There has been a massive increase in stories about trafficking in the news, depicted in movies and television, and spread throughout social media outlets. Stories of children narrowly escaping being taken by a trafficker in the makeup aisle at Target or traffickers marking the cars of potential victims have taken society by storm. It is a common assumption that this is a good thing, as these stories typically circulate with the intention of cultivating awareness. What people fail to realize is that this is actually detrimental to the fight to end trafficking and the main reason our communities at large are failing countless survivors each and every day.
While it’s possible that trafficking may occur in circumstances of kidnapping, these situations are the exception rather than the rule. In 95%+ of cases, trafficking doesn’t look like a stranger abduction. More often than not, victims are trafficked by someone they know and trust. Of the sex trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2019, the top two ways that trafficking victims were recruited were through intimate partners and family members. When we reduce trafficking to inaccurate depictions of anonymous kidnappings instead of operating on a narrative that reflects the truths of trafficking, addressing exploitation becomes nearly impossible.
Sensationalized narratives overpower the realities of trafficking, spreading misinformation and discounting legitimate experiences of survivors. When fabricated stories take center stage, the nuanced ways in which trafficking occurs are overlooked and survivors fall through the cracks. They create harmful stereotypes for survivors and make it more difficult to recognize the real signs of trafficking, such as psychological coercion, rather than the perceived physical signs of violence or restraint. These misrepresentations impact victims’ access to help if their experiences don’t match up with the popular perception of what trafficking looks like.
Trafficking is not black and white. It comes in a hundred shades of grey and most trafficking situations don’t mirror the ones we see in the media. Trafficking looks like the top-ranking college athlete who is being exploited by their coach. It looks like the boy falling asleep in school every day because his pimp had him working all night. It looks like the neighbor kid from down the street who comes over every day after school to play with your children because your home is safe for him. Trafficking looks like the girl with the fake ID at the club, the woman scanning your groceries who is being sold by her husband, and the teen with a drug addiction who was introduced to heroin by their trafficker to make them compliant.
We fail these victims when we don’t know the signs. We cultivate a fertile environment for trafficking to grow when we buy into these sensationalized narratives. It is a difficult balance. Bringing awareness to such a dominant issue is one of our greatest weapons in fighting trafficking, but we need to make sure we do it correctly – regardless of intentions. There is intent and then there is impact.
The way we tell the stories of human trafficking in this digital age has the power to change the world. Let’s dismantle the sensationalized stories the world is telling about trafficking and tell a better story – A story that sees and honors survivors. A story that touches hearts. A story that ignites change. As the narratives that have been created for trafficking begin to shift, more victims will find freedom, more traffickers will be prosecuted, and more resources will become available for survivors to live an empowered life free of exploitation.