A message to teens: 10 tips for prevention against traffickers

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Group of Teens

WASHINGTON, DC, July 26, 2012 – This column is for the tweens and teens out there. Parents should show it to them. Print it out, stick it in their school books, or post it to their mirrors.

There are ways to protect yourself, or your child, from becoming a victim of a sex trafficker. Familiarize yourself with the following ten tips; share them with friends.

Parents, review these with your child and be aware so that if something changes in your teen’s life, you can catch your child before he or she becomes a statistic.

1.  Become media literate.  If you don’t know what “media literacy” means, I encourage you to research the topic. It is important that you understand how business enterprises are sending you distorted messages via the media in order to make a profit from selling you their products.

These messages include: You aren’t pretty unless you buy this, you aren’t cool unless you own this, being pretty or cool is more important than anything else, etc. Traffickers understand what popular culture is telling you; educate yourself in order to be armed against predators.  Start with Nicole Clark’s documentary, Cover Girl Culture, or Adriana Barbaro and Jeremy Earp’s documentary, Consuming Kids: the Commercialism of Childhood.

For more resources on media literacy, please visit my personal blog.

2.  Learn different coping skills.  Life in middle school is tough.  I know this because I was there; I struggled with the same issues as most teens today- bullying, teen pregnancy, poor self-image, etc.

It doesn’t have to feel so stressful all the time, though. I encourage you to explore ways to cope with stress. Coping strategies can include meditation, prayer, exercise, yoga, martial arts, writing, reading, music, sports, crafting, collecting, etc. Don’t be afraid to try new things, and please ask for help from teachers or family members if you need assistance with starting one of these activities.

A book that helped me with coping strategies was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

3.  Stay involved in extracurricular activities. It is crucial to do well in school and to stay involved in extracurricular activities. Try out for different sports, clubs, or programs.

I promise that good grades and a busy schedule are the most effective ways to overcome middle school troubles and to graduate as quickly and successfully as possible.

Trust me on this- I tried running away from middle school. That route was worse than if I had just stuck things out at school.

4.  Don’t be afraid to try new things. If you have an aunt that offers to take you to the ballet, say yes!  If an uncle offers to take you to a sports game, take him up on it! Try new things! Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone or away from your friends.

I was very afraid to try new things without my friends- the result?  When my friends inevitably began to try new things without me, I felt very isolated and alone. This is part of the reason a trafficker was able to lure me away from home.

5.  Volunteer. Volunteering can help you keep things in focus while in middle and high school. There are many different ways to volunteer- from serving food at a soup kitchen to walking dogs at an animal shelter.

Check out www.volunteermatch.org or www.idealist.org to find cool places to volunteer!  A healthy perspective on one’s own life will prevent attempted distortion by a stranger.

6.  Learn to say NO. Our society is saturated with images of sex, and most images of women in the media are sexualized. This teaches young girls that sex appeal equals value. This turns into a domino effect; over-sexualized girls are magnets for older, opportunistic boys or men who will push to have their expectations met.

Despite seeing and hearing about sex on a daily basis, please know that you have the right to say NO to anyone at any time, no matter what. Saying no does not make you less worthy in any way whatsoever.  YOU own your body.  NOBODY has the right to touch you- no matter what, no matter when, and no matter how far things have gone with a person in the past.

And, guys- it’s ok to wait to have sex. Despite what you see and hear on a daily basis from television and from peers, it’s cooler to wait. Respect yourself and your partner.

Traffickers look for teens who lack assertiveness. Stand up for yourself! Say NO!

7.  Ask questions about sex. Please know that positive sexual health is not accurately portrayed in movies, music lyrics, music videos, or magazines. These are often very negative and inaccurate depictions of romance and love.

Take your time. Rushing to have sex can have disastrous effects.

8.  Seek Counseling! It is not normal to feel overly sad, angry, hopeless, or empty.  Even though so many movie characters and musicians display this exact personality as being cool or normal, it is not ok for you to feel this way. You deserve to feel happy and safe.

Please confide in a teacher or family member if you are having these feelings.  Or, call the Boys Town National Hotline, a crisis hotline for both boys and girls, at 1-800-448-3000.

9.  Understand how child trafficking works. Traffickers hang out in the same places you do: malls, skating rinks, bus stations, online, etc. Traffickers do not typically look like sketchy characters- they are often young and well-dressed.  Traffickers will offer to buy you trendy clothes, shoes, cars, or other expensive items.

Traffickers will ask for your phone number; they will ask to see or speak to you alone. Traffickers will tell you how pretty and mature you are, and they may mention knowing celebrities, exotic dancers, models, and porn stars. Traffickers will offer to help you make a lot of money or may offer to help you run away.

