This week has been a big week for the anti-human trafficking movement. I am thrilled with the media attention related to the sting operation. I am also excited that so many of my friends have been interested in the story. I love it when people are talking about this issue because it increases awareness. And awareness means prevention. It is that simple.
That being said, there is something about the extra attention that concerns me. The more people and media outlets discussing an issue, the more potential for misperceptions of the problem. I have read several articles this week discussing how trafficking is not sex trafficking, and sex trafficking is not just about children. This is so true. The media will focus on what brings the most readers, and labor trafficking of adult men doesn’t create the interest. Also, the public is more willing to accept that a girl or boy can be coerced in to sex trafficking. They are less likely to believe that adult women and men could be controlled in that manner. Most people believe that adult women and men are willing participants, which is far from the truth.
Although these misperceptions concern me, there is something that concerns me more. The crime of trafficking builds fear in the general public. It is very scary to think that a human trafficking victim might look like everyone else. There seems to be an effort to create some kind of separation between a trafficking victim and the rest of the population. I have heard statements like, “Trafficking victims come from fatherless or broken homes.” “The victims usually come from other countries.” “Victims are usually from families struggling with poverty.” None of this is correct.
I have seen this fearful approach used with other tragedies. When the earthquake hit Haiti, Pat Robertson claimed that they brought it on themselves. Why did he say that? I believe it was too difficult for him to admit that he was just as likely to lose everything in a massive earthquake. In reality, he is. We all are. Similarly, many tried to separate themselves from the victims of Hurricane Katrina by blaming those who stayed behind (even though they had no means to leave). Stereotyping victims, which is one form of victim blaming, may relieve some of our fears on the surface, but it doesn’t do anything for our compassion for others.
I know human trafficking victims that come from many races, ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, education levels and family structures. Personally, I was trafficked while living with two college-educated parents, in a middle-class suburban community. We were white. We were not poor. We were socially engaged in our community. I attended a regular public school. It is difficult for the average American to separate themselves from my circumstances. And that’s scary.
As a society, it is important that we reach beyond our fear and come to the realization that human trafficking is pervasive everywhere. We need to understand that all children are potential targets. We need to understand that adults are just as likely to be coerced or forced to work or provide sex. We need to leave behind the concept that “this can’t happen to me” and wake up to our reality. As I stated before, awareness is prevention. But awareness means more than admitting that trafficking exists. It means admitting that trafficking potentially exists for anyone, anywhere, anytime. This is true awareness. This is what we need now.