Myths and Misconceptions: Human Trafficking Doesn't Happen in My Community - Part I

Written by: Valerie Douglas, Director of Counseling & RHY Services, The Center for Youth Services, Inc.

I'm a big Liam Neeson fan. I mean seriously, I love him in everything from Star Wars to Love Actually to Rob Roy - even as the voice of Aslan the Lion in The Chronicles of Narnia! However, if I dare to so much as mention his name to a colleague of mine, she rolls her eyes and sighs heavily. I think she's being incredibly unfair, because her disdain is all based on one movie – Taken.

You see, my colleague, Nicole Thomson, is a trauma therapist who has been working with survivors of human trafficking for over 15 years. When she first started her work in the Bronx, New York State was still arresting 11 year olds as "child prostitutes.” Thankfully, we have come a long way from those dark, misinformed days, but we still come up against many myths and misconceptions about human trafficking – like those seen in Taken.

Nicole's frustration is that the Taken films perpetuate some lingering myths: that trafficking victims* are well-off, young, white, suburban women abducted off the street by strangers and held captive on secret yachts. Now, this isn't to say that stranger abduction doesn't occur, or that young, white, suburban women aren't trafficked, or even that there are no secret yachts! What irritates her is that there is such little representation of actual trafficking in the media and the depictions of it that do come through only show a tiny sliver of who is being trafficked and who is a “real victim.” Nicole and I provide training on trauma and trafficking to a broad range of people, including law enforcement, child welfare workers, teachers, community advocates, and youth-service providers. Believe me when I say that we have heard many misconceptions. We have found that the myths about trafficking fall mainly into two ends of the “victim/not a victim” spectrum.

On one end is the portrait of a “true victim," like Liam Neeson’s daughter in Taken- a young woman kidnapped while out of the country on vacation.  Yes, stranger abduction is something that happens, but the data and research on the commercial sexual exploitation of minors describes a very different picture for the vast majority of victims. What we know is that most young people who are targeted knew their trafficker prior to the onset of exploitation. They may have met them online or out in the community.   In some cases, they find them in their own homes. Yes, a child can be trafficked by a parent or guardian – say for drugs or to pay the rent.  It is also not unlikely that they love their trafficker, or consider them a source of support and affection. Much like child molestation, children are more likely to know their perpetrator vs. being picked up by a stranger on the street.

Unfortunately, the "stranger" myth is given more life by well-meaning advocates trying to raise awareness with calls to action to address human trafficking, often using imagery and stories that more closely resemble Taken then reality. Child Welfare’s own data tells us that youth involved with foster care, child protective services, the juvenile justice system, or with a history of running away are the most vulnerable to being targeted by traffickers. Most minor victims of commercial sexual exploitation/trafficking are disconnected from supportive families and are what some call “systems kids.” Traffickers know that it is easier to groom and exploit a youth who already mistrusts the adults and agencies that say they will help them.

This swings us to the other end of the misconception spectrum. This end does not see the trafficked youth as a victim, but as a criminal or a manipulator, or, sadly, a youth beyond hope of “saving.” Despite progress in educating the public about human trafficking, there are some deep-rooted beliefs that trading sex for money, drugs, or a place to stay is a choice that can always be avoided; that somehow, the youth is to blame. It doesn’t help that many youth are not grateful when “rescued” and are not interested in yet another service provider controlling their lives. The reality of these young peoples’ lives, and reactions adults receive when trying to help, means many providers/systems/adults get frustrated and give up trying to engage.

It is also not uncommon to hear folks argue that since the youth committed unlawful acts, or were paid for their services, that they are not a victim. If the youth wasn’t locked up on that secret yacht, but out in the community, perhaps even going to school, the suspicion of their victim status becomes even greater.  It can take time and patience to educate people about trauma bonds and the abusive relationship a youth may have with their trafficker.  This relationship often resembles what we see in domestic violence. During trainings, Nicole and I will ask people to reflect on what they know about how difficult (and dangerous!) it is for a domestic violence victim to leave their abuser/partner. We ask them to keep that in mind when working with a youth who is being controlled by, or, in a relationship with, a trafficker. Much like domestic violence, it can be hard for those of us on the outside looking in to understand what the ties are that keep the victim from “escaping”, and to offer unconditional support through trauma-informed services.

Ultimately, the biggest myth of all is that this is something new in our society. As long as there have been vulnerable young people, there have been predatory adults exploiting them. That doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be done. It means that we need to respond to youth in crisis in ways that meet their needs, and we need to examine how our “helping” systems can do better to reduce vulnerabilities and strengthen young peoples’ connections to healthy, supportive family and community.

After all, we can’t all have Liam Neeson for a dad.

(*Please note that my use of the label “victim” is purely for the context of this discussion. Many young people who have experienced trafficking prefer “survivor” and some prefer no label at all.)

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