How Certain Efforts To Prevent Human Trafficking Are Proving To Be Hurtful

By Holly Smith — From her column in the Elite Daily

As an advocate against all forms of human trafficking and child exploitation, I’m grateful this issue is gaining the national attention it deserves. However, as a survivor of child sex trafficking, I’m concerned about many of the images used in efforts to raise awareness around this particular topic. As advocates around the country prepare for this month’s awareness efforts, I’d like to take a moment to address specifically the efforts surrounding child sex trafficking in America.

In 2009, I happened upon a documentary about sex trafficking in India. I watched the stories of women and girls who had been forced, lured, or born into working in brothels. There was one young girl in particular who struck me. Working in the sex trade had become so normalized to her that, after she had been rescued by an advocate, she ran away from services and returned to the brothel. This was the moment in which I realized I might also have been a victim of sex trafficking. In the summer between eighth grade middle school and ninth grade high school, I met a man at a shopping mall in New Jersey. This man convinced me to run away from home, and, within hours of doing so, he ordered me into prostitution in Atlantic City, NJ. I was ultimately arrested by law enforcement and returned to my parents; however, like the little girl in India, I returned to Atlantic City on my own weeks later.

Until that moment, I had no idea there was a term for what had happened to me in 1992. I also had no idea that there were others out there like me. After searching the Internet, I connected with advocates and survivors in Washington DC. I cannot begin to describe to you how life-changing this was for me. I felt compelled to continue to share my story, and this is when my journey took an unfortunate turn. As I shared my testimony at different events, I began to hear questions from audience members like Why would you talk to a stranger and Why didn’t you run away from this man? Even though I was then an adult with a college degree, I again felt like that 14-year-old girl who had been misunderstood, judged, and blamed by law enforcement, family members, and friends.

As I continued to speak, I began to notice posters displayed at many of these awareness events. They often portrayed girls who were beaten, drugged, or tied to beds, or something similar to indicate circumstances of force and bondage. None of these images represented my experience. I wasn’t abducted from my bedroom; I wasn’t held in shackles, and I was never in fear for my life. I began to question whether or not I really was a victim of sex trafficking.

And then I stopped sharing my story.

Luckily, I also began to study the topic of human trafficking, specifically child sex trafficking, and I delved deeper into my childhood memories in order to piece together those answers which my audience members had earlier sought. This research, which took more than a year to complete, formed what is now my first published book, Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery. One of the main messages I try to instill in my readers is that “willing victims” (i.e. those who fail to see themselves as victims, and, as a result, fail to seek or accept help) are also victims in need of compassion and advocacy from their communities. We must never interrogate a child victim about his or her actions, or lack of actions. We must instead question what factors would drive a child to become a “willing victim”, and we must hold the perpetrator(s) accountable, not the child.

Images can be powerful tools in advocacy; and many images, especially those depicting violence against children, can shock the public into paying attention. However, the overwhelming use of such images can be damaging to awareness campaigns specific to child sex trafficking in America. Why? Because they can unintentionally cause the public to project blame onto those youth whose backgrounds and spirits are so broken that they fail to see a life in prostitution as something from which they need to be “rescued”. This is not to say that violence does not happen to children and youth in prostitution. In fact, I have heard many painful stories detailing violent acts against child victims by traffickers and other exploiters. In fact, the longer any person is involved in prostitution, the more likely he or she will face or experience violence. However, it is often the case in child sex trafficking that perpetrators first befriend, romance, and/or lure victims into coercive and exploitative relationships before visible levels of violence emerge.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) mandates that force, fraud, and coercion are not necessary elements to constitute cases of child sex trafficking. There is a reason for this. Children and youth are much more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation than adults, especially those with additional risk factors. When we post photos of youth beaten and drugged, or wrapped in chains, rope, or duct tape, or anything else that indicates abduction or bondage, we undermine this important clause created by federal legislation. But more importantly, we run the risk of alienating victims. Perhaps this can be avoided if images of violence are balanced with images that portray non-violent coercion. Like the documentary mentioned above, we must share or depict several stories to expose various scenarios of exploitation. If you are aiming to raise awareness about the sex trafficking of adult men and women in the United States, then violent imagery would be more appropriate – and it would be important as there is an unfortunate lacking in advocacy for adult victims of sex trafficking, as well as for adult and child victims of labor trafficking.

In honor of National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, I send my deepest gratitude to all advocates raising awareness around the world. Your efforts are so much appreciated. However, I encourage you to ensure your efforts are informed and meaningful so that you help to pave the way for real and effective change. Responsible advocacy matters. It’s the only way to truly address and prevent all forms of human trafficking and child exploitation nationally and around the world.

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