on behalf of Senate Bill 13, the Protect Trafficked Minors Act. The kind technician drawing my blood suddenly asked, “Oh my gosh, that happened to you?”. She was asking me if I had been trafficked. I nervously nodded my head yes and told her I had been. She responded with something along the lines of, “Oh my gosh, you are like the real life Taken”.

If you have not seen the movie Taken, it is about a young woman who is kidnapped in a another country. Then, her captors exploit her and her dad sets out to save her.

When the technician drawing my blood made the comparison, I had to pause. I told her, “It wasn’t like that”. However, her comment stuck with me, even after I left the doctor’s office. I understood why she quickly associated the words ‘sex trafficking’ with the movie Taken. That is the concept of sex trafficking that many have and how society often chooses to portray it. Unfortunately, this concept doesn’t represent the experiences of the majority of sex trafficking victims in our country.

Common Misconceptions About Sex Trafficking

After my experience at the doctor’s office, it was obvious that misconceptions about sex trafficking are common. This has become even more apparent throughout the past year with the recent spike in social media posts that came along with widespread concern and outrage for sex trafficking. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of those common misconceptions. I got my information using The Polaris Project website. Here is a link. This website offers information and resources for human trafficking:

Misconceptions (M) Versus Facts (F)

M1: Sex trafficking often involves kidnapping or using physical force.

F1: In truth, most traffickers trick, lie, manipulate, or threaten their victims into commercial sex.

M2: Victims do not know the people trafficking them.

F2: In reality, many victims and survivors do know their traffickers. Oftentimes, traffickers are significant others, family members, business owners, family friends or someone else the victim knows.

M3: Only women and girls are victims or survivors of sex trafficking.

F3: Boys and men are also victims and survivors of sex trafficking. Members of the LBGTQIA community are especially vulnerable.

M4: Sex trafficking only happens in other countries, or must involve transporting victims to another state or country.

F4: In reality, sex trafficking happens in the communities we live in every single day. Traffickers do not have to transport their victims. Victims can be exploited in the places they grew up, even from their own home.

M5: Victims are not physically able to leave their situations. They are locked up some where, tied down, etc.

F5: This does happen. However, victims stay for a lot of different reasons. Some have experienced threats and/or violence, or witnessed violence. They fear that if they leave, they will be harmed or killed, or a loved one will be. Some victims feel they have no other option but to stay because they have no where else to go, no way of surviving and meeting their own basic needs. Some have lived the life so long or experienced prior trauma. Therefore, it is all they know. Many victims also do not identify as victims.

Other Important Sex Trafficking Facts

These facts were also found on the Polaris Project website:

Who Are The Victims?

Anyone can be a victim. However, significant risk factors include recent relocation, substance use, mental health conditions, involvement with Children Services, homelessness, and being a runaway. Traffickers target and exploit these vulnerabilities.

Who Are the Traffickers?

Just like their victims, traffickers can be anyone. Traffickers are different races, ethnicities, and genders. They come from different backgrounds and have different socio-economic statuses. Traffickers are significant others, family members, business owners, family friends, community members, and more.

How Do Traffickers Control Their Victims?

Many traffickers use mental and/or physical abuse to control their victims. They often threaten their victims. Another means of control is isolation from loved ones. Also, traffickers can control victims by preventing them from having financial resources and basic necessities to make it on their own. They exploit victim’s needs for not only physical things like food, shelter, and clothing, but also their emotional needs for things like love, affection, belonging, and connection. Drugs and alcohol are another means of control. Victims are afraid to leave for many reasons as well. This includes trauma, shame, connection with or even love for the people hurting them, lack of means and/or resources, and fear for their safety and/or the safety of their loved ones.

Why Is It Important to Redefine Sex Trafficking?

I was sexually exploited by family members as a child and again as an adult. As a teenager, a massage parlor, a place of business, trafficked me. For a long time, I did not identify as a victim of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation. I did not completely understand some of the trauma I had experienced. Even when I left and started healing, it was hard to grasp why professionals in my life kept referring to me as survivor of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

For a long time, I understood sex trafficking as the movie Taken. I thought it was girls and women being kidnapped, locked in rooms, tied up. Why? Because like many of you, that is how I always saw sex trafficking portrayed. Society taught me that is what sex trafficking is.

For years, I could not identify myself as a victim of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. For years, some professionals including some counselors, social workers, law enforcement, doctors, teachers, did not identify me as a victim of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Non-offending family members and friends could not identify me as a victim of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. That is the danger of portraying a single version of sex trafficking, the least common version in this country at that. If I had been identified earlier, I could have received help earlier. It could have prevented more trauma from occurring in my life. It could have helped other victims I knew get help and justice.

When we singularly define sex trafficking as when a stranger kidnaps their victim, throws them in a van, keeps them locked in a room, and tied to a bed, we keep victims from being able to identify themselves and people from being able to identify victims.

What I Have Seen Sex Trafficking Look Like

It wasn’t until February 27, 2020, that it really hit home that many parts of my past trauma did include sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. Logically, I knew that was a part of my past because the professionals in my life had identified me as a survivor. But, it didn’t really hit my heart until that day.

I was sitting on a panel with other survivors of human trafficking at Human Trafficking Awareness Day in my state. At first, I wasn’t sure if I belonged up there because I was certain that the other brave survivors sitting on stage with me would have stories like the movie Taken. I quickly learned, that wasn’t the reality. They, like me, had been trafficked by people they knew, people they loved, people they had thought cared about them. Since then, I have listened to even more stories, from real people who have experienced sex trafficking and exploitation. I have to tell you, so far, I haven’t heard any where they were kidnapped by strangers.

Let me tell you about the stories I have heard though. I know survivors who were trafficked by family members or given to a trafficker by a family member. I have heard multiple survivors speak of how they were exploited in active addiction or started using drugs while being trafficked. A friend told me she listened to many stories from young girls that had ran away or left home, fell in love with a man they believed loved them, only to be trafficked by him. Multiple massage parlors and strip clubs have been busted for human trafficking. These are the real stories. These are some of the real ways that trafficking in our country, in our communities, occurs.

Redefining Sex Trafficking

I am not saying that sex trafficking never involves victims being kidnapped by strangers, transported in a van, tied up, or locked in a room. It does happen that way. What I am saying, is that we have to expand our definition of sex trafficking to include the ways of how it most often occurs.