Awareness about human trafficking has exploded in recent months. Stories of creepy white vans in Target parking lots and billionaires who are up to no good have dominated headlines and social media chatter, creating fear and creative ideas about how to keep our children safe. While I would never tell anyone to stop being vigilant about “stranger danger”, I am concerned that many families are missing the danger signs in their own backyards. Trafficking doesn’t always look like how Hollywood or even our local news portray it. You might be surprised to learn that many stories of trafficking don’t involve kidnapping, including my own.
I grew up in a small lumber town in Southern Oregon. I was an average girl, who had never been put in an “at-risk” youth category. I played varsity sports. I was on the honor roll, and after I graduated a year early, I was accepted into Oregon State University.
No one would have ever expected that I would have been targeted by a trafficker. No one could have guessed that for nearly six years, I was sold between three different traffickers. I was branded twice, having two men tattoo their names on my back like a piece of cattle. My face had been broken in five places, and I was hospitalized for dehydration and overexhaustion. I had been to jail several times. But I was never kidnapped. Or duct-taped. Or locked in a room with a dirty mattress.
The truth is, human trafficking probably doesn’t look the way you think it does.
The reality is that my daughter may have gone to school with yours; I may have stood next to you in the grocery store line. And nobody ever noticed. Nobody ever noticed because we all can get caught up in myths that keep us from seeing what is happening right under our noses. Sex trafficking is a violent, lucrative, dangerous business, and traffickers target vulnerable people every day. This is why I founded the Rebecca Bender Initiative (RBI). This is why RBI runs the largest online school for survivors in the world: Elevate Academy. This is why I speak, why I write, and why I share.
I recently created an ecourse called Trafficking Truths, and I thought I’d share a few things from it to help you understand the world of human trafficking and how to protect people in your own neighborhood:
One: Traffickers exploit the vulnerable.
Close your eyes and picture the most vulnerable children and teens in your community. Do you see them? If you see them, so does a trafficker. Here are a few things you might look for:
- Foster Care
- Mental Health Deficits
- Living as a runaway
- Domestic Violence
- Racial inequities
- Documentation status
- Substance abuse
A trafficker identifies the vulnerabilities of potential victims and offers to meet specific needs. The best way to combat trafficking in your neighborhood is to meet the needs of the most vulnerable.
Two: Prostitution is rarely a choice.
Don’t fall for statements like, “She’s just putting herself through college,” or “It’s a free country so prostitution should be legal.” Multiple factors may play a role in luring young women or keeping them trapped in harmful cycles. But is it ever really a “choice”? When someone claims they want to engage in the violent commercial sex industry, they may actually feel like they have no other choice. The truth is, very few victims realistically have healthy, positive options.
If we don’t address the inherent dangers of prostitution when discussing “empowering choices”, we are missing a huge piece of the puzzle. Does an industry that promotes objectification and violence really align with the goal or theme of empowerment for women?
Can you think of any other job that has high rates of homicide, suicide, rape, violence and threat which is being promoted for legalization? What about the mental health issues that arise from prolonged exposure to living in a constant state of trauma and fear?
Maybe instead of legalizing prostitution, we should focus on providing options for fair living wages, resources for single moms, affordable housing and access to education and services. Aligning with organizations in your community that equip vulnerable populations and offer them sustainable, empowering choices is a great way to make a difference.
Three: Human Trafficking isn’t just an issue for women.
When we think of the scope and magnitude of sex trafficking, we’d be remiss to not ask the question – who is buying? Who is causing this kind of demand so that billion dollar industries can thrive? Is this all on the dark web and in hidden, insidious places?
Unfortunately, it’s happening right under our noses, in our very own communities by very average men. Just comb the press releases on busts and you will find story after story of average, every day men looking to buy sex but instead connecting with undercover cops. These men are local pastors, teachers, doctors, and businessmen. Many purchase sex on their way to and from work. Online ads advertising “escorts” – where many traffickers post daily ads – target locations near large workplace establishments where many men are calling or booking from their work phones or computers.
I encourage us not just to learn how to keep our daughters safe from traffickers. We should also be asking questions like, “How are we raising our sons?” We live in a hyper sexualized world that permeates our culture. We must talk about these issues, as uncomfortable as they are, with ALL of our children. Make it your mission to seek out helpful resources and look for ways to engage in the conversation.
Your voice matters. Together we can shift culture, spread awareness, and initiate change.
Rebecca Bender, MACT
CEO & Founder Rebecca Bender Initiative
About the author:
Relentless in her mission to help others find their purpose, Rebecca Bender is CEO of the Rebecca Bender Initiative and founder of Elevate Academy, the largest online school for survivors of trafficking in the world. An award-winning thought leader, advocate, author and consultant, she educates on many human trafficking related topics and serves the U.S. National Advisory Council, state Dept of Justice Advisory Council, and advises a variety of nonprofits.