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The textbook definition of human trafficking reads like this: the action or practice of illegally transporting people from one country or area to another, typically for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation. And believe it or not, as crazy as this sounds, incarcerated women are prey for traffickers. A Guardian/Observer investigation found that U.S. jailhouses and prison cells are routinely used as recruiting grounds by pimps and sex buyers. Through the exploitation of holes in the criminal justice system, predators target incarcerated women, promising them love and security after release. Their intention is really to trap them in a continued cycle of criminalization and exploitation.
Sex trafficking is a type of human trafficking and is a form of modern day slavery. It is a serious public health problem that negatively affects the well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Human trafficking occurs when a trafficker exploits an individual with force, fraud, or coercion to make them perform commercial sex or work. Sex trafficking is defined by the amended Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” It involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to make an adult engage in commercial sex acts, but any commercial sexual activity with a minor, even without force, fraud, or coercion, is considered trafficking. This type of violence exploits women, men, and children across the United States and around the world. Sex trafficking is preventable. Understanding the shared risk and protective factors for violence can help us prevent trafficking from happening in the first place.
In addition to being a violent crime, human trafficking is a public health concern that impacts individuals, families, and entire communities across generations. It requires training and a response from communities, social service providers, health care providers, and other first responders.
Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery. It occurs when a trafficker exploits an individual with force, fraud, or coercion to make them perform commercial sex or work.
There are two types of trafficking:
- Labor Trafficking — Individuals are compelled to work or provide services by force, fraud, or coercion.
- Sex Trafficking — Adults are compelled to engage in commercial sex by force, fraud, or coercion. Minors are compelled to perform a commercial sex act regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion.
Risk & Impact
We need to understand that women who are vulnerable to trafficking have come from childhoods that often include broken homes, alcohol and drug addiction, poor self-esteem, domestic violence and sexual abuse. It starts early, well before the age of 10-years-old. Young girls are exploited in the sex trade, then are tasked with “recruiting” other girls and boys into the trade. They are threatened, beaten and starved if they fail to comply with their predator’s wishes. A life spent sexually abused, used, beaten and disrespected without any financial means whatsoever all lead to desperate acts to survive. I think you know what comes next: arrests, convictions, incarceration, judgment and scorn. These are lives without any light, or hope. It’s just darkness. This way of life becomes all they know, which means the cycle continues in prison and after release.
Trafficking victimization and perpetration share risks and consequences associated with child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and gang violence.
Victims can come from all backgrounds and become trapped in different locations and situations.
- Many victims are women and girls, though men and boys are also impacted;
- Victims include all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, citizens, non-citizens, and income levels;
- Victims are trapped and controlled through assault, threats, false promises, perceived sense of protection, isolation, shaming, and debt; and
- Victims do not have to be physically transported between locations to be victimized.
Perpetrators of human trafficking often target people who are poor, vulnerable, living in an unsafe situation, or searching for a better life. For example, youth with a history of abuse and neglect or who are homeless are more likely to be exploited. Learn how to recognize the signs of human trafficking.
Consequences of sexual violence, including sex trafficking, can be immediate and long term, including physical and relationship problems, psychological concerns, and chronic health outcomes.
What States and Communities Need to Know
Efforts have focused on increasing community awareness of human trafficking and addressing exploitation after it occurs. Fewer programs and policies have been implemented and evaluated to reduce upstream risks that may prevent trafficking before it occurs. Strategies based on the best available evidence exist to prevent related forms of violence, and they may also reduce sex trafficking. States and communities can implement and evaluate comprehensive efforts that:
- Encourage healthy behaviors in relationships.
- Foster safe homes and neighborhoods.
- Identify and address vulnerabilities during health care visits.
- Reduce demand for commercial sex.
- End business profits from trafficking-related transactions.
Recognizing the Signs of Human Trafficking
Victims of human trafficking often cannot seek help on their own. That’s why it’s so critical for everyone to be aware of the signs. It’s especially important for those who work in public service or medical careers, as the nature of their work, makes it more likely that they will come into contact with trafficking victims. Here are some of the red flags a person may be a trafficking victim:
- Has unusual restrictions at work, such as no breaks
- Works excessively long hours, or lives and works onsite
- Has a great deal of anxiety, worry, or depression
- Exhibits fear at the mention of law enforcement officials
- Offers a scripted story to explain signs of abuse
- Is not allowed to speak for themselves
- Shows signs of poor hygiene, malnourishment, fatigue, or abuse
Those in the medical profession are in a unique position to spot physical signs of abuse, overwork, neglect, or other concerns that could raise a red flag for trafficking. It’s important to remember that trafficked men, women, and children might exhibit signs of abuse, malnutrition, poor hygiene, severe fatigue, signs of physical restraint or confinement, as well as anxiety, depression, paranoia, and other mental health symptoms. Healthcare professionals can reference the training material from Polaris to learn more about how to recognize and respond to human trafficking.
Social Workers & Mental Health Professionals
Victims of human trafficking might reach out for help in subtle ways, such as through pleading eye contact, cryptic statements, or body language that indicates they are fearful or anxious. Mental health issues are also common in victims of trafficking and can include depression, paranoia, a lost sense of time, scripted stories, submissive behavior, or signs of substance abuse or addiction.
