MYTH: Victims of Sex Trafficking are always kidnapped or in physical captivity

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While leading Prevention Programs at Love True, we ask groups what they first think of when they hear the term “sex trafficking”. Their immediate response is often, Taken (the movie), bondage, hidden, or “in chains”. Although these are good answers they don’t encompass most sex trafficking situations, and can leave us thinking that all victims of trafficking must be hidden away, out of sight or so far away they are out of reach. This is not the case.  

The official definition of sex trafficking states that force, fraud, and coercion are used to recruit, harbor, transport, or obtain a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, or the person is under the age of 18 and involved in a commercial sex act. (https://www.acf.hhs.gov/otip/resource/fact-sheet-human-trafficking) A commercial sex act is defined as any sex act that something of value was given in exchange for the act. So a commercial sex act could be a sexual interaction in exchange for anything of value (food, a place to stay, money, a new phone, etc.)

Force: violence, compulsion, or constraint exerted upon or against a person or thing. www.merriam-webster.com

Many of us have the preconceived idea that sex trafficking only looks like traditional street prostitution while the person is being forced in some way.  However, with the true definition of sex trafficking it can look very different in each situation, causing many individuals to be vulnerable to being recruited into sex trafficking without them even being aware of it. Although sex trafficking can include forced street prostitution it can also include but not limited to pornography, online exploitation, trafficking in residential homes, hotels and motels.   

Although some victims have been kidnapped by their traffickers, most of the time traffickers recruit and keep their victims’ captive by creating trust and a common bond between themselves and their victim. That is why boy-friending or befriending is often used as a recruitment method. This is also how traffickers keep their victims in psychological bondage and don’t necessarily have to keep them in physical captivity.

Fraud: deceit, trickery; specifically : intentional perversion of truth in order to induce another to part with something of value or to surrender a legal right. - www.merriam-webster.com

As seen in Theresa Flores story, she was trafficked at the age of 15 for 2 years, right out of her own town. Her parents had no idea because she lived at home the whole time, she was never handcuffed or “appeared” forced by outward chains although she was held with much stronger chains; she was coerced forced and lied to keeping her enslaved for months . Watch her story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QW_nsAjweE

If you were to look at Theresa’s story and apply sex trafficking’s definition to it you would see force, fraud as well as coercion. Because of the coercion that her traffickers continued to use, Theresa was kept in strong psychological chains which kept her afraid and silent. Since she was under the age of 18 and involved in commercial sex she would automatically be considered a victim of sex trafficking making her protected her by Federal Law. Unfortunately, Theresa was trafficked well before awareness about this issue was mainstream, so she had a hard time finding the specialized care and help that she needed.

Coercion: 1. to restrain or dominate by force. 2. to compel to an act or choice. 3. to achieve by force or threat. -www.merriam-webster.com

Victims often don’t self-identify or speak of their experience because of psychological control, trauma, coercion and fraud.

Knowing that victims of sex trafficking can be a classmate, a neighbor or even a friend and not necessarily someone locked away out of sight can empower us to look out for those who are vulnerable and may be taken advantage of. Theresa was saved because a waitress at a diner noticed her and called the police. If we keep our eyes open we can do the same.

If you or someone you know is being trafficked please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 888-3737-888 and if you or that person are in immediate danger call 911.

* please never investigate a situation on your own, it could cause harm to yourself, the victim and possibly those around you. Always call the hotline numbers to report any suspicious behavior or situations and allow trained professionals to investigate further.

Written by Emily Rutt, Associate Director, Love True