Human Trafficking Awareness Day: What are we outraged about?
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Human trafficking has become prominent in public discourse. Celebrity foundations raise awareness of it, cyclists ride against it, faith groups issue calls to prayer and posters feature dramatic images of young women in handcuffs. More recently an Uber driver was credited with saving an teenage girl from sex trafficking. We are appropriately outraged by the specter of “modern-day slavery.” But are we outraged about the right things?

First, some basics. As is often the case with illegal and hidden activities, numbers are subject to varying biases. Published estimates of the number of trafficking victims range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands for victims within the United States, and from millions to tens of millions globally. U.S. federal law defines human trafficking as labor — or the exchange sexual acts for something of value—under conditions of force, fraud or coercion. (For minors under age 18, force, fraud and coercion need not be present to establish sex trafficking.) The term “trafficking” here refers to buying and selling rather than to crossing state or national boundaries.

This legal umbrella encompasses a tragic array of victims: an Asian woman promised a high-paying job in the United States but instead trapped in domestic servitude, a street-homeless transgirl trading sex for food and shelter, traveling crews selling magazine subscriptions to benefit questionable charities and not being fed until they meet daily quotas, a woman who stays with her pimp because he threatens to harm her child, and a young woman whose “boyfriend” persuades her to go on “dates” to help build their future together. Each situation fits the legal definition of human trafficking.

“This Could Be Your Daughter!” proclaims one poster, text juxtaposed over a menacing street scene. Probably not, for most of those reading this — and probably not your son, either.

Trafficking victimization has many faces, but converging roots. Common themes include poverty and inability to access basic needs; long histories of abuse and neglect; and the absence emotional and practical support, particularly during life transitions. Except in vanishingly rare instances, trafficking victims aren’t cheerleaders abducted from malls. They’re individuals whose lives offer so few choices that relinquishing control over body and future becomes a plausible option.

Trafficking victimization isn’t a single horrific event. It’s a culmination of failures by social structures that should protect all of us: children and adults, females and males, citizens and others.

Data on trafficking victimization is limited. Within the United States, available studies overwhelmingly point to high rates of child maltreatment, sexual abuse, poverty, and gender nonconformity among identified trafficking victims. In our research on programs serving minor victims of human trafficking, for instance, we compiled case histories in which traffickers (otherwise known as boyfriends, pimps or facilitators) were the “least worst” option available to young people. Yes, these were exploitive, abusive and often dangerous relationships. But for the young person involved, the trafficker was the best available resource for supplying shelter and food, ensuring safety, providing emotional connections and offering a sense of worth.

Similarly, we heard stories of sex trade involvement among young people running from abusive homes, or thrown out by families unwilling to accept their sexual orientation or gender identity. “Was force, fraud or coercion involved?” we asked, knowing that it need not be present to define trafficking of minors. “They’re all are coerced,” replied the patient youth worker. “They’re coerced by the fact that they have no other options.”

So where should our concern be directed? There absolutely exists a need for programs that provide safe shelter, help victims access resources and offer services tailored to people who have experienced severe trauma. With support from the federal government and other funders, many organizations do heroic work in identifying trafficking victims, engaging them in services and providing long-term support.

Today on Jan. 11, National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, let’s acknowledge that these are the skimpiest of patches on larger problems. Let’s be outraged not just by the rhetoric of modern-day slavery but by the circumstances that leave people vulnerable to it. Let’s mobilize against the less headline-grabbing evils of poverty, discrimination and gaping holes in the safety net. Let’s honor survivors in the best way possible: not by defining them in terms of their victimization, but by advocating for resources that meet basic human needs for safety, well-being, self-sufficiency and social connectedness.

Deborah Gibbs is a senior social policy analyst in the Violence and Victimization Research Program at RTI International. She has more than 30 years of experience leading studies related to child welfare, violence against women, and children’s health, including several studies addressing domestic human trafficking.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.