How Human Trafficking Myths Hurt Survivors

person standing in the darkDisclaimer: Possible sensitive material. The author discusses the nature of human trafficking situations and means of control.

During my undergraduate years, I embodied the enthusiastic student suddenly emboldened by the idea that I could do something to change the world. When at a campus event, I was shown a video that detailed the (fictional) story of a young woman from Eastern Europe who was kidnapped and brought to the United States for forced work in the sex industry. The woman was moved around the country and was locked in various homes, hidden away from everyone except for her captors and clients. She only managed a dramatic escape by breaking free of her chains and running towards good citizens for help. Like most Americans, this was my introduction to the issue of human trafficking.

The narrative of human trafficking presented by that video, a kidnapped, foreign-born white woman, locked inside for sex work, is a prevailing stereotype. I think that narrative is so ubiquitous because stories about kidnapping make for thrilling, action-packed films, see box-office hit Taken, and create a clear dichotomy between victim and villain.

Human trafficking, I later learned, is far more complicated and insidious.

First, while physical isolation and restraint is certainly a feature of some human trafficking cases, it is not inclusive of all survivors’ experiences. Survivors might walk through their communities while their exploiter controls their income, behavior, and will with threats, fraud, manipulation, or false promises. Similar to domestic violence situations, a survivor might be prevented from leaving the control of their exploiter because they possess insufficient income or housing, they have a personal connection to their exploiter, the exploiter has threatened them or their family members, or they are worried the exploiter may report them to law enforcement or immigration authorities, among other things.

Second, human trafficking is not synonymous with human smuggling, the covert movement of people across borders. In fact, the movement of people is not listed as a required condition in the legal definition of human trafficking. Domestic-born survivors may be exploited for commercial gain in their hometown or even their own home. Often, foreign-born survivors are brought to the United States under the context of legal work with a visa, but once in the country, the exploiter holds the visas and changes the work contract.

Third, human trafficking involves more than forced work in the sex industry. People may be forced, tricked, or coerced into working in a myriad of legal and illegal industries, including domestic or cleaning services, the restaurant business, beauty services, prostitution, the sale of goods on the street, agricultural work, and more.

And finally, despite what movies depict, or awareness posters illustrate, survivors of human trafficking can be any race, gender, or age. Exact numbers of the demographics of survivors are difficult to estimate, but one study indicated that as many as half of sex trafficking survivors, alone, are male.

In order to truly change the world, we need to be informed as well as energized. It is essential for us, especially those of us working in the justice system, to expand our understanding of human trafficking beyond the narrative that Hollywood and some well-meaning organizations popularize. Survivors who don’t fit the stereotype of a human trafficking survivor are endangered of being overlooked and not being provided with the resources they need to free themselves. Here at the Justice Program’s Office, we want to help the justice system, and court systems specifically, better identify survivors of human trafficking and meet their needs.

Learn more about our work to support survivors of human trafficking and apply for training and technical assistance on this issue.