Fighting sex trafficking takes multipronged approach

LIFELINE: “Often we're seeing victims come in talking about domestic violence first,” says Our VOICE Executive Director Rita Sneider-Cotter. “Then, as the conversation proceeds, there's talk of ‘Well, sometimes he would make me have sex with people, and then he would take the money.’” Photo courtesy of Our VOICE

Sex trafficking doesn’t look like the plot of the 2008 film “Taken” starring Liam Neeson as a father who dramatically rescues his daughter from Albanian gangsters.

“Trafficking occurs when there’s an act — whether it’s sexual or labor — and there’s force, fraud or coercion and a third party gets something of value,” explains Jenn Hegna, program director of Our VOICE, an Asheville nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual violence and sex trafficking. Sex trafficking can occur in businesses — in plain sight, so to speak — or out of view in private homes.

Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office Detective Alfred Rice writes in an email that sex trafficking “is literal human slavery that impacts communities of all races, genders and ages.”  Yet, he says, it “is difficult to quantify here in Buncombe County,” explaining how North Carolina didn’t have a clear-cut definition of human trafficking until 2013 legislation specified the crime meant the perpetrator “recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides or obtains by any means another person with the intent that the other person be held in involuntary servitude or sexual servitude.”

This means the full picture of sex trafficking is unclear, not just in Western North Carolina but nationwide. Not every survivor seeks support through a hotline or organization like Our VOICE. Not everyone chooses to press charges or even file a report with law enforcement. And still others don’t share their experience of being trafficked out of shame or fear.

Our VOICE Executive Director Rita Sneider-Cotter says public attention on preventing sex trafficking and supporting its survivors is a “young movement” compared with other anti-violence movements.

“Domestic violence, for example, had a major prevention push throughout the ’90s and 2000s that has led to extensive study, documentation and community outreach,” writes Rice in an email. “Human trafficking needs a similar push.”

The first nationwide legislation to directly address trafficking — as opposed to prosecuting it as indentured servitude or slavery — became law in 2000. Although the commodification of humans for sex always existed, only in recent decades has public policy disentangled it from other forms of abuse and treated it as its own unique societal scourge.

Traffickers and trafficked people

Sex traffickers exploit vulnerability — whether that be needing food, a place to sleep, diapers, drugs or money. Traffickers can range from individuals in a person’s life to potential employers to strangers met over social media to family members. (According to data from the Washington, D.C.,-based Polaris Project, one-third of sex trafficking survivors are trafficked by family members or caregivers.)

Forced or coerced sex isn’t necessarily what compels survivors to seek out Our VOICE. They get in touch when the trafficker becomes violent. “Often we’re seeing victims come in talking about domestic violence first,” Sneider-Cotter says. “Then as the conversation proceeds, there’s talk of ‘Well, sometimes he would make me have sex with people, and then he would take the money.’”

The manipulation and control inherent in sex trafficking can make it difficult for a survivor to recognize the exploitation is happening. Some traffickers “genuinely are in an intimate partnership with the survivor — unhealthily, to be clear,” Sneider-Cotter explains.

Capt. Joseph Silberman of the Asheville Police Department says traffickers tend to have “soft skills,” like charm and charisma. “They are good at grooming people and they’re good at controlling people,” he explains. “The power and control that an abuser uses over somebody in a domestic violence situation is the same toolkit that a trafficker would use over their victim.” Adds Rice of BCSO, “Perpetrators are manipulators and convince victims that they aren’t victims. It takes time and effort to help pull victims from that mindset.”

Immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are particularly vulnerable, says Silberman. “Their status could be abused by a perpetrator to make them afraid to go to the police and they can be controlled in that way,” he says.

Women in their late 20s to early 50s are the clients Our VOICE sees the most, Hegna explains. Clients range from “somebody actively fleeing their trafficker to somebody who was trafficked as a child, just realized [that] and needs support.”

‘Fawn’ response

One myth surrounding sex trafficking is that the person being abused could just escape if they really wanted. In actuality, the survivor has usually been cut off from other support systems, their communications may be monitored, and they are dependent on the trafficker for money and transportation. To escape the relationship may mean to forgo a safe place to sleep or food or diapers for a child.

