Putting an end to the misconceptions behind today's modern day slavery

We have seen it played out before. Young attractive girl out at night on her own, doing what every other young girl would do; laughing with her friends while walking through the city, admiring the fashion mannequin in the window as she passes by, smiling at the cute boy who returns her coy gesture. The two stop and exchange flirtations while prince handsome secretly plots his strategy of trickery on the attractive and unsuspecting young girl. Fast forward a few frames to the bold and fearless crusader fighting against all odds, pulling a few action-packed moves on the lesser skilled corrupt beings blocking the heroic adventure of saving the damsel in distress from the horror she has been thrust into unexpectedly. This scenario does not represent any one given movie or television show, but it does exhibit the misrepresentation of the very real human trafficking industry on the big, or small, screen. The entertainment industry is there to entertain; to tell an action packed story with an heroic ending that causes everyone to walk away satisfied that they got their money's worth. Unfortunately, this fine line between entertainment and reality has a way of skewing common perceptions of the very real and disturbing issue that is human trafficking; an issue that has received greater awareness due to the exhaustive efforts of activists and legislatures working tirelessly to bring an end to this issue of modern day slavery.

So what exactly is human trafficking?

Many people find themselves asking this very question as the term becomes more and more a part of our everyday language. We are all familiar with the term prostitution in conjunction with exchanging sex for money. So, in new millennial terms, now they are being trafficked? Wait, I'm confused. I thought a prostitute was the girl on the street corner, probably from a bad home life, probably supporting her drug addiction. This perception is certainly a common assumption, one that is perhaps fed by the media and entertainment industry. In some cases, these are contributing factors, but does that mean that every person with an undesirable upbringing develops a drug habit and becomes a prostitute? Certainly not. And does this also mean we discount them as victims? Absolutely not. So this is where perceptions start to break down. By examining what brought one into the arena of exchanging sex for money is where the emergence of this as an industry of modern day slavery began to develop. Human trafficking is defined as a form of modern day slavery when any adult aged 18 and over is coerced and/or manipulated into different forms of labor services (be it sexual or domestic labor) against their will. Any child under the age of 18 involved in this trade is a trafficked victim (courtesy of www.polaris.org). Before presuming any further misconceived perceptions regarding drug addictions and prostitution, we need to take a good, hard look at the realities of human trafficking.

Demanding the supply and distribution of human beings

The first thing that needs mentioning is that human trafficking is a BILLION dollar industry worldwide. Yes, that is billion, with a 'B.' While we are fighting a war against drug cartels, we are also forging a fight against a billion dollar modern day slave industry. Human trafficking is an industry that is marketable through the laws of supply and demand. Due to a high level of demand, suppliers are there to accommodate, for a nice little profit. Like any other industry, it is market-driven.

This demand is fueled by the fact that there is little reprimand for the buyer and little fear of the law on the part of the supplier. Instead, we penalize and further victimize the trafficked individual through arrests and incarceration, only to release her back into this world of fear, degradation, and extreme abuse. As a society we have only touched the surface of seeing this as an issue where there are actual victims involved. In the past, these victims were viewed and perceived as the perpetrators and the criminals, while the purchaser (a.k.a. "john") and the supplier (a.k.a. "pimp") were virtually unknown entities, unconcerned with and un-prosecuted in this triangle.

Based on this marketable concept of supply and demand, these suppliers need the product that fits the demand. Ghe human trafficking industry is just that, an industry, a business. This particular business is not going to advertise the need for its human product. So how does one go about recruiting this product? As mentioned above, by means of coercion and manipulation.

Human trafficking: Women and girls kidnapped in other countries, right?

We are all familiar with the concept of bringing victims in from other countries, and that the United States is one of the largest importers of trafficked victims. This is, at the very least, the awareness that comes into our living rooms via the mainstream media. But the larger awareness that is unfolding before us is that these individuals are being trafficked from our own neighborhoods. They are then either trafficked among the buyers and sellers while still in their own home towns, or they are trafficked from state to state. This goes against the common misconception of the girl from the far-away-country being brought into our nation by means of force. This is happening right in our own neighborhood.

