Human Trafficking Awareness Campaigns Are Feeding A Dangerous Myth

You see the posters in airports, bus stations and rest stops around the country. A child, always female, often white, sometimes bound. An alarming headline: “Someone in your state was just sold” or “Human trafficking: It could happen to anyone.” 

Underneath the picture is a worrying statistic, a list of warning signs, a hotline number or all three. And always, at the end, the same plea to travelers: If you see something, say something.

Over the last two decades, human trafficking has become one of the most prominent social issues in America. Airlines, hotels and ride-hailing companies train their employees on how to spot victims. Nonprofits enlist celebrities to spread awareness campaigns on social media. Last week, just after the close of Human Trafficking Awareness Month, President Trump held an anti-trafficking summit and created a White House position dedicated to the issue.

Whether from lawmakers, nonprofits or celebrities, nearly all of these efforts send the same message: Trafficking is everywhere, it’s getting worse and ordinary Americans have the power to stop it. 

There’s just one problem. None of the lawmakers or nonprofits behind these campaigns can provide any evidence that “raising awareness” of human trafficking is doing anything to address it. 

For years now, experts have pointed out that the reality of sex trafficking bears little resemblance to the sensationalized version depicted in public-awareness campaigns. Shoppers are not being snatched from grocery store parking lots. Victims are rarely moved against their will and seldom exhibit any of the “warning signs” that would make their abuse visible to members of the public. Despite the persistent myth that human trafficking “could happen to anyone,” most victims are undocumented, homeless, in foster care or otherwise marginalized. 

“Most sex trafficking happens to a relatively small group of high-risk young people,” said David Finkelhor, the director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center. “We could do a lot more to prevent trafficking by addressing those vulnerabilities — like family abuse, neglect or foster care placement — directly.” 

Over the last decade, as warning posters have appeared in nearly every airport in the country, it is not clear that the U.S. has had a single confirmed case of a child being trafficked by strangers via airplane. According to Finkelhor, only around 100 “stereotypical kidnappings” of children take place each year nationwide. Most minor kidnappings in America are carried out by parents as part of custody disputes. The same is true of childhood sexual abuse: According to a 2012 study, strangers are the perpetrator in only 10% of cases. 

Statistics from anti-trafficking organizations themselves bear this out. Staca Shehan, the vice president of analytical services at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said that fewer than 1% of calls to the organization’s Cyber Tipline were reports of “stranger danger” abductions. More than 80% come from foster care or other state facilities. 

“You can’t know the signs of trafficking by looking at someone you don’t know,” said a senior staff member at one of America’s major anti-trafficking organizations who asked HuffPost not to include her real name out of fear of losing her job. “They’re not going to be disheveled or beat up or unhappy. You could even ask them, ‘Are you being trafficked?’ and they wouldn’t say yes.”

Sexual and labor coercion could be better addressed through government policy related to poverty, migration and working conditions, she added. As for why anti-trafficking nonprofits continue to repeat the same debunked myths about trafficking in their publicity campaigns, she said the sensationalized messaging was necessary to bring attention to the issue.

“If we didn’t use the word ‘force,’” she said, “would anybody care?”

Where Are All The Traffickers?

Among both children and adults, there is little evidence that human trafficking is a widespread phenomenon in need of universal public awareness. In 2018, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 10,949 reports of human trafficking, but these figures are based exclusively on anonymous calls and are not verified in any way. The hotline’s director, Caroline Diemar, said that many calls are simply vague suspicions — there’s a massage parlor on my street; I saw a suspicious family at the mall — that may reflect public anxiety about trafficking rather than trafficking itself.   

Law enforcement figures are even smaller. Despite a yearslong, high-profile, government-wide campaign against human trafficking, the Department of Homeland Security identified just 428 victims nationwide last year, and the FBI made fewer than 650 arrests for trafficking in 2018.  

The mismatch between the small number of confirmed cases and the large estimates that appear in anti-trafficking publicity campaigns (the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, for example, says America has “potentially over a million” victims of sex trafficking) can’t be reconciled as underreporting. Other crimes for which victims are reluctant to come forward, including sexual assault and domestic violence, produce more confirmed cases each year. 

“There are a lot of serious problems that don’t get the publicity that trafficking does,” said Ron Weitzer, a professor at George Washington University who researches the sex industry. “We know that domestic violence is far more prevalent than sex trafficking, for example, but we don’t have posters everywhere telling us to look for it.”

“Awareness” Is No Substitute For Solutions

Regardless how common human trafficking actually is — or isn’t — there is still the question of whether public vigilance is the best way to solve the problem. 

Sabra Boyd is a writer and anti-trafficking advocate whose father arranged for her to sleep with other adults when she was just 9 years old. Though her father did occasionally take her to other cities, she said her abuse would not have been visible to other travelers.   

“I was always dressed in nice clothes,” she said. “And because my dad was abusive, I was obsessed with being obedient. I was probably the most well-behaved child in the airport.”

Most of the “warning signs” included in anti-trafficking awareness campaigns, Boyd said, are far too generic to offer assistance to actual victims. For example, nonprofits often recommend being suspicious of travelers who aren’t dressed appropriately for the weather (a near-universal sight in international airports) and children who aren’t in control of their travel documents (extremely common for adolescents traveling with their families). 