Criminal Justice & Law Enforcement
Victims of human trafficking often have a fear of law enforcement, as they are conditioned to protect their abusers. Given that, sometimes you must go looking for them – monitor dating or hookup sites, conduct surveillance of motels, strip clubs, and massage parlors, and after executing warrants, make a point of photographing everything to demonstrate the conditions the victims are forced to live in.
Teachers & Educators
Teachers see the same students every day, and over time can begin to pinpoint strange behaviors. This insight into a student’s day-to-day wellbeing can help catch issues concerning human trafficking, such as being forced to work in child labor or being trafficked for sex. Teachers might also notice changes in the behavior or mental health of the parents, and that can raise red flags that lead to getting in touch with guidance counselors or social workers to further investigate the potential issues.
Signs to Look Out for as a Friend or Relative
Look for changes in the behavior, attitude, and mental and physical health of friends and family members. Are they suddenly secretive? Do they seem to have new friends who are very demanding? Are they spending more time isolated from everyone they used to enjoy being around? Are they suddenly working all the time, deep in debt, or hiding where they go and what they do – especially when they used to be quite open? These could all be signs that your friend or family members has been caught up in the web of human trafficking.
Signs to Look Out for as a Concerned Citizen
Airport travelers often hear the words: “See something, say something.” The same holds true if you see anything that looks amiss and wonder if it might be worth investigating. Look for situations where someone is being coerced, seemingly held against their will, forced to do things they don’t want to do, say things that seem a little off, covered in bruises, being fearfully submissive, or appear to be afraid of something that you can’t really pinpoint. In short, if it looks suspicious, it probably is. Gather all the information you can, such as license plate numbers and descriptions, then contact the authorities.
5 Ways You Help Stop Human Trafficking Right Now
In many cases, a victim has been saved from human trafficking simply because someone spoke up. They saw the signs and made some noise. Here are some simple ways you can get involved and make a real difference.
1. Raise awareness
The problem will not end unless everyone knows it’s there in the first place. Raising awareness of the issue on a local, regional, and national level is the first step toward ending the trafficking of men, women, and children. Here are some ways to get the word out there.
2. Fundraise for anti-trafficking organizations
Many anti-trafficking organizations run on a shoestring budget. Raising money for them can help immensely in their quest to help others. Fundraising can include everything from running a funding drive online to meeting with members of your local community and offering information and asking for donations.
Once you decide on how you’ll fundraise, choose an organization. Make sure your fundraising efforts and dollars are benefiting reputable anti-trafficking organizations that will actually make a difference, not just pad their executives’ paychecks. Here are a few organizations that rate charities and nonprofits, so you can feel confident you’re supporting a good cause.
3. Volunteer for anti-trafficking organizations
As mentioned earlier, many of the organizations fighting human trafficking just don’t have enough funds to go around. They rely heavily on volunteers to make the difference. Use the following resources to find volunteering opportunities near you.
4. Civic engagement: promote anti-trafficking legislation
The stronger the legislation, the more difficult it is for traffickers to find loopholes and avoid punishment when they are caught. There are many things you can do to help the process along:
5. Reporting human trafficking
Seeing someone in a human trafficking situation can immediately spark you to call for help; but what if that person is someone you know? Though reporting is still necessary, the emotions around it can be complicated. That’s one of the reasons organizations allow for anonymous reporting. Here are a few places to get help:
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Demand For Sex Trafficking: What You Need To Know
Sex trafficking is a market-driven criminal industry that is based on the principles of supply and demand. Therefore, people who purchase commercial sex increase the demand for commercial sex and likewise provide a profit incentive for traffickers, who seek to maximize profits by exploiting trafficking victims. Therefore, buyers of commercial sex need to recognize their involvement in driving demand. By not buying sex and not participating in the commercial sex industry, community members can reduce the demand for sex trafficking.
In 2019, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) estimated that 1 in 6 endangered runaways reported to them were likely sex trafficking victims.
The International Labor Organization and Walk Free Foundation, in partnership with IOM, estimate that there are 4.8 million people trapped in forced sexual exploitation globally.
In the United States, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), as amended by the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 (JVTA), defines sex trafficking as “recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of an individual through the means of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sex”. However, it is not necessary to demonstrate force, fraud, or coercion in sex trafficking cases involving children under the age of 18. The term “commercial sex act” is defined as “any sex act on account of which anything of value is given to or received by any person” (22 U.S.C. 7102). See the Federal Laws page for more detailed definitions.
Sex trafficking may be distinguished from other forms of commercial sex by applying the Action + Means + Purpose Model. Human trafficking occurs when a trafficker takes any one of the enumerated actions, and then employs the means of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of compelling the victim to provide commercial sex acts. At a minimum, one element from each column must be present to establish a potential situation of sex trafficking. The presence of force, fraud, or coercion indicates that the victim has not consented of his or her own free will. In addition, minors under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex are considered victims of human trafficking regardless of the use of force, fraud, or coercion.