Thursday, January 26, 2017

What Are We Outraged About?

Deborah Gibbs recently wrote a compelling opinion piece for The Hill in honor of Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Gibbs reminds us that U.S. law defines trafficking as labor, or the exchange of sexual acts, for something of value - under the conditions of force, fraud, or coercion. "Trafficking" refers to the act of buying and selling, not the crossing of state or national boundaries. And if the trafficking involves minors under the age of 18, force, fraud and coercion are not necessary.

The victims of human trafficking come from a variety of backgrounds but common underlying factors of vulnerability include:

  • poverty and the inability to access basic needs;
  • history of abuse and neglect; and
  • absence of emotional and practical support.
Within the U.S.A., studies show that childhood maltreatment, sexual abuse, poverty and gender nonconformity are overwhelmingly common among identified trafficking victims.

Gibbs argues that if we are outraged about human trafficking, we should be outraged at the conditions that make people vulnerable to it. Gibbs calls on us to mobilize against the underlying causes of trafficking - poverty, discrimination, and the gaping holes in the U.S. domestic safety net. We should focus on causes of trafficking and not just symptoms or effects alone. She suggests that we honor survivors best when we advocate for resources that meet basic human needs for safety, well-being, self-sufficiency, and social-connectedness.

Take Action: How can your work or advocacy help t address one of the common underlying factors of human trafficking?

Deborah Gibbs is a senior social policy analyst in the Violence and Victimization Research Program at RTI International. She has more than 30 years of experience leading studies related to child welfare, violence against women, and children’s health, including several studies addressing domestic human trafficking.  Questions about this post? Email

Friday, January 20, 2017

Managing Myths

January is human trafficking awareness month. In recognition, we are re-posting our 3 part series on human trafficking myths that are frequently stated but always wrong. This is final post of this series.

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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Statistical Shortcomings: How Our Bad Data Hurts Victims

January is human trafficking awareness month. In recognition, we are re-posting our 3 part series on human trafficking myths that are frequently stated but always wrong. This is part 2. See part 1 - posted on Monday - and look for part 3 on Friday.

"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.

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 traffickingThe 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.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Are you spreading Myths or Facts?

January is human trafficking awareness month. In recognition, we are re-posting our 3 part series on myths about human trafficking that are frequently stated but always wrong.

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

Myth #1: Human Trafficking = Sex Trafficking

Truth: The phrases "human trafficking" and "sex trafficking" are not synonyms. When you use them synonyms 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." 

TruthAll 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.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

TraffickCam App: New Tool for ALL of US to Fight Human Sex Trafficking!

TraffickCam is an innovative free app that is designed so that anyone with a smart phone can join the fight against human sex trafficking. All one needs to do is upload pictures of their hotel room (no people!) and leave the rest to TraffickCam and law enforcement.

Hotels are often venues for commercial sex trade, too many times involving minors. Traffickers often post pictures of their victims posing in hotel rooms for advertising. These photos can be used to help find the victims as well as for evidence against the perpetrator if police can find where the pictures were taken from.

TraffickCam is a free app designed to help law enforcement in this fight. It can be downloaded for free onto any smart phone. From there, the public is asked to upload four pictures of their hotel room at various angles according to instructions, as well as the name and room number of the hotel. No personal information is collected.

The app verifies the location with GPS and adds the photos to a very large database of hotel images. Features of the room are converted into a series of data points that can be matched to online photos advertising sex trafficking using image analysis technology.

So far, the app has been downloaded over 90,000 times! There are over 150,000 hotels in the database including over 1.6 million photos. Let's all do our part and help law enforcement.  With this app, help requires very little effort and potential rewards are great.

Take Action: Download TraffickCam for Adroid devices at Google Play. Download TraffickCam for iPhone and iPad at the App Store.

Next time you stay at a hotel, use the app to take and submit photos to law enforcement to help fight sex trafficking.