Human trafficking exploits vulnerable populations

LINE IN THE SAND: At last year's Anti-Trafficking Summit, held at Mars Hill University, participants explored the Red Sand Project, a collaborative installation which creates "opportunities for people to question, connect and take action against vulnerabilities that can lead to human trafficking and exploitation," according to the project’s website. Photo by Jennifer Wilson

Angela Bradley was 10 the first time she was paid to have sex.

A neighbor who was a gang member introduced her and became her “manager,” and when he paid her $100 after the act, she thought it was an incredibly easy way to make money.

“I had already been molested by an older man who gave me candy and presents, so this was nothing new, really,” says Bradley, who today works for Legacy of Hope International, a South Carolina-based nonprofit. The group is organizing the second annual Anti-Trafficking Summit, slated for Tuesday-Saturday, Sept. 15-19. Co-sponsored by Mars Hill University and Life 107 Ministries, this year’s summit will be online only due to COVID-19.

Bradley’s mother had a psychiatric illness and was addicted, so the young girl had no strong advocate at home. “I was trying to look older, and they wanted me to look younger,” she recalls. “And when they gave me $100, I thought it was great.”

But by age 17, she was pregnant and in jail.

“I gave birth to my daughter with one hand cuffed to the bed and one leg shackled to the bed,” she says. “That’s the moment I knew I had to turn my life around. It was a survival thing.”

A complex picture

Trafficking takes many forms. According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services fact sheet, it can include not only sex for money involving coercion or fraud but also any kind of involuntary servitude. And while most folks associate trafficking with children, two-thirds of the more than 200 North Carolina cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline last year were adults. Still, the average age of children when they’re first trafficked is 15, says Bradley. According to the hotline, about 80% of trafficking cases nationally involve sex trafficking, and 90% of the victims are female.

Although trafficking can happen to anyone, certain groups are more vulnerable: people who’ve recently migrated or moved; those with substance use issues and/or a mental illness; those who’ve been in the child welfare system; someone who’s LGBTQ, a runaway or a homeless youth.

Perpetrators also come from every race, ethnicity and gender demographic, the hotline reports. They may be business owners, members of a gang or network, parents or family members of victims, intimate partners — even corporate executives and government representatives. Some leverage their privilege, wealth and position to control their victims. In a high-profile 2019 case, financier Jeffrey Epstein allegedly procured girls for himself and his powerful friends. Epstein, a registered sex offender, died in custody while awaiting trial. Other perpetrators, however, come from more modest backgrounds.

Traffickers use various tactics to control their victims, including physical and emotional abuse and threats, isolation from friends and family, and economic manipulation. Initially, they often promise to address their target’s needs; victims then become afraid to leave for reasons including psychological trauma, shame, emotional attachment or physical threats to themselves or their loved ones.

Sugar dating

Asheville resident Jennifer Wilson, who’s organizing the upcoming summit, works for Legacy of Hope International. “With COVID-19 and what it’s doing to the economy, even more people are becoming desperate,” she points out. “Sex can be used as an exchange for necessities like rent and food, not just drugs.”

Amid widespread pandemicrelated unemployment and the impending end of federal, state and local protections, some economists are predicting 30 million to 40 million evictions in the coming months.

All these factors increase the risk of being trafficked, says Demetria Gilliam-Williams of Life 107. The faith-based organization works to eliminate sex trafficking and empower survivors. “We have to talk about familial trafficking right here in rural North Carolina,” she says. “These children are not being kidnapped; that’s not what it looks like here.”

Traffickers, she explains, approach their targets the same way a child molester does — first grooming them by offering forbidden items such as alcohol or small amounts of money and telling them to keep the “gifts” secret. But when those “treats” become payment for sexual acts with someone under age 18, the law calls it trafficking.

Even a teenager dating an older partner may be at risk, says Gilliam-Williams. “It’s called sugar dating,” she explains. “If a young girl is dating an older male, and he asks her to perform a sex act with him or with someone else in exchange for gifts or money, that’s trafficking. Unfortunately, too many victims are very attached to their traffickers.”

Blaming the victim

Many victims aren’t even aware they’re being trafficked, says Angelica Reza Wind of Our VOICE. “They’ll call and say someone is making them do things,” she explains. “They may not even know there’s a name for it, and they’re unaware there are resources to help them.” The Asheville nonprofit works to eliminate sexual violence.

Despite the widespread belief that kidnapping must be involved for the law to consider it trafficking, that’s not true, stresses Wind. Any exchange of anything of value for sex with a minor, and any use of force, fraud or coercion in the case of an adult, is trafficking. Like Bradley, most people who are trafficked knew the perpetrator beforehand, and 80% are survivors of child abuse.

Wind believes part of the reason people think most trafficking victims are abducted and spirited across the border is that the #SaveTheChildren hashtag has been appropriated by anti-immigration activists on the political right.

Another major problem, she notes, is blaming the victim instead of the perpetrator. “When we read the story, it too often says that Jane Doe was trafficked, not that John Smith was charged with trafficking,” Wind points out. “We ask why didn’t she leave, report him sooner, avoid being trafficked.”

Legal protections

In July 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a law based on recommendations by the state’s Human Trafficking Commission. Among other things, it expands the definition of “sexual servitude,” prohibits the promotion or sale of “sex tourism” services, creates a mechanism for victims to recover damages from traffickers or those who benefited financially from it, and makes it easier for victims to expunge convictions for nonviolent crimes committed as a direct result of being trafficked.

The law also funds education, says Wind. In October, Our VOICE will launch a project in the Asheville City Schools to help youths understand what trafficking is and how to avoid getting caught up in it.

“Education is key,” says Wind. “Having the information helps prevent trafficking.”


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3 thoughts on “Human trafficking exploits vulnerable populations

  1. luther blissett

    “…is that the #SaveTheChildren hashtag has been appropriated by anti-immigration activists on the political right.”

    Not exactly. It has been appropriated by QAnon believers, who are something else entirely, and a growing constituency among suburban and rural women. (Local reporting on a recent event in Franklin suggests it was at least QAnon-adjacent.)

    As this piece rightly points out, sexual exploitation mostly reflects how those on the bottom rungs of the social and economic ladder have been failed by those around them and by the institutions meant to protect them. It doesn’t need a grand conspiracy, and it’s important to get past the popular belief that the ordeal for victims of trafficking ends with a “rescue.”

    • G Man

      So, reading the article you linked to in HuffPo, I come away believing that the author of that story and the author of this MX story must live in 2 different worlds.

      That other article stresses the point that there isn’t always a “trafficker”, in fact a majority of the time, the “trafficking” is a function of the victim voluntarily trading sex for money/food/shelter as opposed to being coerced into it. This story seems to provide an entirely different narrative.

      I think a more appropriate headline for the story would be “Human trafficking exploits vulnerable individuals”. We really need to get past this whole divisive act of tribalizing and lumping groups of people together based on one tiny characteristic of each person. Nothing pits people against each other more than categorizing them based on an agenda. People are individuals. We may belong to different “groups” but we need not and should not be identified by those groups. A crime is a crime, regardless of which group or “population” a victim belongs to.

  2. mut58

    surprised to see no mention of felony disenfranchisement as a means to the exploitation of a subclass under color of law.

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