Sex trafficking is happening in the U.S. — and young people need to know about it.

Have you witnessed sex trafficking? Your first response is probably "no." But many of us have seen it — we just didn’t realize it at the time.

Maybe you remember a friend that suddenly started coming to school with much nicer clothes and a new cellphone, which she said were "gifts" from someone older. Or you may recall that guy who seemed a little bit too old to be dating a classmate, even if she was "technically 18." Maybe you encountered someone’s sketchy "older friend" at a party who had the hookup for drugs or alcohol, or a classmate who wanted to “introduce you” to an unfamiliar crowd.

It might have been the woman who hung around the bus stop for no clear reason, the man who was chatting up teens at rest stops, or a friend’s "modeling manager" making promises that just seemed too good to be true.


The reality is that sex trafficking doesn’t just happen in faraway places. In fact, young people are sexually exploited — forced to perform sexual acts for money or other resources like food, shelter, or support — in every state in the U.S. This even includes sex trafficking of youth under the age of 18.

The reality is, though, that we aren’t always quick to recognize it.

Photo by Victor Van Welden/Unsplash.

Learning what sex trafficking looks like is the first step to ensuring it doesn’t happen to us or someone we care about. These 15 facts about youth sex trafficking and exploitation in the U.S. are a great place to start.

1. Yes, sexual exploitation could happen to anyone — including you.

While some youth, like those who are homeless or transgender, are especially vulnerable, the reality is that victims do exist across every demographic. They could be the class valedictorian, the boy who lives across the street from you, or the captain of the cheer squad.

“The victims that I come in contact with come from all different walks of life,” says Mirielle Milne, Youth Catalyst for MANY and Advocate for The Jonah Project. “But I do think people get it in their mind that it is a certain type of person.”

Traffickers don’t discriminate and they’re experienced in manipulation. They’re looking for a person’s vulnerabilities, and if they’re able to find them, virtually anyone can be a target.

2. Traffickers may take on a generous and caring persona as part of a tactic called "grooming."

“Grooming” follows a few predictable steps. First a victim is targeted, usually because they appear to be struggling emotionally, have lower self-esteem, or need resources like a job, money, or a place to live.

The trafficker then establishes trust by befriending the victim all while learning more about them, like where they live, who their family and friends are, and what their insecurities might be.

3. And at first, the behavior of a sexual trafficker might not seem threatening at all.

Traffickers know that before they can exploit someone, they first have to earn their trust.

For example, a victim might be led to believe that a person they’ve connected with online just wants to be a friend. They might even help them through a difficult time. According to Milne, this kind of behavior is designed to make victims feel cared for, special, and even protected.

But this “friend” will gradually become a little more than friendly, perhaps even making grand, romantic gestures and promises.

4. Trafficking can even begin with something that seems harmless, like a job opportunity, gift, or innocent “favor.”

For example, a trafficker posing as a modeling manager might set up a careful ruse by taking a victim to photoshoots and gigs that seem perfectly legitimate. Other times, traffickers might offer to help a struggling teen by buying them clothes or lending them money. Sometimes, it’s even a family member that will lure youth in with a “job,” insisting they need help to make ends meet.

This is all in an effort to make the victim feel as if they “owe” something to the trafficker, which they’ll use later on to pressure and control their victim.

Arash Ghafoori, Executive Director at the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY), says it’s that “need” that becomes the entry point into exploitation. “[Traffickers] lure youth into victimization — whether it be through love, or through drugs, or through support,” he explains. “[Whatever youth] are desperately seeking.”

Youth Survivor, Kristi House Project GOLD.

5. But sexual exploitation doesn’t always happen overnight.

Part of why exploitation is so sinister is that it can happen gradually, making it more difficult to see at first. According to Lenore Jean-Baptiste, Project Coordinator at NPHY, some traffickers take a year or more to lure their victims and earn their trust before ever trying to sexually exploit them. Other times, an exploitative family member or peer might take advantage of the trust they’ve already earned to manipulate victims.

6. The trust they earn allows them to slowly escalate their abuse.

As a trafficker becomes a more central part of their victim’s life, they begin to isolate them from family and friends. This can involve pitting them against their loved ones, or even controlling their phone and internet usage.

