There are roughly 46 million people being trafficked to date, and that estimation continues to grow as more and more organizations focus on ending the issue of modern-day slavery. Trafficking is all around us, and though many of us like to think that it doesn’t happen in our own communities, it does. However, trafficking is a multifaceted issue, and it can be hard to know what to do or how to react when we know someone who is being trafficked.
We have this vision in our minds that all trafficking survivors are taken from one place to another, kept in locked and barred rooms and aren’t able to socialize with anyone. Sometimes that’s true, but not always. Human trafficking is defined by the Department of Homeland Security as a “form of modern-day slavery that involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of commercial sex act.” That means that anyone who is forced to engage in a commercial sexual act, whether that be through lying, violence, threats, fraud, etc. is being trafficked.
People are often trafficked by their partners or family members, and as heartbreaking as that is, it also means that we need to not limit ourselves by what we believe trafficking to be. In fact, according to Polaris, interactions with family and friends are the #1 way that trafficking survivors get help. When you become aware that someone you know is being trafficked, use these 6 things to help you navigate the situation.
1.) Don’t patronize
The media today promotes a common narrative that trafficking survivors are helpless victims who need someone to save them, but that often couldn’t be further from the truth. Certainly, each survivor’s story is different, but the idea that movies like Taken have given many people about what trafficking is and what it looks like has marginalized many survivors who suffer from a much more common narrative. Be mindful about how you view the survivor, and if you think that you have the power to save them from their problems, take a step back and examine the source of that feeling. For the most part, survivors of trafficking have grit and power that few of us can even fathom. Recognize them for the strength that they have, and don’t underestimate their ability to do what’s challenging.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. To find resources in the area, or just general information, this is a great first step. Be mindful, however, that the survivor may not be able to use their phone. If the two of you have talked about it and the survivor wants resources, you can offer to use your phone and keep track of that information for them.
If you’re ever not sure what to do, you yourself can also text or call the hotline. It’s okay to feel like a deer caught in headlights, and sometimes reaching out for your own information can help you collect your thoughts and be there for the survivor.
3.) Understand that getting out isn’t simple
It’s normal to want to protect the survivor and urge them to flee as soon as possible. However, fleeing from trafficking is much more complicated than many would think. Often, the trafficker has the survivor’s family’s information. They may control their living space, money, phone, social media, jobs, relationships, everything. For most, it’s not as simple as just walking away.
Escaping a trafficker comes with severe and immediate danger and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Often, the survivor themselves isn’t the only one in danger, either. As much as you may want them to leave, acknowledge that safety is a concern and talk about what barriers the survivor has in the way of their freedom. Pushing them to do something dangerous is only going to alienate them more, so be mindful.
4.) Don’t make what they’ve told you about you
Crying with someone can be a beautiful and healing experience. However, crying at someone will more often make them regret telling you their story. Sex trafficking is a dark, violent, violating and dehumanizing experience. The stories of those who have been trafficked are never easy to hear, but at the end of the day these are their stories. Listen with empathy, and show up for them if they decide to tell you something that happened to them. Stepping into someone else’s pain is going to hurt, but don’t make that pain about you. Though hearing about the abuse is going to be difficult, be careful not to react in such an emotional way that the focus then turns to you. Focus on the survivor and what they want to tell you without making yourself and your feelings the point of the encounter.
5.) Ask questions before you assume
There is a strong tide of survivors’ stories that flow into public view as more and more people focus on ending human trafficking, which is awesome. However, it’s important to keep in mind that no two survivors have the same story, and you can’t know what someone’s experience has been unless they tell you. Don’t assume that you know how something works or that everything in their life is because of the trafficking. If you need to know something, ask questions before you assume that you know their situation.
As you ask a question, sometimes it can help to clarify why you’re asking it. Common questions like “how did you meet him?” or “did you introduce him to your family?” can easily sound like victim-blaming. If you need to know the answer to your question, make sure the survivor knows that you just want information, not to pin the abuse onto them.
6.) Make sure they’re in control
Choice has been taken away from the trafficking survivor in such a profound way. You need to be cognizant of the fact that they need as much control as possible over what happens next. Don’t whip out your phone and call your uncle who’s a sheriff for advice. Talk to the survivor, and ask them what they need and what barriers stand in their way of safety. Making a wrong move on their behalf could easily put them in danger, so be sure to listen and make sure that they have the power to choose their next move. If they don’t know, see if you can help them work through it. If you’re both stumped, and the survivor is open, try calling the Trafficking Hotline and seeing what resources are available to determine next steps.