Understanding human trafficking
While every situation is unique, traffickers tend to follow patterns. Understanding “typical” trafficking scenarios can help to spark ideas about stories to tell that are both realistic and powerful.
The human trafficking story arc
Unlike murder, or robbery, human trafficking is not a single event that happens at one specific moment in time. Trafficking occurs through a series of activities that take place over time, throughout the course of a day, for months or even years.
Like any traditional, linear narrative, the story of every sex and labor situation has a beginning, a middle and – we hope – an end. The beginning and middle tend to follow fairly common patterns. How trafficking ends is as unique as the resilient survivors who manage to find their ways to freedom.
“One thing I find hard to take is language or pictures or stories about ‘innocence lost.’ I feel like that means some victims are worthwhile and some are ‘guilty.’”
– A survivor of human trafficking
Recruitment: Human trafficking victims are rarely picked at random. They are targeted for vulnerabilities that make them susceptible to the enticement the trafficker has to offer. That enticement depends on the type of trafficking and the victim.
Grooming: Victims are manipulated slowly and expertly until something they would never ordinarily do or accept becomes something that feels normal and even necessary.
Trafficking, coercion and control: The methods traffickers use to control victims may include violence, but
often do not. Instead, labor trafficking victims are controlled through threats (like the threat of deportation) or economic abuse, such as wage theft and debt bondage. In sex trafficking situations, coercion and control is often a toxic cocktail of violence, confused loyalty, economic or physical need, love, manipulation and abuse.
Exit and healing: While there are organizations that claim to “rescue” human trafficking victims, the reality is that adult survivors rescue themselves. That process generally takes place over time as the person in the situation begins to recognize that they want to change the way they are living, or that they are in an abusive job or relationship. Sometimes they seek help and services, and sometimes they make their own ways toward freedom.
Who gets trafficked and why
If you’ve done any research at all on human trafficking, chances are you have run into one of two ubiquitous tag lines or tropes:
“Human trafficking: It can happen to anyone.”
“Human trafficking is happening right here, in our own backyards.”
These phrases were coined at a time when the concept of human trafficking happening in the United States – as opposed to in faraway countries – was new and surprising.
And technically, it is true that anyone can be a victim of human trafficking. But these phrases are also a little misleading because in reality, certain individuals and communities are far more vulnerable than others.
That’s because human trafficking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It is the end result of a range of other persistent injustices and inequities in our society and our economy.
Traffickers recruit victims by offering them something they desperately want or need. Sometimes that’s a job. Sometimes it’s love, a safe place to sleep or a sense of belonging and community. So it makes sense that there is more trafficking in communities where needs are greater.
Data shows that the vast majority of trafficking victims identified in the United States are people who have historically faced discrimination and its political, social and economic consequences: People of color, indigenous communities, immigrants and people who identify as LGBTQ+ are disproportionately victimized. People living in poverty, or foster care, or who are struggling with addiction, trauma, abuse or unstable housing, are all at a higher risk for trafficking.
So is human trafficking happening right here, in our backyards? Well it really depends on what else is in your backyard!