When the victim becomes completely dependent, the trafficker then demands sexual acts as repayment for the “debt” owed.

As Ghafoori explains, “As that dependency — whether it be from a relationship or a resource point of view — is developed, it turns into the sexual exploitation … these are used as tools for trade.”

7. And traffickers are getting smarter about how they find and learn about their victims, too.

Social media is a tool often used by traffickers. Not only is it easy to find and contact victims through social media, it’s easy to gather information about them, and keep track of their whereabouts and their support system.

“Youth are not [always] going through the person’s page to see who they are,” explains Jean-Baptiste.

“They introduce themselves via social media, and a lot of times, [they’re] promising careers,” she continues. At a time in which self-made stars are born online, the prospect of a modeling gig coming from Instagram doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

8. And once they have information on their victims, traffickers can blackmail them.  

Many traffickers use threats to keep victims under their control. They might threaten to harm a victim’s family members or friends, or claim that they’ll publish photos or videos of the abuse to shame and expose their victim.

Some traffickers coerce victims into having children as well, and will blackmail victims using their children as leverage, either by threatening to take them away or harm them.

9. Fear of law enforcement can make it difficult for victims to reach out for help, too.

Traffickers can also take advantage of an existing fear of law enforcement, making claims that victims won’t be believed, or that they will be arrested for prostitution or drug use if they come forward.

People of color who might have an existing fear of police brutality struggle even more with this. “Now we’re talking about historical trauma between communities [of color] and police officers,” Jean-Baptiste says. “A lot of times traffickers can use those kinds of stories and experiences to make individuals feel fearful.”

10. Self-blame can also make it difficult to leave even though it’s never the victim’s fault.

Many victims feel responsible for the abuse and exploitation they’ve endured, which can, in turn, make them believe they’re not victims at all. Self-blame is often a big part of the trauma they experience. They feel that, by accepting money, gifts, or friendship, the abuse was their own fault.

But even if they feel that way, victims are never to blame. “It doesn’t matter if you got money, it doesn’t matter if you got to keep all the money,” Jean-Baptiste says. “If you felt you had to engage in that activity for any survival or need … then it’s exploitation.”

Advocates like Milne agree, affirming that when we're talking about youth, sexual exploitation is never a job or a choice — and certainly never a victim's fault.

Traffickers use powerful abuse tactics to ensure that victims will give into their demands, and that manipulation is designed to be difficult to identify and resist. The only person responsible for abuse is the perpetrator of that abuse — no matter what a victim does or doesn’t do.

11. Trauma can even be powerful enough to drive victims back to their traffickers after they’ve escaped their control.

If you’ve ever seen a victim of abuse and wondered why they didn’t just leave or why they went back, it’s a phenomenon known as “trauma-coerced bonding.”

This is an emotional attachment that victims form with their abusers, and it’s unfortunately very common. Traffickers’ initial acts of kindness and generosity make a strong impression on their victims. As the exploitation worsens, the trafficker can keep up that image by switching back and forth between positive attention and abusive behavior to keep victims hooked.

Photo by Carlos Arthur/Unsplash.

“We’re trying to tell [these youth] that this person is a trafficker… how do you say that to somebody about the person they’ve been having dinner with every single night for the last year?” says Jean-Baptiste. “It’s hard because they’ve now had a relationship… [sometimes with] years involved.”

12. But there is hope and support waiting for victims.

Despite these obstacles, help for victims does exist. “There is help and there are people that are looking for [you] and do care,” Jean-Baptiste says.

If you believe that you or someone you know might be at risk or is being victimized, the National Human Trafficking Hotline can help. You can text 233733, use the chat feature on their website, or call them at 888-373-7888. They can connect you with local organizations and support to figure out your next steps.

If there's any possibility that an abusive person has access to your phone or internet history, clear your internet history, and consider using a payphone or borrowing someone else's phone instead.

Photo by Jenna Jacobs/Unsplash.

13. Recognizing the red flags can make a big difference, too.

Knowing what to look for, and being aware of what healthy relationships do and don’t look like, can be lifesaving for young people.

