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Breaking down Stigma: Commonly Held Misconceptions about Human Sexual Trafficking

January is human trafficking awareness month, a month dedicated to shedding lig4178c5d51465df87b04e8ca305288ec6.pnght on issues that victims and survivors face in order for our society to better advocate for and understand individuals affected by human trafficking.

Over the past few years, Tri-Valley Haven has been working to better support survivors of human sexual trafficking. This has involved collaborative meetings, trainings, webinars, presentations, and discussions with law enforcement, partnering agencies, district attorneys, advocates, volunteers, community members and more. Through our experiences in doing so, we have identified a few commonly held beliefs that can be very stigmatizing to individuals affected by trafficking. Below, you will find some of these beliefs and the truth behind them.
BELIEF: “Trafficking only happens to [insert a specific gender, ethnicity, or social class].”
TRUTH: This is a vast generalization. When looking at trafficking statistics, this misconception may appear to true. Victims of sexual trafficking are most often females. Victims are most often individuals of color. Exploiters (pimps) are most often individuals of color too. Victims and exploiters are most often from the lower socioeconomic stratas. However, further examination of this reveals the truth.

There are many males are victims of trafficking that are included in the statistical data. A reason women report more often than men may very well be because women are more affected, but, it may also be due to the stigma that surrounds being sexually exploited and being a male. Males are often harmed by the societal expectation and gender role that tells them they have to be tough, not show emotions, be strong, and be dominant, etc. It is believed that men report experiencing abuse report at a lower rate than women due to these stereotypes.

When comparing that to census data, one might see that there are large percentages of Caucasian individuals and wonder, why aren’t they as affected by trafficking? This is because of opportunity. Exploiters often choose their victims based on the accessible opportunities they face. Communities are often characterized by the racial groups that inhabit them. For example, if a person of Latino descent is living in a predominately Latino neighborhood, it is likely that their victims will be Latino (simply because Latinos are more accessible to them). Traffickers (the individual or party that obtains and puts a victim in contact with an exploiter) and purchasers (Johns, individuals receiving sexual services from a victim) have high rates of being individuals of Caucasian descent. This is believed to be influenced by finances, as Caucasian individuals often are of a higher socio-economic class. Every racial or ethnic group plays a role in sex trafficking, the role and level of involvement is what may vary among ethnicities. 

This also partly addresses the matter of social class. Individuals of higher social classes are more likely to be traffickers and purchasers, rather than exploiters. Being of a certain gender, social class, or ethnicity may increase your risk of being trafficked but sexual trafficking affects all ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and genders.

BELIEF: “I would never let that happen to me.”
TRUTH: Statements like these can make a survivor feel inferior or ashamed for not being able to escape from sex trafficking sooner. No one can be sure of how they will react in a situation until it happens. Our flight or fight instincts also often lead individuals to freeze, which can prevent performing actions one might have planned in a moment of panic.  Victims of sex trafficking are often extensively groomed and conditioned in a manner that supports them being in the trafficking industry.  Many individuals do not feel in a strong state of mind to end the abuse due to this grooming. Grooming often involves exploiting an individual’s deepest insecurities and vulnerabilities to lower their self-esteem, self-worth, sense of self, confidence, and rational thinking. It can cause one to view the world in a distorted manner. Victims are also often told that they or their loved ones will be hurt or killed if they leave. One might be repeatedly told and start to believe that they deserve the life they have been forced into or that there is no one in the world that can or wants to help them. Having preexisting or developing mental health issues that impair judgment can also become a factor that makes a victim more vulnerable. Changing the phrase to “I would hope that would never happen to me” reduces the stigma conveyed.

BELIEF: “There is no difference between sex trafficking and prostitution.”
TRUTH: The simplest explanation is that sex trafficking is involuntary. The victim was once forced or coerced. Prostitution is voluntary. A prostitute ideally does not work by force.

A sex trafficking victim’s circumstances most often involve working for an exploiter (a pimp). The exploiter will collect most or all of the money made by the victim. The individual is being forced, coerced, or defrauded into a sex act. It may appear to be prostitution but there is the often hidden component of force. Due to the age of consent being 18, any acts resembling prostitution by an individual under 18 is legally considered trafficking.

On the contrary, a prostitute may or may not work for an exploiter. Given the riskiness of working as a prostitute, often times a prostitute will join with other prostitutes and form an alliance for security. In these situations, money is distributed and schedules are shared, but the individuals involved are still in control of their decisions. In other situations a prostitute will have an exploiter for security reasons and protection from physical harm.  There is no force, coercion or defrauding in these situations.

BELIEF: “There are so many resources available to victims, why don’t they use them?”
TRUTH: While there are many resources for victims, the availability of resources and distribution of them is not always a process that is easy to navigate. Every program has some sort of limit to how many clients they can have at an agency or a shelter; funding often influences this.

Aside from issues of availability, victims often are not aware of the resources available. Unfortunately, not everyone possesses a lot of knowledge about community resources. People often do not know what resources are available until after they have suffered a lot. Grooming often involves making victims think no one can be trusted and that they will be ostracized or arrested for seeking help. The victim may also not be aware that what they are experiencing is trafficking, is illegal, or that they can get help. If one is being trafficked, they may also not have access to individuals or technology that they can receive information regarding resources from. Language barriers and mental health impairments often pose additional obstacles to acquiring information about support services.

This information is not meant to make anyone feel bad for having held these beliefs. It is stop-the-stigma-logounderstandable why one might think these things- it can be due to lack of exposure to trafficking survivors, lack of knowledge about the industry, repetition of a belief heard by a respected person, misinterpretation, unknown biases, etc. Not everyone works as an advocate or therapist or will even ever encounter a survivor firsthand. This type of information does not tend to be common knowledge. The purpose of this post is simply to bring awareness to the power our words can hold. The stigma that surrounds human trafficking prevents education from being spread. The stigma prevents individuals from creating a better life for themselves. Words or beliefs that perpetuate stigma can prevent individuals in need from seeking or gaining support.

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Adriana is a Bilingual Sexual Assault Advocate and Human Trafficking Specialist at Tri-Valley Haven.  For more information about how you can support our life-saving services for survivors and families, please call our office at (925) 449-5845 or visit http://www.trivalleyhaven.org

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