It might be surprising that human trafficking — whether it is for labor or sex — happens in the United States, but it does.
There are a number of myths and misconceptions around what human trafficking is, but essentially it comes down to the use of force, fraud, or coercion to gain labor or commercialize sex. What does that look like in real life? One study revealed that 9 in 10 women who were trafficked experienced physical violence: being shot, strangled, burned, beaten, stabbed, or punched. Some of them had experienced all of these things. On average, girls are drawn into the sex trade at the age of 14.
Millions of men, women, and children are exploited like this around the world. So, what can be done to put a stop to this? How could someone try to prevent this from continuing?
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Lauren Hersh, the national director for World Without Exploitation, is a lawyer and was working as a prosecutor in New York City when she stumbled upon a case of human trafficking. This was 2009, and an American-born woman came in for legal services. Hersh realized the woman’s boyfriend, a trafficker, was exploiting her — that’s when she understood that there was more to this issue than a relationship gone wrong, and she wanted to learn more.
As she learned about human trafficking cases, Hersh discovered that this issue goes hand-in-hand with inequality. The vast majority of people exploited are women and girls of color who are poor. They are being purchased mostly by men who have disposable income and are white. As Hersh spent more time working on these cases, she wanted to involve more men, not indict them, and work together to combat this issue.
“Trafficking is the intersection of gender, racial, and economic inequality,” said Erin Regan, a high school teacher in New York City who decided to volunteer to reduce trafficking. “When we look at who is affected by this issue, we see young women and girls of color who are living in poverty,” Regan said. “We also just see people who are vulnerable in general — those who have suffered sexual abuse, those who feel alienated from their family.
She began learning about the issue of trafficking when she was teaching a class on social justice and invited an alumna to discuss her experience working for the government. “It felt, as corny as it sounds, like a calling right when I learned about it,” Regan said. “I knew education was the best prevention.” She began volunteering with Lifeway Network, which raises awareness about this issue and provides safe housing for women who have been trafficked.
Hersh finds that people who are jumping into this issue to help often want to work with survivors. But it’s important to remember that survivors are people who have experienced trauma, she said. Well-intentioned people might not be trained to give the help they need, and can actually do harm.
Instead, she said that a good way to start getting involved is to be an advocate and raise awareness about the issue. Another way to contribute is to donate goods. Many survivors of human trafficking need clothing, tampons, and other non-glamorous items. They need money for scholarships to create opportunities, or funds for leadership and professional opportunities. Start by finding an organization helping victims and survivors and then find out what they need.
Hersh says that one key lesson she has learned in her work is to listen to the voices of survivors. She doesn’t just mean listening to their stories, but also their opinions on legislation and policy. They've lived through this, Hersh said, and they know the situation the best.
One experience impacted Hersh strongly: she was working with a woman who seemed to have no hope to break free from exploitation. Hersh said this woman was “so hooked in so many ways with her trafficker, and ended up being relocated.” From the outside, the situation seems simple: someone who is vulnerable should find safety. But for the people on the inside, it’s not that easy. From their vantage point, it’s difficult to see a way out.
If human trafficking is an issue you care about and one you’d like to get involved in, start by looking in your local community. Find the organizations in your area by consulting the National Human Trafficking Hotline. You can also find more suggestions from the U.S. Department of State. As you get involved, attend to Hersh’s advice: listen, advocate, give what you can to help.