The horrors of human trafficking are no secret. We often hear stories about children stolen from the street and vulnerable young adults manipulated into sex trafficking abroad. While we rage against the injustices in other countries, we don’t realize that it’s occurring in our own backyard. Recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein have brought sexual violence once again into the public eye, but how many trafficking victims are exploited without anyone knowing? According to the Human Trafficking Hotline, a national advocacy group, 7,572 reports of human trafficking were received in the U.S. in 2016. Of those victims, 5,551 were sex workers and 2,387 were under the age of 18.
One of the largest and most hidden barriers for victims of human trafficking is the social stigma attached to them. Consider for instance, the term “teen prostitute”. Images of short skirts, heavy makeup, and bad attitude are probably what you thought of. Whereas “human trafficking victim” conjures an image of innocence, vulnerability, and coercion. Which do you think is more apt to induce sympathy? What you may not realize is that more often than not, these are one and the same. Juvenile sentences can follow victims into adulthood, making it difficult to find jobs, receive federal aid, and move past their victimization. It’s no wonder victims don’t come forward for fear of prosecution and social labelling.
Often, it becomes the victim’s fault for not speaking out. Italian actress Asia Argento, recently spoke out against Harvey Weinstein. She recalls that while at the age of 22, the 45-year-old director forced himself on her. Despite the numerus allegations against Weinstein, the backlash against Argento in her home country has forced her to move from Italy to Germany. Critics of Argento claim that the lack of physical harm must mean that the sex was consensual. Others claim that she is simply attempting to justify using sex has a means of advancing her career, while some blame her for not speaking out earlier. But we aren’t exactly more enlightened in the U.S. We rationalize the violence by saying “if they really were in danger, they would have sought help” without considering the ramifications if turned away. Victims fear retaliation from their traffickers, prosecution under the law, and disbelief from society. Those who are trafficked into the United States from foreign countries have the added burden of deportation in addition to prosecution.
Underage victims are often arrested and charged without being offered the resources that are offered to traditional victims. For instance, Tina Frundt, was first lured into trafficking at the age of 14. At 15 she was arrested, charged with prostitution, and sent to a juvenile detention facility in Illinois. Ms. Frundt would later become the founder of Courtney’s House, an organization designed to help child victims of human trafficking.
However not all victims enter success post-arrest, and for many it will impact them for the rest of their lives.
For the majority of the victims, there is opposition at every turn. However, a bill recently passed in California gives hope. Designed to halt the branding of children caught in the sex industry, the bill decriminalizes underage prostitution. Rather than forcing victims through the juvenile justice system, labeling them as criminals and leaving them subject to prosecution, they will be referred to social services. The lawmakers who passed the bill explain that it is necessary because it stops the act of blaming and punishing victims for their situation. While this bill is designed to help end the criminalization of victims, many are still calling for harsher laws.
State Assemblyman Travis Allen has vowed to repeal the bill. According to an editorial published by California’s Orange County Register, Allen claims that by decriminalizing underage prostitution, California legalized it. Allen’s claim, however, is factually incorrect and it reinforces all the wrong ideas. Laws like this are in place for the well-being of the minor. It’s been proven time and again that putting underage victims through the juvenile court system does more harm than good. By decriminalizing underage prostitution, they are not subject to prosecution. Allen goes on to state “So teenage girls (and boys) in California will soon be free to have sex in exchange for money without fear of arrest or prosecution”. Others who share Allen’s opinion do not understand the situations surrounding victims. With movements like this one, it’s no secret that misconceptions concerning sex trafficking run rampant in our society.
It is easy to see why victim-blaming has been a part of our society. Violence makes us uncomfortable and threatens our belief in a just world. As Dr. Juliana Breines at the University of Rhode Island puts it, “The more innocent a victim, the more threatening they are. Victims threaten our sense that the world is a safe and moral place, where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people”. When it comes to human sex trafficking, names like “whore”, “slut”, and “prostitute” contribute to victim blaming by insinuating that their suffering is their own doing. We see this trend in cases such as Asia Argento and Brock Turner. Attempts to justify the actions of the perpetrator undermine the experiences of the victims. As seen in Argento’s case, critics can even turn the tables, placing blame squarely on the shoulders of the victim. In the impact statement written by the victim in the Stanford rape case, she explains how Brock Turner is described as being a great swimmer, rather than by the heinous act he committed. She explains how rather than healing, she had been forced to relive the event over and over by the prosecution and police, a behavior known as “secondary victimization”. It is no wonder victims do not come forward, especially those of human trafficking.
Myths and misconceptions regarading victims are deeply entrenched in our society. In an article published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, University of Tulsa researchers tested the belief of human trafficking myths and the degree of blame placed on the victim. Researchers used a vignette of the following scenario:
“At 13 years of age, Jessie ran away from home to get away from an abusive father. Within a couple of days, Jessie was befriended by a man who said he would take care of Jessie. Jessie had sex with him in exchange for shelter, food, and clothing. The man said he would keep Jessie safe, but soon he began to make Jessie do sexual acts with other people for money.”
The 409 participants were then asked two questions, one regarding the believability of the event and the other regarding the degree of responsibly Jessie had for the situation. They rated each question on a scale of one to six, with one being definitely not responsible and six being definitely responsible. The participants then rated 17 human trafficking myths (all verified by a human trafficking expert) on a scale of one to six, with one being definitely false and six being definitely true. the third part of the experiment consisted of 12 questions regarding any sexual trauma that had been experienced by the participant.
The researchers found that on average, participants viewed the victim as not responsible for being trafficked, but 31% attributed some blame to Jessie. On the human trafficking myths, 36.5% had a mean score of 4 or higher, meaning that they had some belief in the misinformation. It was also found that men scored lower on belief and higher on victim blame and myth acceptance than women. Sexual trauma history, however, did not make a significance difference. The researchers speculate that the difference in scores among the sexes is due to male roles in society and the fact that women are more often victims of sexual abuse. It is the “heightened awareness of potential victimization” that leads women to be more willing to believe stories of abuse.
Breines goes on to explain that while it’s natural to try to rationalize the suffering of others, we must fight the impulse and instead recognize that our actions can help reduce suffering. Organizations such as Shared Hope International and Polaris Project work to educate the public on how our actions can make or break a victim while providing resources to those looking the escape their traffickers. While organizations like these seek to make a difference, we must first look inward and change how we view victims before we can truly help those who need it most.
About the author: Zoe Giller is a third-year criminology student at George Mason University.