The Day My Soapbox Burst into Flames

Anybody who has talked to me for five minutes or who has read any of my social media posts knows that I have a serious issue with human trafficking. Many people think human trafficking involves transporting people across borders (or continents). They also think it’s a “big city” problem (meaning it doesn’t happen here, only there).

Just so we’re all on the same page, human trafficking involves three elements: the act (e.g., recruiting, transporting, harboring, and/or receiving a person), the means (e.g., via threats, coercion, abduction, fraud, and/or deception), and the purpose (e.g., [sexual] exploitation, forced labor, slavery, and/or organ harvesting). Notice that crossing geographic boundaries is not a requirement for human trafficking. Kidnapping is not the only way to traffic another human being. In fact, it is becoming increasingly common for “friends” and “loved ones” to coerce individuals, through shaming or guilt, to engage in sexual acts for money. This is human trafficking.

I read a lot of articles and books about human trafficking because I’m curious about both the perpetrators and the victims. I’m curious about their mindset and how they end up in a trafficking situation. I’ve never met anyone who woke up one day and said, “hey, I wanna be a trafficker/be trafficked.” But the more I read about trafficking in general, the more red flags I see in everyday society.

Our society has become a place where earning someone’s love defines an individual’s success. We apparently can’t be happy unless we are in a loving marriage that is producing offspring — at least, that’s what all the media tell us. And it’s not just the media. If a woman tells her friends that she doesn’t want to have children, the immediate reaction is that she hasn’t met the right person yet or she will once she’s actually pregnant (or a billion other platitudes that basically tell the woman to ignore her own feelings and wishes and follow what society deems is the “right” path). A person who doesn’t ever get married in life? Well, you know, there must be something wrong with that person…

Don’t even get me started on sitcoms, where challenging, potentially life-altering issues are wrapped up in nice 30-minute packages, and the characters are never so stubborn/wrong that they won’t give in at least a teeny tiny bit — or be respectful in how they treat others who disagree. I have a horrible tendency of laughing during those poignant moments on the television when two characters embroiled in an argument are able to (a) speak honestly about the situation and their own perceptions, getting right to the heart of the matter (I mean, come on…is anyone really that self-aware without professional help?); (b) recognize that the other person, as a living, breathing human, has a brain that works and feelings that are relevant even when they completely contradict what their friend might be thinking and feeling; and (c) come to some sort of resolution that both people can live with and that doesn’t empower one over the other.

Is life really like that?

We’re bombarded with visuals and stories about how people in love are happy, healthy, and meaningful while perpetually single people are flawed in some way — a rake, a cad, (overly) focused on their career, damaged, immature, selfish…. Somehow we’ve equated being alone with being lonely, which is apparently an egregious sin because people “choose” to be lonely.

So if we’re telling everybody that being alone is bad, that it makes you some kind of bad person, then the idea is that we’ve got to be with someone (anyone!) to be “good.” And here is where the coercion comes into play in human trafficking. Anybody who knows history should understand how easy it is to manipulate human beings into doing something truly heinous, even when the entire world is watching (anyone remember the Nazis and their concentration camps?). So imagine how easy it is coerce someone into doing something that isn’t “really” hurting anybody (it’s just sex, right?) when no one is watching. Now imagine that the individual being coerced is an insecure teenager (and really, what teenager isn’t insecure?!).

The fact is that human trafficking (and here I am focusing on sex trafficking) is far more prevalent than you might expect. It’s not all dark alleys or hidden, underground brothels. It’s husbands selling their wives for a night or two to pay for rent this month, parents selling a child so they can get food on the table this month, friends selling friends so they have extra spending cash. There is, of course, a whole world of underground brothels that makes billions of dollars every year (tax free) and is expected to surpass the illegal drug and gun trade at any minute because, unlike with guns and drugs, the human product can be sold and resold millions of times. But there is also an entire world of people who are selling their friends and loved ones in order to pay the bills or buy the latest gaming console or upgrade to a new car. And it’s not just poor people in the big city resorting to trafficking. Recent police records indicate that small towns and rural areas are becoming incubators for trafficking because no one in these areas expects trafficking to be happening in their backyards, police forces are horribly understaffed/underfunded, and jobs might be scarce.

The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14; boys and transgender youth enter into prostitution between the ages of 11 and 13 on average.

So why don’t the people being trafficked just quit? There are many, many reasons (far too many for a simple blog post). They may not understand that they are being trafficked. They might think they are helping out: By sleeping with their partner’s “friends,” their partner doesn’t have to resort to stealing or worse to get the bills paid. Plus, remember, being in a relationship is better than being single (the whole world says so). The trafficked person is likely threatened or removed from all support systems that could help them escape. Our systems are also set up to penalize the trafficked victims. A sixteen-year-old who goes to a police station and says he/she is being prostituted out by another person is more likely to be arrested for prostitution than offered help in escaping (there has been a big push to change this, but it is happening slowly).

