About ten years ago, Polaris conducted a “person on the street”, experiment to find out what the general public knew about human trafficking. In New York City, people were stopped and asked, “Do you believe human trafficking is going on?” and “Where is this happening?” A good number had heard of it, but when asked, ‘Where?”, their answers were: “In China or India or someplace like that.” If pushed to name a place in the U.S. they said, “Probably Las Vegas, or maybe Los Angeles.” None thought it happened in New York City.
Unfortunately, ten years later, we are not much further along in recognizing how widespread this crime is. People are still in disbelief that trafficking is happening in their home towns. When I spoke to groups about trafficking in Pittsburgh, I gave them the address of a couple arrested and convicted for trafficking two teenagers. When people heard the actual address, a ripple of shock went through the audience. Typically, people form their opinions about the whereabouts of crime from crime shows on TV, and the cities shown in these episodes. But, not in my home town.
Another common misconception picked up from TV shows, is the belief that trafficking involves only adult women, and these are all foreign nationals. It is true that foreign women have been tricked into coming to the states, and once here, they are caught in the web of the traffickers and used in sex trafficking, but there are different forms of trafficking and men as well as children are also part of the picture.
Men brought from Central and South America are used as field laborers in the breadbasket states in the U.S., and women can find themselves as unpaid housekeepers or workers for a laundry, restaurant or cleaning company.
About five years ago there was a large influx of unaccompanied minors at our southern border. The social service agencies in that area were overwhelmed by the numbers and not prepared to care for them. Children were released into the care of couples who promised to raise the youngsters. Later we found that traffickers, posing as interested couples, took children to use in sex trafficking.
One well-used source of victims today is runaway teenagers, who have been couch-surfing at friend’s homes for weeks or months, and who are picked up and offered a place to stay with an “older friend”. They are first given spending money, later drugs, and groomed to service a segment of the public that is increasingly looking at younger and younger sex partners. A trafficker typically has four girls (sometimes boys also), and the age range is 13 to 17 years old.
These teens call what they do as being, “in the life”, and they do not consider themselves victims. They strongly resist attempts to change their lifestyle. They come from homes where parents have stopped parenting years ago, and say that life with their “new friend” is better than what they had.
Traffickers have said that this new source of workers is easier than using foreign girls. There is no language problem, and while foreign girls resent being tricked, these youngsters have chosen the life for themselves. Often they live at home and attend high school, where other teens envy their clothes and technology gadgets (all given by their “friend” who can make $1,000 a night on them.) When a youngster does choose to leave this life, traffickers shrug and say they are easy to replace.
Another misconception has to do with traffickers themselves. Movies and TV have given us an image of the “pimp” as a man, often African American. But pimps are also women of all ages and races, and sometimes couples. Not uncommonly parents have trafficked their own children for drug money, and young women who have learned the trade as teens, branch out on their own. It is a lucrative business.
Human trafficking is real, present in all of our cities, and increasingly targeting younger and younger children. A good resource book to keep yourself updated is: Walking Prey by Holly Austin Smith.
Sr. Joel Campbell, OP member of the Trafficking Committee.