Know this- NO stranger (man or woman) has good intentions if they offer to help you run away. NO stranger (man or woman) has anything but personal gain in mind if they offer to help you make money. No matter how cool, how hip, or how fun and friendly they may seem- they mean to harm you.

Seek help from a trusted family member or teacher.

10.  Raise awareness! Start a school club to promote awareness for media literacy or human trafficking. You belong to the next generation of advocates who must stand up for your rights and the rights of others. Your voice can make a difference.

Believe in yourself and all that you can accomplish!

A letter to trafficking survivors interested in speaking

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times


WASHINGTON, DC, July 19, 2012 – Dear Survivor,

As awareness of human trafficking spreads across America, the interest in hearing personal stories of survival is rising.  Before you agree to share your story, however, I encourage you to consider why you feel compelled to speak out.

Are you feeling nervous or confused about sharing details about your life before an audience?  Are you feeling pressured by an organization or activist to share your story at an upcoming event?  Are you interested in speaking because you think it is the only way for survivors to contribute to the cause?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, I strongly encourage you to connect with a reputable service provider or survivor network for advice and support before speaking.  There are many ways for survivors to be involved in the movement, and it doesn’t have to include sharing your personal story.  Also, keep in mind that speaking on the topic of human trafficking does not have to include sharing your personal story!

No survivor should feel pressured to share their story, and no survivor should speak in front of an audience unless they have received the specialized counseling and care needed to process and heal from their trauma.  A successful survivor speaker is one who speaks from a positive mental space with a solid system of support.  It took nearly twenty years before I knew I was ready to speak about my experience.

If you believe you are ready, and that it is necessary for you to share your story, then I commend you on your courage.  Your voice will raise awareness to the general public, train other experts in the field, offer a warning to those at risk, and provide strength and hope to other survivors.  I must again encourage you to be connected with a reputable organization or network of survivors so that you can seek guidance and support before, during, and after your speaking event.

The act of sharing your testimony can be tremendously healing and empowering when done under a professional atmosphere of care and respect.  However, without proper guidance, you run the risk of walking away feeling exploited.  If you choose to tell your story, then please consider the following guidelines.

Survivor Speaker Guidelines

Ask the organization or event coordinator to fill out a Survivor Speaker Request Form.  This will give the organization an opportunity to consider their needs, as well as yours.  If you choose not to use the form, I encourage you to ask the following questions:

Event Information

What organizations are involved with the event?  Who is hosting, who is helping, and who is receiving any funds raised?

What is the date, time, location, and expected length of the event?

What is the purpose of the event (e.g. raising community awareness, raising funds, prayer vigil, law enforcement training, etc.)?

What is the focus of the event (e.g. forced labor, forced prostitution, domestic minor sex trafficking, international trafficking, etc.)?

Ask what they hope to achieve from your presence and speech?

Who else will be speaking? Ask for an itinerary or event brochure for more details.

What is the expected size, age, and class of the audience (e.g. young adult churchgoers, middle school teens, youth group members, upper class dinner event attendees)?

Is there a dress code?

Accommodations Information

Ask if accommodations will be provided (e.g. food, travel, parking, and lodging).  If the organization is unable to provide these accommodations, then request to have these expenses reimbursed.

If the event is a fundraiser, ask if they are willing to donate a percentage of raised funds to an anti-human trafficking charity of your choice.  This enables you to walk away from a speaking engagement knowing that your story will help a reputable organization.

Request a signed agreement outlining the proposed accommodations and / or reimbursement payments, including any honorarium fees you require.

If needed, request to have a chaperone meet you upon arrival, remain by your side throughout the event, and walk you to your car or to the bus stop / train terminal after the event.  The chaperone should have only this task on the day of the event so that he / she can concentrate on you and your needs.  Contact the chaperone before the event (or ask for the chaperone to contact you) for an introduction.  Take this time to voice any and all concerns or special needs.

If you are uncomfortable with making these requests, then ask the organization / event coordinator to fill out a Survivor Speaker Request Form.  Ask a trusted advocate to review the form and to contact the coordinator regarding your specific needs and requests.

Media Information

Ask if the event is to be videotaped, audio-taped, and / or photographed.

Make it clear that you do not want to be filmed in any manner and that you do not want your story to be duplicated in any manner.  No organization has the right to take your story without your permission.

Ask the coordinator to announce to the audience, including any and all news media present, to turn off all video and sound equipment before you are introduced and to advise the audience not to take any pictures during your speech.

The Survivor Speaker Request Form asks the coordinator to sign an understanding that your story cannot be duplicated without your permission.  If an organization or news reporter wants to film your story, then have them complete a Survivor Speaker Request Form for News Media.  This form asks the reporter to outline in writing why they want your story and how it will be used.  They should give you time to agree to and prepare for their questions.  Should you agree, inform them of any required honorarium fees.