Toledo, Ohio itself has been, as of lately, considered to be a major hub for human trafficking. Some consider our position as a port city resting on certain waterways as one possible reason (are they transporting individuals via boats? What is this, the 1800's?), or due to our expressway traffic (because apparently Toledo is the only city in the U.S. with this new thing called an "expressway"). Toledo has gotten its notoriety because we refuse to ignore the problem. As Dr. Celia Williamson from the University of Toledo states, "We are committed to protecting our children and creating awareness and education to 1.) Get these children out of the industry, and 2.) Prevent others from falling victim." There has also been the misrepresentation of Toledo being the 4th largest "hub" in the nation for human trafficking. This too is a misrepresentation of facts, and as Dr. Williamson also states, "Toledo is 4th in the nation of cities with an FBI task force to combat human trafficking. It exists in other cities; they just need to catch up to our efforts." Toledo is not 4th in the nation as a trafficking hub; we are 4th in combating the issue. This is certainly something to be proud of. We are not taking this issue lightly, and we are committed to keeping our kids safe.

How do we keep our girls safe?

The larger question is what is it that makes children and adults vulnerable to the human trafficking industry. Vulnerability is the key word here. It is just this attribute that traffickers will prey on. Those at highest risk are runaways; homeless; victims of past sexual assaults and/or child abuse; young girls dating older men; and those with difficulties making friends. All of these attributes leads the trafficker into psychologically manipulating his/her victim by first befriending her, then zeroing in on her biggest vulnerability and then building a trust by manipulating that vulnerability. This art of coercion and manipulation begins with preying on weaknesses and getting inside the mind of the victim in an effort to control her. Control becomes the main mechanism that traps an individual in the industry. By getting inside the individuals mind, they get inside her heart. They prey on what is most lacking in a person's life and then fulfill this need building up a complete dependence. By accommodating their victim's every need, they develop a sort of "bond" that makes the victim feel utterly dependent on their trafficker. This why so often these victims do not leave their trafficker, or seek help on their own.

The art of manipulation

The bond created between trafficker and victim develops a sort of "Stockholm syndrome" and the victim becomes the protector of the trafficker. This individual will do anything to keep her trafficker happy. The trafficker's perspective is all the victim hears, and the "establishment" becomes the enemy. Who do you think is purchasing their services? The trafficker then becomes the master of "the Game" as it is referred. Once they have total control over their victim, they can begin the process of supply, demand, and distribution. Forget the images you see on television or the big screen where the traumatized victim escapes her captor and runs into the street waving down passers-by for help, only to be "saved" and able to return and rebuild her normal life. This is pure Hollywood fiction. The individual often feels she has nowhere else to go and is made to be completely dependent on her trafficker. He will control every aspect of her life including all financial stability, where she lives, what she wears, and to whom she speaks. The manipulation takes on a life of its own with control firmly in place.

Putting an end to this violence

Many are quick to assume that drugs are the major driving force behind this control. On the contrary, drugs become a deterrent for the trafficker. Drug addictions lead to profits for drug dealers, not traffickers of an underground sex industry. Remember, this is a billion dollar sex industry. Human traffickers are not willing to lose those profits to the drug industry. We need to get past these misconceptions and open our eyes to the reality that this is in fact modern day slavery, not your Hollywood depictions of sex-for-hire. It is crucial to understand that there comes a point where these women and girls begin to do whatever it is they have to in order to survive. Once trapped in this vicious underground, it is, in their mind, impossible to get out. This is how we end up blaming the victim and ignoring the bigger picture. Only by breaking these stereotypes can we put an end to blaming and prosecuting the victims and go after the real perpetrators: the supplier, and above all THE BUYER. We simply cannot put an end to this violent and horrific crime until we pass legislation that criminalizes the buyer. Without demand, there is no need for supply.