For example, Jean-Baptiste advises caution when someone offers you a gift. Before accepting anything, always ask if there’s an expectation to pay that person back or reciprocate.

And if anyone tells you to do something with your body or pressures you, it’s time to reach out for support. “You should have the full right to consent to what you do with your body,” she says.

14. Don’t allow a trafficker to be the first person to validate someone who’s struggling.

If you’re not a victim yourself, it’s important to check in with your peers who may be having a tough time. If a trafficker is the first person to reach out to someone who’s struggling, those individuals are much more likely to be exploited.

“We need to be more involved in our community,” Milne says, noting that young people who feel supported by those around them are less likely to look to an abusive person for validation.

Jean-Baptiste says this is why young people whose families or communities have all but abandoned them, like homeless and LGBTQ+ youth, are frequent targets. “[Traffickers are] willing to have [a] conversation… that we’re not having in our community.”

If communities can fill the needs that traffickers try to exploit, those young people would be much safer.

15. And remember, your body is yours. Period.

Too often, it’s suggested to young people — especially teens — that they should defer to the adults in their lives when making decisions. However, when it comes to our bodies, the only person in charge is you.

Photo by Oscar Obians/Unsplash.

“No one should tell you that you have to do anything with your body… [they have] no right, no access, no privilege,” Jean-Baptiste says. “You belong to you.”

When we're educated and vigilant, we can make a difference in our communities! Learn more about how to get involved, and help us work towards a future where youth are no longer victimized.

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Inclusivity

Anyone who's done yard work on a hot day can tell you that it can be just as good of a workout as playing a team sport.

You're down on your knees pulling weeds, up on a ladder lopping off errant tree branches, and pushing a heavy lawnmower that never seems to start on the first try.

Unfortunately, because lawn work is so physically intense and not everyone can afford a gardner, the elderly and disabled sometimes have to let their lawns and backyards grow wild.

An alternative learning center in Dubuque, Iowa is helping its kids stay physically fit while helping out their community with a new program that gives them high school PE credit for doing yard work for the elderly and disabled.

The Alternative Learning Center is for high school juniors and seniors who are at risk of dropping out of school.
As part of the program, the teens visit homes of the elderly and disabled and help out by raking leaves, pulling weeds, cutting grass, and cleaning gutters.



Teacher Tim Hitzler created the program because it helps the students get involved in the community while helping those who need it most.

"The students aren't typically too excited at the beginning but once they get involved and start doing the yard work they become more motivated," Hitzler told KWWL. "What they really like is A: helping people. They really like giving back to people and meeting the person."

Nick Colsn, a 17-year-old student at the learning center, told NPR that the program allows him to meet people he wouldn't have otherwise. "I'm more of like go-to-school-go-to-work-home-repeat kind of guy," he said. "So to me, I probably would not have met any of these people."

The end-of-year program has been so successful, Hitzler hopes to expand it next year. "You know, in education, a lot of times, there's so many different gimmicks and curriculum packages you can buy and things like that," he told NPR. "And something like this all you need is a few garden tools. You know, I mean, it just makes sense. It's so simple. And it works."

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If you're a white supremacist, I imagine drinking beer (or any other alcoholic beverage) is a nice way to relax and tune out the fact that you're a terrible person who's helping set human progress back at a rate the bubonic plague would be proud of. But for some self-professed white supremacists, it wasn't quite so easy on a June weekend in Germany.

According to Newsweek, the hundreds of neo-nazis who flocked to the "Shield and Sword Festival" in Ostritz found themselves uncomfortably dry when a court imposed a liquor ban at their gathering of hateful bigots who also like to listen to awful music together. The ban's aim was to prevent any violence that might erupt (you know it would...) and the police confiscated more than a thousand gallons of alcohol from those attending the weekend-long event. They even posted pictures on Twitter of the alcohol they'd removed from participants.



But that's only half the story.

Residents of the town of Ostritz, who've had to deal with the bigots before (they threw the same festival last year on Hitler's birthday), knew that the ban wouldn't stop the festival-goers from trying to obtain more alcohol while in town. So the townspeople got together a week before the festival and devised a plan which would truly make the white supremacists focus on how terrible neo-nazi music is: They bought up the entire town's beer supply.