I do not recommend that any new speakers agree to any spontaneous requests from the media.  I encourage you to gain experience speaking in closed sessions before speaking to news reporters.

As survivors, we must take good care of ourselves in order to heal and grow.  Listen to your emotions.  If something doesn’t feel right, then don’t be afraid to say no.  You have every right to decline to answer any question from anyone.

You have every right to ask these questions about any event at which you are being invited to speak.

Once all of your questions are answered, you can start working on your speech- tips on speech writing to follow.

Good luck!

Ten trafficking prevention tips for middle schools

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times


WASHINGTON, DC, July 12, 2012 – As a follow-up to my article last month listing prevention tips for elementary schools, I’d like to provide the following list of tips for trafficking prevention programs in intermediate and middle schools.

1. Media Literacy. As I have stated before, preteens and teenagers must be educated about the media, especially advertising. Business enterprises are sending distorted messages to teens via the media in order to make a profit. These messages include: You aren’t pretty unless you buy this, you aren’t cool unless you own this, owning this product is more important than anything else, etc. Traffickers understand what popular culture is telling teens and they are using it to their advantage educate kids about the dynamics behind advertising. For more information, please see my article on the importance of media literacy in prevention programs.

2. Coping Skills. Children in intermediate and middle schools are often struggling with a myriad of personal and social issues: bullying, teen pregnancy, peer pressure, poor self-image, etc. Educate students about different ways to cope with stress. A teen who is losing the battle against any one of these pressures can be lured into what a stranger might call “a better way of life.” Coping strategies can include meditation, self-defense classes, exercise, writing, reading, music, sports, crafting, etc.  Also, investigate your local child-focused volunteer organizations (e.g.Big Brothers Big SistersGirls for a ChangeHardy Girls Healthy Women, among many others) and make this list available to students. Having a relationship with a mentor is an excellent coping strategy.

3. Extracurricular activities. It is crucial to keep intermediate and middle school kids engaged in activities. Boredom leads to a lack of direction. Traffickers are most interested in teens who lack the guidance and support to keep them working towards goals. Encourage students, especially troubled students, to maintain enrollment in extracurricular activities.

4. Exposure. At 14, I felt isolated from the rest of the world. When I met the man who trafficked me, he promised cross-country road trips with visits to exotic lands. I believed him because I wanted to believe him. I wanted to see something outside of my town. Expose students to other cultures and regions, even if it’s only through media like music, documentaries, maps, and encyclopedias. I discovered Bollywood music and dance when I happened upon a program about Asha Bhosle in my late teens; it was as if a door to India had been opened. This could include exposure to different interests via field trips as well: the ballet, sports games, the theatre, orchestra concerts, etc.

5. Volunteering. Adolescents are hormone-driven creatures. They’re angry, they’re sad, and they’re impulsive. Their lives can fall to pieces at a moment’s notice, and it truly feels to them as though life will never get any better, until it does…

Volunteering can help a child keep things in focus, whether it’s volunteering at a soup kitchen during the holidays or spending time with a senior citizen at a nursing home. Help your students see the world from someone else’s perspective. Help them understand how fortunate they are by helping those less fortunate. A healthy perspective on one’s own life will prevent attempted distortion by a stranger. Try to include a volunteer project in your curriculum.

6. Sexual empowerment. Our society is saturated with images of sex, and most images of women in the media are sexualized. This teaches young girls that sex appeal equals value. This turns into a domino effect. Over-sexualized girls are magnets for opportunistic boys or men who will push to have their expectations met. Teach preteen and teenage girls that, despite seeing and hearing about sex on a daily basis, it is ok to say no to anyone at any time, no matter what. Also, educate teen boys that it is ok to wait; boys often feel pressured to have sex because it would be “uncool” not to. Instill the idea in teenagers that they own their bodies, and nobody has the right to touch them – no matter what, no matter when, and no matter how far things have gone with a person in the past. Traffickers look for girls and boys who lack assertiveness and for those who have been exploited in the past.

7. Sex education. Knowledge is power. Sex education must go beyond the male and female anatomy.

There must be open discussions about the realities of sexuality and the consequences to sex.

8. Counseling! If a student’s symptoms of depression or anger are disrupting their school life, please recommend professional help. Ignoring a child’s signals for help will only drive them further away, possibly to seek solace from a stranger.

9. Trafficking basics. Teach children the basics about child sex traffickers and the tactics used by traffickers to gain their trust and to lure children away. Incorporate survivor -influenced curricula to teach children about these tactics and/or invite survivors into your schools to speak to the teens. For example, going to the mall was something I did almost every weekend. And this is exactly where I met the man who trafficked me to Atlantic City, NJ. This man was not the “creepy, old man” I had been warned about; he appeared to be in his 20s. He was cool, like a movie character, and he looked like he belonged in a music video. Today, predators have the ability to look for girls on the Internet. Also, these predators come in all shapes, sizes, and genders. Women, sometimes victims themselves, often help lure unsuspecting teens away with tales of a better life.

