My husband and I run a charity that fights human trafficking. A few years ago we made a documentary about the issue, traveling to 10 countries to ask the question, “What is the best way to prevent sex trafficking?”
On our journey we met with survivors, interviewed aftercare workers and talked with some of the world’s leading experts on trafficking and prostitution.
When we returned home, we took the film on a 96-city tour around North America. During that time, we met hundreds of amazing people who are fighting trafficking, but we also met thousands of people who knew very little about this massive form of modern day slavery. The audience breakdown was typically 70/30 female-to-male, raising the concern that despite prostitution’s being primarily driven by male demand, few men are willing to confront the issue of sexual exploitation.
While most churches were eager to talk about sex trafficking, one church responded to our screening query by saying, “We are not and will never be interested in this issue, thank you.”
When we don’t perceive a problem to be present to be in our neighborhood, it’s easy to ignore. And sometimes, we choose ignorance on purpose, shielding ourselves from the realities of complex, dark stories.
Human trafficking is one of the worst of these dark issues, because it consists of so many crimes wrapped into one—sometimes kidnapping, almost always rape, along with confinement, torture and coercion. We’ve met survivors whose victimization started as young as 12—one girl was forced to service men in the back seats of cars in parking garages. For four years, she had lived every moment under the watchful eye of a pimp, and she’d only been out of the industry for a year when we met her. Her care worker told us she was finally learning she could go to the bathroom without asking for permission. The invisible chains are often the hardest to shed.
In order for us to be effective in ending sexual exploitation, we must intentionally seek to understand it.
Here are three major misconceptions we’ve encountered as we talk with people about prostitution:
1. It’s a Choice
Prostitution is often portrayed as a choice, and movies like Pretty Woman create a skewed version of the desperate reality. Even the most conservative estimates indicate that more than half of those in prostitution entered under the age of 18. While there are some who started as adults and are not under the control of a pimp, upwards of 90 percent have a very different experience.
I think for many of us, there’s a tendency to want to box this issue into two clean, distinct categories: forced and not forced. But within the sex industry, there are varying levels of coercion. What if a young woman is initially trafficked in multiple countries, but then gets away from her traffickers and rents her own window in a red light district? Now she’s 21 and keeping most of the money, making her feel more free than she’s ever been before, but the foundations of her current life are full of cracks from the profound trauma and exploitation she experienced.
When we visited the red light district of Amsterdam, we walked by the windows filled with scantily clad girls, acting seductive and inviting. But when I stepped into the brothels with an outreach worker friend of mine to actually meet some of the women, they would drop the act and show their vulnerable side. The sex industry thrives on illusion.
2. It Isn’t Happening Here
Many people think human trafficking only happens overseas. “Never in my hometown” couldn’t be farther from the truth. And it’s not just large cities like LA and NYC—we’ve learned of human trafficking in cities as small as 10,000 people. At many of our film screenings, even in small towns, girls would come up to us afterward and tell their stories of sexual exploitation.
Trafficking happens in condo towers and suburban homes. It happened at the strip club beside the church where I went to youth group. In fact, the biggest trafficking bust in Canada happened on the same street where my husband and I lived when we first got married.
3. Legalizing Prostitution Makes it Safe
Organized crime tends to infiltrate legal prostitution zones and takes advantage of the huge profits that can be earned. Legalization increases demand for paid sex, and there is never enough “willing supply,” offering traffickers a lucrative business opportunity. While making prostitution fully legal gives the small majority (who were the best off to begin with) more opportunities to hire bodyguards and turn down clients who appear unsafe, the majority do not have the kind of bargaining power.
In all legal contexts, racial minorities are particularly vulnerable to violence and even death at the hands of their customers. One Brazilian woman we met in Switzerland wept as she told us she has to visit a gynaecologist on a regular basis to manage the internal damage johns had caused, despite the fact that she had been working in a legal brothel.
Learning the truth is the first step toward taking real action on behalf of those in desperate need. There are tons of resources available, including articles, books and documentaries about human trafficking.
Let’s equip ourselves for action.