Thursday, May 26, 2016

Dangerous Myths that Misrepresent

This post is the third in a 3 part series that seeks to dispel some common myths about human trafficking that are frequently stated but always wrong.

Myth #7: Average Age of Entry into the Sex Trade

It is often repeated that the average age of entry into the sex trade for girls is between 12-14 years of age.

Truth: There is no nationally representative, comprehensive sample of sex trafficking victims. That means that we cannot know the average age of entry into the trade.

So where does this data come from?

The origin of this statistic is from a 2001 University of Pennsylvania Study led by Dr. Richard Estes who did a comparative study of child sexual exploitation in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Only juveniles were surveyed in this study, not all sex trafficking victims. This means that it can't measure the average age of entry into the sex trade - just the average among the children in his study. Even Dr. Estes warns against drawing conclusions based on his findings stating, "Any numbers you come across, even mine, represent best estimates of the situation. Because of the secretive and hidden nature of the problem it simply is not possible to get an accurate "head count". 

The truth is that sex trafficking victims include boys and girls, women and men. Victims can be younger than age 12 and can also be adults. A 35 year old victim is as much a victim as a 13 year old. Victims are targeted due to their vulnerability, not their age.

Myth #8: Success = Criminal Prosecution

Truth: Many cases of human trafficking (labor and sex trafficking) are not prosecuted and some prosecutions are actually harmful to victims. The top priority should be to support the victims, then pursue the traffickers. What the police know and what the prosecutor can prove in court are two separate things. There are many different ways to measure success and criminal prosecution is not the only way. When we use that word we must be clear about what it means, as successful prosecution of a trafficker can be the result of a victim being threatened with jail or forced to participate in something he or she does not want to.

Myth #9: Sexual Assault only happens in Sex Trafficking Cases

Truth: Many labor trafficking victims are sexually assaulted and harassed. When sexual assaults occur we need to use that language - in all human trafficking cases, but especially in those cases involving commercial sex.

Myth #10: Super Bowl = More Sex Trafficking

Truth: There is little to no evidence to support the claim that sex trafficking spikes during the Super Bowl. We do not have baseline data on any city's level of sex trafficking; and if we don't know the prevalence of sex trafficking in a community, we cannot measure a "spike" in trafficking. The problem with this myth is that it feeds into a dangerous ideology that sex trafficking is only a problem on certain days in a community, and that buyers of sex aren't our neighbors and friends but rather outsiders that come into our community.  

The truth is that people we know buy sex and that sex and labor trafficking are daily problems in communities across the United States. 

We need to fight human trafficking all 365 days of the year - focusing on one day, takes the focus off of the other 364 days of human trafficking.

Take Action:

  • Now that you know these myths be sure that you don't perpetuate them.
  • Share these myths with other caring individuals who are working to fight human trafficking.
  • Get acquainted with the "Perfect Victim" and other myths and "Statistical Shortcomings: Bad Data Hurts Victims".

This blog was written by Carrie Booth Walling (MHTTF) based on the work of Bridgette Carr, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Michigan Law School's Human Trafficking Clinic.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Statistical Shortcomings: Our Bad Data Hurts Victims

"Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better do better." 
                                                 - Maya Angelou

These words by poet Maya Angelou should be a source of inspiration for the anti-trafficking movement. While we have tried to convey the importance of human trafficking using statistics and numbers, the truth is that we do not have reliable data to support many of the "conventional wisdoms" that have developed about human trafficking.

This post is the second of a 3 part series that seeks to dispel some common myths about human trafficking that are frequently stated but always wrong.

Myth #4: We Know the Global Prevalence of Human Trafficking

Everywhere we turn we see a different statistic about the prevalence of human trafficking globally. As just a sample, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated in 2009 that 4 million people are trafficked each year. Kevin Bales, author of several books on human trafficking, estimated in 2011 that the number was closer to 27 million. The International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2015 estimated the number of people engaged in forced labor to be 21 million. The U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP) relies on ILO data and is generally assumed to be the most accurate data available - but it is still flawed.