"We wanted to dry the Nazis out," Georg Salditt, a local activist, told reporters. "We thought, if an alcohol ban is coming, we'll empty the shelves at the Penny [supermarket]."

"For us it's important to send the message from Ostritz that there are people here who won't tolerate this, who say 'we have different values here, we're setting an example..." an unidentified local woman told ZDF Television.

At the same time the festival was going on, residents also staged two counter-protests and put on a "Peace Festival" to drive home the point that bigotry wasn't welcome. If the festival is held in the same town again next year, ticket-buyers should be aware that Ostritz isn't playing around when it says that white supremacists aren't welcome.

There's some good news, too: Aside from the fact that residents aren't afraid to send the message that they're intolerant of intolerance, attendance to the far-right music festival has drastically decreased in the past year. In 2018, 1,200 people attended, according to the BBC. This year? Approximately 500-600. Here's hoping the festival won't have a return engagement next year.

Culture

I sent both of my children on a bus on Tuesday. I knew where they were going.

The morning started rainy, buggy, and too early. To be fair, it always feels too early.

My husband and I waved from across the street as the buses pulled away, our kids, along with a hundred or so others, behind tinted glass. We waved like we were excited. Our son was likely not looking. Our daughter may have been, but she also could have not been paying attention until the bus started into motion. We won't know for sure if she saw us waving until she returns.

Returns.

Every day when I leave the house, I expect to return.

That's the default.

It's so much the default that realizing it is actually stunning. We run our lives as though anything else other than what's in our head, our routine, our privilege, is what will take place. There's that little truism that a worrier shines like a pebble in the hand: you're more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash. Yet we are much more likely to be worried about flying because it is out of our routine. Being out of your routine awakens you to the precariousness we completely shut out in our day-to-day lives.

I put my children on a bus. My oldest will be gone four weeks, my youngest, two.

What should be normal: sending your kids to sleep away camp. What feels wholly unnatural: sending your Jewish kids to a Jewish sleep away camp in the world we're living in now. Even writing those words: JEWISH SLEEP AWAY CAMP make my fingers seize at the knuckles. I don't want you to know there are such things as Jewish sleep away camps. Even having others know that they exist feels like a danger.

I'm used to my feelings and my instincts seeming like hyperbole to others. I'm emotional. I'm tuned in. I'm hyperreactive. I have a hair trigger. I have anxiety and depression.

I also come from a genetic and cultural history of people who ended up in this country because we were hunted and pursued and needed to escape. Over and over and over again. The cells that have come to build the tissues and structures of my body and my brain have been organized by UNSAFETY.

In "normal" suburban upper-class life, this can be a huge detriment. A handicap. It can manifest in the most unhelpful and frankly, startlingly blind ways. I've spent so much of my life reacting and feeling and then trying to understand what makes me tick. I've spent so much time learning to train and control and ignore and channel.

I wasn't made for easy times. I was made for survival. I was made, like an animal, to intuit danger and get the hell out, fast. I was made in the image of fight or flight. I do both better than most people. It's not something I brag about, because it doesn't feel like a good thing most of the time.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp. Because when my husband and I got married (I'm Jewish, he's not), our pact was this: if our children live in a world where historically they could be targeted and threatened because of their Jewishness (regardless of their actual observance of religion or customs), they deserved to know that being a Jew is not negative. We should give them every opportunity to be proud and happy about their Jewishness. Their belonging should help them to feel good about themselves and the world. It should help them seek connection and understanding of the human condition. They should know songs. They should sing full-throated. They should feel comfort in our traditions when they are useful to them, but never feel threatened or unnecessarily constrained by them.

Research funded by Jewish institutions and communities suggests that the number one way to help ground kids in their Jewish identity is to send them to Jewish sleep away camp. It's the glue.

And yet.

I put my kids on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp at a time when our government is putting migrant children into concentration camps.