“If a young woman is traveling alone,” the anti-trafficking nonprofit Airline Ambassadors International advises passengers, “ask the reason for her trip.”

These warnings, Boyd said, give members of the public a license to harass anyone whose behavior they deem “suspicious.” 

“Almost all of the messages we get about trafficking are slanted toward imaginary victims, especially immigrant women and young children who look like they’re a different race than their parents,” she said. 

This scenario is already playing out in transit hubs across the country. Last September, flight attendants accused a white adoptive father of trafficking his Black 12-year-old son. In 2015, an eight-member Korean pop group was detained at LAX for 15 hours on suspicion that they were trafficked sex workers. Cindy McCain, an anti-trafficking advocate and wife of the late Arizona Sen. John McCain (R), had to apologize last February for reporting a woman to Phoenix Sky Harbor authorities simply for walking through the airport with a child of a “different ethnicity.” (More than a bit ironic given that the McCains faced racist smears in the 2000 presidential race in regard to their own adoptive daughter.)

Last week, James Moed, a Brooklyn-based product manager, was visiting San Diego with his husband and woke up to the police knocking on his hotel room door. His Uber driver the previous night had peppered them with questions about their baby, especially the whereabouts of the boy’s mother. After he dropped them at their hotel, he had reported them for trafficking their son. 

“It’s every queer parent’s worst fear, someone asking you to prove that it’s really your baby,” Moed said. Luckily, he was traveling with his son’s passport and the police didn’t press him for any more documentation. Still, the incident rattled him.

“I keep wondering how many more times this is going to happen,” Moed said. He noted that Uber’s human trafficking training materials instruct drivers to look out for common things such as “passengers who seem anxious,” prefer to pay in cash or are traveling without luggage. “Thousands of people are getting these trafficking trainings, but they’re not learning what unconventional families look like,” he added. “Now any ignorant person that wants to target us can use this as an excuse.”  

Anti-Trafficking Campaigns Do Little To Help Victims

Beyond their potential to increase false accusations, there is little reason to believe that anti-trafficking awareness campaigns help real victims. 

Emily Gonzalez was trafficked when she was 23. Homeless and struggling with addiction, she was offered some speed by a friend, and she took it. He had actually given her tranquilizers, a fact she didn’t realize until she was waking up in the home of a man she had never seen before. He had just raped her. 

Gonzalez’s experience sounds like exactly the type of crime that anti-trafficking campaigns are supposed to address. Reporting her abuse to a hotline or to law enforcement, however, would not have given her the help she needed.  

“Even if they caught the guy that trafficked me and sent him to prison for the rest of his life, I was still homeless, addicted and vulnerable to the same type of exploitation happening again,” she said.

With the exception of notifying law enforcement, anti-trafficking hotlines offer little to victims beyond referring them to existing service providers — the majority of which are strikingly underfunded in many states. According to a 2019 review, the entire state of Louisiana has just 291 beds available to trafficking victims, most of which are bunks in homeless shelters. A 2019 survey of anti-trafficking organizations in Colorado found that just over a quarter offered medical services. Connecticut’s Office of Victim Services spent just $346.18 on housing trafficking survivors in 2016.  

Gonzalez is now an escort (and declined to use her real name due to fear of being arrested). She pointed out that the nationwide concern over trafficking has failed to address the more complicated drivers of exploitation and coercion her experience demonstrates.   

“In the range of things that have happened to me, being trafficked is on the less harmful end of the scale,” Gonzalez said. 

As a homeless young adult, she spent years performing sex acts in exchange for drugs, money or shelter. She ended up in a series of exploitative relationships, including with a friend who convinced her to commit crimes, an experience that left her with lingering trauma and a felony conviction that still makes it hard to find housing and formal employment. What she needed in her most vulnerable periods, she said, was a safe place to sleep and a steady income — two things that are still hard to obtain in America.

“When I’ve gone to anti-trafficking groups and described my experiences of homelessness and domestic abuse, they’re not interested,” Gonzalez said. “Then I tell them that I was trafficked and all of a sudden they care. They’re only interested in a specific form of exploitation and the kind of victims they can ‘rescue.’” 

According to Janie Chuang, a professor at American University who researches human trafficking and labor migration, most of the exploitation taking place in the United States is not particularly difficult to find. Forced labor is endemic on farms, in restaurants, private homes and everywhere else low-paid migrant workers are employed. As for sexual coercion, a huge body of research indicates that it is a byproduct of poverty, marginalization and abuse.

“Nobody wants to view trafficking as embedded in how our global economy is structured,” Chuang said. “It’s more convenient to view it as the product of individual criminal behavior.”

After Boyd’s father trafficked her as a child, she was trafficked again as a homeless teenager in Portland. A man she considered her boyfriend — “he was the first guy who was ever nice to me,” she said — talked her into sleeping with men she didn’t know. She is almost certain they were paying him behind her back.   

Reporting her abuse to the authorities would not have helped, Boyd said. As a teen runaway, the police likely would have “rescued” her and sent her back to her abusive parents or to the homeless shelter where she had been sexually assaulted a few months before. 

She didn’t need someone to call a hotline for her, she said. She simply needed more options that would help her get away from her abuser. 

“They always say the focus is on rescuing people, but if you don’t have a system in place that’s going to help them go down a different life path, you’re just setting people up for failure and false hope,” she said. “But I get it if that doesn’t fit on a poster.” 

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