Truth: The truth is that we don't know how many people are being trafficked globally. The data just doesn't exist so it is impossible to count data that we do not have. If we don't have underlying baseline data, then we can't say much else about local prevalence, hot spots or hubs either. Bottom line: we know that human trafficking is common and occurs in all countries throughout the world. Isn't that enough?

Myth #5: We are a "Hub" for Human Trafficking or We Rank #3 in the Nation

We've all read the statistics: "Houston ranks No. 1 among U.S. cities for human trafficking," "Chicago is a national hub of human trafficking," "Michigan ranks third in the country for human trafficking," "The I-75 corridor is a hub for human trafficking."

Truth: The truth is that we don't know how many people are being trafficked in the United States. Currently, we do not have a systematic way to count human trafficking cases. There are no reliable rankings of U.S. cities. Frequently, rankings come from the number of total calls made to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center tip line or from measuring recovery rates from sporadic law enforcement actions. The problem is that we know that this crime is severely under reported. We cannot rely on calls to tip lines or successful FBI raids to determine the size and location of the problem. 

What we do know is that human trafficking is a problem in every state and every city in the United States. We also know that human trafficking is a problem in the suburbs and rural communities as well. Focusing on "hubs" perpetuates the dangerous myth that it is a big city problem, or that it happens elsewhere and not in the community that I am living in.

Myth #6: We Know the Economic Impact

You may have read that human trafficking is the third most profitable business for organized crime or that it is the second most profitable form of organized  criminal activity alongside drug trafficking and arms dealing.

Truth: The truth is that the economic impact of human trafficking is unknown. If we don't have data on prevalence, we can't have data on profits. Organizations who used to rely on economic impact data have started to shy away from using it based on its unreliability. 

What we do know is that human trafficking is a profitable business for traffickers with low start-up costs, an unlimited supply of vulnerable human beings to exploit, a strong consumer demand to purchase human beings, and high profit margins for traffickers who sell and resell their "human product" numerous times.

We don't need mythical numbers to convey the importance of human trafficking. The purchase and sale of human beings is wrong. Every life is valuable and the trafficking of a single person is serious enough to warrant our action.

Take Action: 

  • Now that you know the myths be sure that you don't perpetuate them. 
  • Share these myths with other caring individuals who are working to fight human trafficking. This means correcting the record when you hear myths repeated.
  • Get acquainted with the "Perfect Victim" and other myths from part 1 of the series.

This blog was written by Carrie Booth Walling (MHTTF) based on the research of Bridgette Carr, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Michigan Law School's Human Trafficking Clinic.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The "Perfect Victim" and Other Myths

When we know better we do better. When we perpetuate myths about human trafficking we harm victims.  

This post is the first in a 3 part series that seeks to dispel some common myths about human trafficking that are frequently stated but always wrong.

Myth #1: Human Trafficking = Sex Trafficking

Truth: The phrases "human trafficking" and "sex trafficking" are not synonyms. When you use them synonymously you make labor trafficking victims invisible.  Human Trafficking can take different forms including labor trafficking and/or sex trafficking.

At its core, human trafficking is a form of compelled service. It is the use of force, fraud or coercion to control one person by another. It may entail physical or psychological violence. It may include hard or dangerous labor for little or no pay; and it involves economic exploitation - traffickers profit off of victims.

Myth #2: The "Perfect" Victim

It is a myth that there is such a thing as a "perfect" victim. The myth suggests that real victims always accept help, don't return to their traffickers, and will quickly recognize us as their rescuers. This myth is dangerous because it suggests that victims who don't fit this profile are not real victims, that they made a choice. By continuing to hold this myth, we re-victimize victims by telling them "you are only a victim when you do what we want you to do." 

Truth: All individuals who have been compelled into service are victims. This includes minors in the sex industry and individuals who were forced, coerced or fraudulently tricked to provide labor or sexual services. By definition, victims have been exploited, and it is this exploitation that makes them victims, not their behavior during the exploitation or after. Further, when children are exploited there is never any possibility of consent.

Myth #3: "Our" kids are taken from malls and movie theaters

What do we signal when we add the modifier "our" before kids? Don't ALL children have the right to be safe and free? Don't use "our" carelessly when you talk about kids. It suggests that some kids are not ours. Movie theaters and malls are not uniquely hotbeds of human trafficking and most victims are not kidnapped from public spaces. This idea perpetuates sensationalist media myths and also encourages the "perfect victim" narrative above.