10. Start a club! Organizations like Shoe Revolt offer packages to help students start a club with the goal of educating peers about human trafficking.

How the media inhibits FREEDOM from child victims of trafficking

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

On July 2nd, 1992 I was lured into running away from home with a man who promised me a new life. This man told me that he would introduce me to Hollywood celebrities and that he would help me travel cross-country to experience different cities and different cultures. He said he could help me become a model or an actor or a songwriter. This man promised to change my life and to make my dreams come true.

Within hours of running away from home, this man threatened me and forced me into a life of prostitution. Approximately 36 hours later, I was spotted on the street by Atlantic City police officers. I was arrested, strip-searched, and threatened with juvenile detention until I gave them my real name. Handcuffed to a bench, I waited for my parents to arrive at the station.

I ask you- did I choose to do this? Based on these facts, would you say that I, at 14 years of age, set out to be a prostitute in Atlantic City? No, I didn’t. If I was guilty of anything, I was guilty of naivety.

I spent my Fourth of July feeling like a criminal.  Everyone from the police to my classmates to psychiatrists called me a teen prostitute.  I had to change high schools four times.

Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), stated the following on a recent episode of America’s Most Wanted that featured sex trafficking in the United States:

“We know how important language is in our culture…when we talk about girls and young women as prostitutes or teen prostitutes or child prostitutes… [it] has so much stigma attached to it…the visual that comes into your brain when you…hear that word [is] a girl standing on a street corner with fishnet [stockings]…”

Rachel points out how this word carries with it a predetermined perception about how that child arrived in that position and why she is still there.

I wholeheartedly agree with Rachel.  Not only does the word prostitute imply choice but it carries with it centuries of stigmatization.  At 14 years old, I began to believe that I was a prostitute.  I couldn’t understand that I was victimized because I believed I must have chosen to be a prostitute.  I initially refused to testify against my traffickers because I believed they were now the only people who accepted me.

“[The trafficker] might beat you, he might sell you…but at least he accepts you,” stated Rachel Lloyd while explaining the mindset of a victim, “society doesn’t have a lot of empathy for girls who have been in the life.”

Rachel explains that traffickers will tell young women and children that the police won’t believe them, that their family will no longer want them, and that nobody will treat them nicely.

And, unfortunately, this is often true.  This is the reason why many girls, including myself, chose to return to the traffickers; I felt shunned by society.

The answer to this problem is to stop labeling child victims as prostitutes!  These children are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and child sex trafficking.

“When you talk about a young person being trafficked or exploited,” explained Rachel Lloyd, “the ed on the end makes it something that was done to that person; it’s not who they are.”

For nearly 20 years I carried a sense of guilt and shame with me, and I can trace it back to one single word: prostitute.

In order to help trafficked children understand and overcome their victimization, it is imperative that society changes the language used within this crime.  And this change must begin with the media.

Below are samples of very recent news article titles:

Phoenix woman arrested for nude photos of teen prostitute  (Isn’t it interesting that the perpetrator in this article is named Phoenix woman while the victim is labeled teen prostitute?)

Alleged pimp, 14-year-old prostitute arrested at Colonie motel (Notice that the man involved is an alleged pimp while the teenager is, without question, given the term prostitute.)

Police: Man offered 3-year-old as prostitute on Craigslist (This doesn’t even make sense!  The only reason the word prostitute is used for this 3-year-old child is because the man was selling the act of rape.)

Hotel Linked To Child Prostitution Case Takes Action (Nowhere in this title does it mention the trafficker involved.  It alludes to the idea that this hotel must take steps to deal with a nuisance called child prostitution.  The two words do not belong together; it’s an oxymoron.)

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) defines a severe form of trafficking in persons as, sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.  If federal law mandates that a child cannot legally consent to prostitution, then why is the media sensationalizing their news articles with pictures and terms that implicate shame and choice on the child.

Because people labeled me as a prostitute at age 14, I began to self-identify with that word.  I thought it represented who I was and what I was.  The word trafficked takes the action off of the child and places it where it belongs- on the trafficker.

As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I demand that the media stop calling child victims any of the following disempowering labels: prostitutes, child prostitutes, teen prostitutes, hookers, sex slaves, or sex workers.

The first step to empowering our children to overcome this victimization is to recognize them as victims, or survivors, as opposed to criminals.

In celebration of your own freedom and independence this week, I urge you to fight for those rights of child victims of commercial sexual exploitation and child sex trafficking nationwide, and abroad.