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Awareness vs. Understanding of Human Trafficking

Twenty years ago next month, when Polaris first opened its doors, human trafficking had only officially been a crime in this country for about a year. Creating awareness was an urgent undertaking. This year, Polaris celebrates two decades of building a movement and a world where the powerful cannot so easily exploit the vulnerable for profit. Today, we see a new urgency around awareness. It is more important than ever before to move past the myths, stereotypes, and unfounded fears that feed panics and conspiracy theories, which manifest in real harm to victims and survivors and fueled an unprecedented attack on our nation’s Capitol. Instead, we need to replace those dangerous myths with a deeper understanding of how human trafficking actually happens – and to whom – so we can craft policies that prevent the crime before it happens. That’s why we created this training.

Twenty years ago, the most urgent task in awareness was helping law enforcement shift their view of people in the sex trades to see them not as criminals but as people, and as potential victims. At the same time, policymakers had to be shown the magnitude of labor abuse and exploitation still happening in this country – decades after the era many thought belonged in history books with pictures of factories on fire and waifish child laborers.

Perhaps most importantly, people in general – from all walks of life and from all our diverse and intersectional communities – had to know so that people would care, and would make their voices heard. And so efforts like “Human Trafficking Awareness Day” were born, so that we could build and resource a movement to end this horrific abuse and support those who had fought their way through it – and come out as survivors on the other side.

It worked. People became aware and then they became horrified and then they wanted to know how to help. They too were asked to spread awareness, to help build the critical mass required to tackle a difficult, complex problem.

There is still work to be done, of course. We need to reach every, single, law enforcement agency in the country to provide them with the tools they need to prosecute traffickers. We need to reach more policymakers to help them understand how to prevent trafficking in the first place within the communities they serve.

And we need, urgently, to reach out to the public once again, to move past awareness, to a deeper understanding of how trafficking really happens and who it happens to. We need to replace simple awareness with meaningful understanding because we are tired of the slow pace of change. We must shift from smaller-scale individual response strategies to mass prevention strategies, like investment in safe, decent, affordable housing; a foster care system that actually provides children in need with stable, loving homes, equitable economic and criminal justice policies, and an end to gender-based violence.

But before the public can understand the complexity of this, we have to help undo some of the unintended consequences of all those early awareness campaigns: mythology, misunderstanding and misinformation. These errors spread through increasing awareness in much the same way as the end result of a game of telephone – where one child whispers something to another, who whispers what they heard to the next, and so on. What comes out at the end sounds like nothing the original speaker intended.

And so we have myths, spreading through the internet, about children being sold through complex schemes, shipped in overpriced file cabinets or preyed upon by a secretive cabal run by political operatives and Hollywood stars who are both pedophiles and cannibals.

These myths have real world consequences. Resources like the National Human Trafficking Hotline, like local police departments, like survivor-led, local organizations, are flooded with false reports. Responding thoughtfully takes a huge toll on the ability to serve others in the community who are either being trafficked or need assistance once they break themselves free.

These reports also mislead policymakers into believing in and supporting solutions that bear little relationship to the problem. For example, misinformation about the role of unauthorized border crossing and human trafficking is leading some in Congress to call for physical barriers between Mexico and the United States, though data shows most immigrant trafficking victims in the United States arrive through legal ports of entry.

During National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, to celebrate our 20th anniversary, we are asking you to join us in moving past awareness, to true understanding. Take this short training, become a myth buster in your community, share it with your friends, your colleagues, those you worship with, learn and volunteer with. We need you now more than ever.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.