Plus there are all of society’s perceptions: A teenage girl with a significantly older man? Oh sure, she knows what she’s doing. Just look at the short skirts she’s wearing or the cleavage-showing shirt (the only clothes fashion houses are marking for her). She can’t be 100% innocent in the situation. These days teenagers know all about sex and how to wield that power…

Bullshit.

The average age of victims of trafficking/prostitution is twelve to fourteen for girls and eleven to thirteen for boys and transgender youth. Federal law says that coercing/inducing anyone under the age of eighteen to engage in sex is trafficking, but state laws vary on the age, with many being around sixteen. So even if a fifteen-year-old “knows what he/she is doing,” it’s still against the law (and I have yet to meet a teenager who understands the full ramifications of a sexual relationship…hell, I haven’t met many 40-year-olds who understand it either).

I know, I know. My soapbox just burst into flames. I told you, I have a serious issue with human trafficking — and it’s not so much with the act of trafficking (because I think we can all agree that it is wrong), but with how we are dealing (or not!) with trafficking. Ignoring the problem, dismissing it as something that happens “over there,” penalizing the victims, and blaming the victims won’t stop the millions of people from being trafficked in the world. Education and awareness are the first step.

This blog post was inspired by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch, who challenged writers to create “a story in 99 words (no more, no less) that expresses a strong concern, something to give a crap about. Something that brings out the feeling to stand up.”

Hidden

The officer pressed her thumb against the cardstock. “Fourteen and a prostitute.” He shook his head and inked her other fingers.

She gave him a practiced bored look.

“My little girl dreams of having babies with Prince Charming in a pink castle.” He flicked a sidelong glance at her. “Who wants damaged goods?”

“A whole lotta men wanted me last week.” She snatched his only offering, a moistened towelette. The black ink smeared, creating shadows on her fingertips.

“Bet your parents are proud.”

She snorted. She’d endured so much worse than shame. “They’re pissed they didn’t sell me sooner.”

 

Resources for more information:

Blue Campaign

National Human Trafficking Hotline

Information for Healthcare Providers

Comments

  • Great post, C. Jai. People have a hard time talking about this, because it involves SEX and as soon as you use the word SEX, people whip out their… judgmental attitude. Good thoughts, shocking mini-story. Glad to hear from you, and the flames didn’t singe me at all. Burn, baby, burn.

    Kelly WurthJanuary 16, 2017
    • You make me laugh, lady. And you’re absolutely right: darn judgmental attitudes. Thanks for stopping by and reading 🙂

      C. JaiJanuary 16, 2017
  • A magnificent flame, your soap box! I follow many of the trafficking articles you post and at first I was thinking it all had to do with the Bakken fields and the same pattern that follows boom-and-bust cycles in the west. But you explain so much more, and with the economic disparity growing in the US, I fear we are going to see an expansion of trafficking. Keep the soap box burning on this one.

    You flash portrays that law-and-order apathy to do good, the misunderstanding of the reasons behind the criminal activity and what the real crime is. You slam dunk it in that last line. Is it enough to awaken a self-righteous cop or just another reason for him to become cynical. And this line: “She snatched his only offering, a moistened towelette.” Wow. It says so much.

    Charli MillsJanuary 16, 2017
    • You know, I wrote and rewrote that story so many times because it felt so one-dimensional to me each time. But this is far from a one-dimensional issue. So then I tried to look for places where the words and ideas could serve multiple purposes. That towelette sentence, when I finally figured it out (in like the billioneth iteration), made me jump for joy. Now if I can make every sentence work as hard as that one (while still maintaining a fluid grace)…that is my goal! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

      C. JaiJanuary 17, 2017
  • Heart wrenching. I loved this flash. It’s easier to reject or turn a blind eye. Feeling empathy or concern, trying to understand or help, that takes time, love and patience. Sad.
    Last year at my school (I teach adults) we organised a talk on this topic, and one of the speakers was a grandmother who explained how she had turned to prostitution because she had to bring up her grandchildren singlehandedly. Some people can’t find a way out, unemployment, insufficient government aid, etc. and prostitution is an easily available option.
    My flash is also about the exploitation of children, except it’s in Victorian England.

    Luccia GrayJanuary 17, 2017
    • I have a story (in progress) set in the 1930s-1940s where a young woman in a small town (<500 people) turned to prostitution to survive. I spoke to several women who would have lived in small rural areas during that time and they could all name the town's prostitute. The descriptions of these women were more like social workers helping farm families that couldn't afford to risk having more mouths to feed. It was a very different outlook on the whole situation that I find fascinating. Thanks for reading!

      C. JaiJanuary 17, 2017

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