Truth: This does not mean that child trafficking is not a problem. It is a problem that minors are being exploited for labor and sold for sex. We just need real facts and there is no nationally representative, comprehensive sample of what victims look like. Traffickers prey on vulnerability in their victims. These vulnerabilities cross barriers of age, race, sex, class, gender, ethnicity, religion and nationality, as well as other differences. Kids can be victimized by people they know, who pretend to love them and who promise them a better life.

The bottom line about human trafficking is really quite simple: It is wrong to buy people and it is wrong to sell people. We just don't do it and no one should. Anyone who is bought, sold or exploited is a victim. All victims have human dignity and deserve our care, help and respect.

TAKE ACTION: Now that you know these myths, be sure that you don't perpetuate them.  Share these myths with other caring individuals who are working to fight human trafficking.

This blog was written by Carrie Booth Walling (MHTTF) based on the work of Bridgette Carr, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the University of Michigan Law School's Human Trafficking Clinic.

Monday, May 9, 2016

We Have the Power to Break the Chain


BREAK THE CHAIN  is a feature-length documentary film that addresses the often "hidden-in-plain-sight" issue of Human Trafficking within Michigan communities and the United States.  The film chronicles two survivors of Human Trafficking within Michigan communities - providing a detailed look at how trafficking goes unnoticed within our backyards.  Kwami, a child survivor of Labor Trafficking, was enslaved for nearly five years with three other children in Ypsilanti, Michigan before anyone noticed.  Debbie, a survivor of Sex Trafficking, takes us through her experience of being sold for sex around the Detroit-Area between the ages of 13 and 18.

Accompanying the stories of these survivors are nearly 20 interviews with researchers, Senators, non-profit organizations, legal service agencies, law enforcement officers and several artists actively working to raise awareness for this global issue. The film teaches us that what we see in the media about human trafficking is one small sensationalized form - that it occurs anywhere and everywhere within our world.  More importantly, viewers will learn how we are all connected to this extremely profitable business and that we have the power to choose what we support, and ultimately, how we break the chain.


We are a different kind of film.  BREAK THE CHAIN is being developed for the sole purpose of education, awareness and providing a valuable resource for the non-profits, shelters and law enforcement agencies that work to end human trafficking every day.  At it's very core, this is a community film project - we are working directly with so many different organizations and task forces to create a film that is desperately needed for the Human Trafficking community.


 I think I have a knack for subjects that may be incredibly difficult to address or are often misrepresented, and I enjoy the challenge that is using film as a vessel for creating appropriate public discourse.  As I began to think about what my next documentary could be in 2014, I started seeing bits and pieces of “human trafficking” related information popping up in my news stream.  I was honestly confused at first because I thought this was an issue to be discussed regarding other countries such as India, but the articles were talking about trafficking occurring in Lansing, MI.  Reflecting on everything I had ever learned through our current streams of information, I realized I had never seen a film really showcasing Human Trafficking on a local US level and that I really had no clue what human trafficking was myself.  This may sound bizarre, but I could just sense that the same misconceptions surrounding the topic of sexual assault extended to human trafficking as well and I really wanted to learn more about the issue.  I don’t think I ever went back to the drawing board to hash out other possibilities for a documentary, I just zoned in on this.

Of course, when researching this issue within Michigan the first name I came across was Jane White - the director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.  I reached out to set up a meeting with her about the possibility of collaborating on a film, and shortly after that email I was sitting across from her at Hobies in East Lansing eating cheetos.  We spent two or three hours at that place and I learned all about the incredibly complex and exploited issue of human trafficking within our world.  I also learned about how difficult it is for many organizations and survivors to trust filmmakers and the media with this topic because so many often misrepresent the issue and do more harm than good.  That’s when the overall idea for Break the Chain really started to settle in my mind - a documentary that tries its best to accurately spread awareness for the issue of human trafficking, to break the real chain. 

Laura Swanson is a documentary film director and is Co-Director of the Documentary, Break the Chain.