I bought all the supplies on the list. I washed and labeled and sorted and packed. I zipped up those bags to accompany my children. And then I dropped my children off and couldn't see if they were waving back as the buses drove away.

Of course, the camp I'm sending them to has a stellar reputation. Every day they post updates on a special web site, along with hundreds of pictures of the kids in action. I send emails to the kids which are printed out and given to them. I send packages with stickers and trading cards and all sorts of goofiness so that they know they are loved.

Migrants from central America have made their way to our border with just what they could carry. (My children's bags were so heavy that neither of them could carry them. Likely at least 1/4 of what I sent will come back unused or untouched.) Migrants are following the rules of asylum seeking. They are fleeing violence and intimidation and abuse far greater than I will allow myself to imagine. They are separated from their children by a government that has no business doing so.

I, an upper-class white woman, expect my voice to be heard. I expect to be able to vote and call and hold my elected officials accountable. I know what to say to get my point across. I've given money to candidates and I know how to threaten that support in the future. I also have the privilege of time and energy with which to do it. My underlying expectation is that there are very few problems that I don't have some redress for.

Asylum-seekers, in good faith, and following the rules, have nothing left to lose. They are coming here seeking something less life-threatening than what they're fleeing. They're seeking some good will. Or, at the very least, safety. Or relative safety.

I put my children on a bus to Jewish sleep away camp knowing that in my daughter's cabin of 8 girls, there are 4 young adult counselors who are there to make sure that she's safe, happy, and her needs are being met.

I also know that last year, an asshole white supremacist antisemite decided to go to a synagogue on shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, and turn it into a bloodbath. Well before that ever happened, well before the era of mass shootings and Columbine, Jewish institutions like synagogues and preschools and JCCs have needed extra surveillance. We've had police guard our religious services and social gatherings. Even (and perhaps especially) seeking out Jewish belonging, Jewish joy, has always been a reckoning with danger and threat.

After I sent my children on that bus—the one I knew where it was going—the one where I'd shoveled their overpacked duffle bags into the bowels of the bus—I came home to a house strewn with the remnants from packing. Laundry bins with unneeded t-shirts and shorts and single socks. The cat—he normally comes to greet me when he hears the garage door open—was nowhere to be seen. I called for him. He still did not come. I came upstairs and looked in my son's room. No cat. I looked in my daughter's room—with its orange and pink somewhat darkened by the rainy skies—and there he was, tucked into a furry circle in an eddy of her duvet. I laid down next to him and lost control. The control I never really had.

Twitter this week has erupted in a jagged back-and-forth between politicians and pundits and opinion-havers about whether or not it is appropriate to call the migrant detention centers run by ICE and our government "concentration camps." I, and most other Jews I follow and know, agree they should be called exactly what they are.

Non-Jews (and, to be fair, some Jews as well), like to tiptoe around the Holocaust and any words or imagery which may in any way encroach upon the historical accuracy or singular legacy of that horrible period. To a degree, I might agree when the comparisons are used flippantly or improperly.

But the legacy of the Holocaust, we are all reminded, is NEVER AGAIN. And NEVER AGAIN means that we don't wait until something worse happens. What's happening RIGHT NOW in the United States shares that DNA.

In the same way I understood or had an inkling in my bones that the election might go a way I didn't want it to, I know this same thing: we are not ok. This is not just the start. This is halfway down the road to the place where we lose not just perceived control, but real control. For all the current administration's lies and purposeful incapabilities, know this: the cruelty that comes out of the mouth of our president and those who continue to support him in the government and in the populace is not a lie. It is predictive. They're telling us in advance what they intend to do. And then they are doing it.

In a world where I still have the ability to put my daughter and son on a bus with all their toiletries and know that they will likely arrive at their destination, I also know that our government argued for the legal right to deny soap and toothbrushes to migrant children. When anyone's children are denied such basics—human basics—no one is safe.

I know it will sound like hyperbole. I know that those who so easily dismissed my concerns early on—before this administration even took office—will still attempt to dismiss my warnings now. But do so at your own peril.

I was not built for normal times. I was built for times like these. And I haven't been wrong yet.

This post originally appeared on Outside Voice. You can read it here.

Inclusivity