How to be the Human Trafficking Expert

By our Founder, Derri Smith

It is easy to sound smart by repeating what we read or hear, right?

The way various forms of media report and repeat “the news” and the way we form and voice opinions based on so little information results in many false perceptions about human trafficking. Many people’s concept of trafficking is based on a movie, like Taken, or from news stories skimmed or heard on the run. Opinions form quickly and we too often feel like experts because we heard it from Celebrity X or a report on channel Y.

I’ve given dozens of media interviews on human trafficking and, too often (though there are beautiful exceptions) journalists dig harder for a titillating sound bite than for accurate information. Realistically, the market demand for short bursts of attention-grabbing news does not hold still for the true complexity of an issue.

Effective work to address complex issues like human trafficking requires a deeper understanding, and perpetrated myths can lead to wasted time and resources. When we perpetuate the myth, we eventually come to regret our words. We lose credibility and, unfortunately, what we say can end up doing real harm.

I could write a book about the myths.

A.  Victims are mainly blond, blue-eyed, sexually pure victims.

B.  Those involved are mostly foreigners.

C.  Victims are exclusively female, and exploiters are exclusively male.  

D.  Traffickers are seedy looking people unknown to the victim, lurking in malls to prey on children.

E.   The main problem is children kidnapped from their driveways and taken in truckloads to the Super Bowl for forced sex.

Like all myths, there are kernels of truth within—scenarios that do indeed happen sometimes. But the oversimplification is deceiving.

In truth,

A.  People of color are trafficked in higher proportion than others.

B.  The majority of trafficking victims in verified cases are U.S. citizens.

C.  While females do make up the majority of victims, some are male. And some traffickers are female.

D.  An alarming number of traffickers are not shadowy strangers, but rather accepted members of the community. Trafficking frequently happens at the hands of people known to the victims; addicted family members selling children for drugs or alcohol or authority figures who betray the trust of vulnerable people.

E.   In addition to sex trafficking in many forms (and often having nothing to do with sporting events), labor trafficking creeps into industries like hospitality, construction and transportation, to name a few.

Media (and nonprofits) are often tempted to sanitize victim stories to make them sound more sympathetic. Such characterizations sell news and induce donations. (The way we in the nonprofit world portray those we serve is a painful topic for another blog.)

It takes time and education to understand the systemic issues and abuses that lead victims to make what might appear to be bad choices. It is seldom as simple as “child wanders off and then is snatched at mall,” nor “victim decides to stay with trafficker.” To better understand the complexity of these situations, consider how we, in the same circumstance, might well have made a tragic decision that leads to worse circumstances and worse decisions.

Sound bites don’t allow for a deeper dive into the numerous intersecting issues that play a significant part in perpetrating human trafficking, including intimate partner violence, substance abuse and homelessness.

It is no wonder that some trafficking victims don’t recognize that they have fallen prey to human trafficking, because their situation doesn’t match what the media shows.

Have you ever seen a media report or a well-intentioned advocate use pictures with chains, ropes, cages or padlocks, and/or powerless scared victims with words like “Help Me” on their hands?  Those images are stereotypical representations. I know survivors who were indeed chained or locked in. But more common and more realistic are

A.  The thirteen-year-old who believes her trafficker is her boyfriend.

B.  The teen not held by chains but by threats and coercion.

C.  The runaway or throwaway from some nightmare scenario at home who survives by giving sex in exchange for a sandwich and a place to stay,

Chains, ropes and cages don’t fit these real experiences. Therefore, the victim doesn’t understand that they are trafficking victims. They don’t realize that we (and the law) are here to help them.

Statistically challenged.

A less obvious harm comes from using inaccurate statistics. Media and nonprofits alike want to say their region is “one of the top trafficking hubs in the nation.” The claim becomes accepted as fact simply because it has been repeated so many times, and no one is doing the research necessary to accurately compare one region to the next. We need to use statistics from credible studies, or to say, “We don’t know!” We need research to give us credible information to work with, but we also need to accept that human trafficking is a hidden, and therefore likely always, underreported crime.

I encourage you to study the issue for yourself. Learn from agencies, like ours, that stay up with the latest research and statistics. We learn also from the survivors we serve, and we work smart based on what is really happening.

Become the expert.

Finally, a lesson I had to learn through years of media inquiries, don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” Traffickers don’t walk around with big signs around their necks. Victims have myriad reasons not to be counted. Our glimpse of human trafficking is like that of an iceberg poking up above the surface of the water. The majority is hidden below the surface.

Be the expert in the room. Knowing the truth is what will lead to freedom.