“It’s so hard for people to get away because traffickers are really good at keeping people isolated and under their control,” Sneider-Cotter says.

For this reason, individuals who work with sex trafficking survivors encounter a psychological reaction called the fawning response. “For trauma responses, we often talk about fight or flight or freeze,” explains Sneider-Cotter. Fawning is a common trauma response for survivors of sex trafficking and domestic violence, she says.

“Fawning means your brain is doing a very quick assessment,” Sneider-Cotter says. “It’s very good at making decisions to keep you alive, and if you are with somebody who’s harming you, your brain may very well decide that appeasing them is the best way to keep you alive.” Rice calls the fawn response a “defense mechanism” to appease the perpetrator and potentially lessen any violence

Fawning “would present itself to law enforcement as an uncooperative victim,” explains Rice. Organizations like Our VOICE work to educate the public, including health care providers and law enforcement, about the psychological reasons behind a fawning response.

Everyone from the general public to law enforcement can have the misconception that “if somebody finds a trafficking survivor, they’re going to be so grateful to be rescued,” Sneider-Cotter explains. “But the reality is probably a lot more complicated, and the reality probably looks like they feel a conflicted loyalty to their trafficker. Because again, that person has helped provide shelter and food.”

Law enforcement

Sex trafficking often “spans multiple jurisdictions and states that require multiple agencies to work together,” writes Rice. BCSO works closely with the State Bureau of Investigation and federal agencies like the FBI.

Before there were national and state laws specific to trafficking, law enforcement often used prostitution as a charge for both traffickers and their victims. That’s not a strategy local law enforcement uses anymore.

“I’m not weighing in on whether [sex work] should or shouldn’t be on the books, but [as] the focus of limited resources targeting the principal perpetrators of prostitution, it is not a good use of resources,” Silberman explains. “Targeting traffickers is. Targeting people who exploit other people for financial or sexual gain is.”

However, Silberman says, APD “might use [a prostitution charge] as a way to communicate with somebody we may suspect to be the victim of human trafficking. … But generally, we don’t pursue it.”

Lt. Russell Crisp, who works under Silberman, concurs that sex work is “not a crime that we are targeting. I’m trying to think of the last time that we actually had somebody charged with prostitution-related crime.” Silberman says human trafficking “is a much more serious charge,” and the department has levied it in the past during his time as a supervisor.

APD most recently pursued an operation on purported sex trafficking in August, alongside federal agencies because it involved multiple states, explains Crisp. Silberman called it “a large-scale operation — we had a lot of staff dedicated to that over two days.”

Over two evenings, the operation was “trying to identify persons who are involved in the sex working trade, to see if any of them may be victims of human trafficking,” Crisp explains. “But none of them gave us any indication or any information that they were being trafficked.”

The individuals were approached by law enforcement and two victim advocates with its Victims’ Services Unit, who don’t wear a badge or carry a gun. Explains Crisp, “We try to have enough people there to maybe have somebody they would feel comfortable talking with.”

Although the August operation “didn’t yield any results locally,” says Silberman, police did make “contact with a number of sex workers.” Crisp explains that law enforcement interacted with the sex workers and let them know their victims services personnel had resources and information that may be beneficial. Officers would then step aside, and individuals have a conversation and workers could potentially accept information or resources, including care packages.

A community issue

Preventing sex trafficking and supporting survivors needs to be addressed by whole communities, not just law enforcement.  “If we as a community don’t know what to look for trafficking, then we won’t identify and we’re going to keep missing it,” says Sneider-Cotter. “The folks working at the hotels, the folks working at Catholic Charities [the local organization tasked with resettling refugees] — all of these people need to know what trafficking really looks like, and not the ‘Taken’ version.”

Education for young people is crucial, too, Sneider-Cotter says. She notes that state law requires sex trafficking awareness and prevention to be taught in public schools. “As this movement grows, we’re going to get better at getting more information to people when they’re younger,” she says. “So that they know when something starts to feel not right, they know how to get help.”

Do you have more to add to this story? Contact the author at jwakeman [at]


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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