Hollywood movies tell one story of human trafficking victims and predators. But reality offer an entirely different tale, and one that hits much closer to home.
“The general public’s greatest fear is that, say, a daughter goes to college and gets trafficked,” said Mamie Adams, Working to End Sex Trafficking in North Carolina (WEST NC) Coordinator with Our Voice, a nonprofit organization that serves survivors of sexual violence in Buncombe County.
She pointed to movies like the 2008 blockbuster, Taken, where human traffickers kidnap a man’s daughter when she arrives in Paris and he must rescue her before she’s sold into sex slavery.
“That movie is the opposite of what happens,” Adams said.
The reality, according to Adams and others who work closely with human trafficking victims in Western North Carolina, is that vulnerable youth are often lured toward trafficking in their own community with promises of food, shelter, love and affection.
When CPP contacted Our Voice and other local victim advocates to discuss the possibility of speaking directly to a human trafficking victim, the response was united: victims most often don’t want to retell their story to the public and shouldn’t be asked to.
The reasons are numerous and justified, according to Karen Arias, leader of the Western North Carolina Human Trafficking Rapid Response Team. She pointed out that these victims have been abused many times. Each rape victim struggles with the trauma of being raped. Trafficking victims live with the trauma of being raped repeatedly.
They also fear retribution from the trafficker, Arias said.
Arias and Adams discussed the circumstances that can lead to someone falling prey to human trafficking, which all-too-often begins in a seemingly innocent way between trafficker and victim, but escalates to a situation in which victim feel they have no way out.
As Carolina Public Press reported in June, human trafficking occur in Western North Carolina in the forms of both sex and labor trafficking. Human trafficking, as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, is “the act of compelling or coercing a person’s labor, services or commercial sex acts.”
The Polaris Project, which operates a national hotline for human trafficking through the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, reported 463 calls in North Carolina about human trafficking in 2015. Polaris identified 110 potential trafficking cases, with 925 potential victims. Roughly two-thirds of those cases involved sex trafficking.
So who are the victims? Arias is quick to point out that victims can’t all be placed in one category. She and Adams discussed several scenarios that can lead to a person, very often in their teens, falling victim to trafficking.
A difficult upbringing
Adams said those who are already broken from previous traumas make easy targets for traffickers.
Imagine a girl in foster care, who is raped by her foster brother. Already living with these traumatic experiences, she gets her first boyfriend at 13, and he’s the first to tell her she’s pretty.
She comes to believe it’s love, but that boy isn’t as innocent as he seems and lures her into being trafficked. By this time, Adams said, the girl doesn’t know a better life could exist, and doesn’t know to fight, or how to get out.
“When you’ve been broken and then someone breaks you even further, it’s hard to believe what life could look like normally,” she said.
Adams cited evidence from In Our Backyard, a national organization raising awareness and fighting to stop human trafficking, which shows “one of every three teens on the street will be lured toward sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home.” With a national average of 450,000 runaways each year nationally, that’s 150,000 teens at risk, according to In Our Backyard.
It may start off innocently enough, with the runaway being approached by someone offering them a meal, Adams said. Then it grows into the predator asking the victim if she needs a place to stay.
Gay, lesbian and transgender youth are among those who are “severely at risk,” Adams said.
When these young people have parents at home who are cannot accept their gender identity and sexuality, they are more likely to run away, she said.
Since runaways often feel they don’t have love and support at home, the trafficker comes to them under the guise of offering that support. But it’s not long after they’ve won the victim’s trust that the predator will ask the victim to do things in return, like have sex with other people for money, Adams said.
In other cases, what’s called “survival” sex takes place. The victim agrees to have sex in exchange for food, clothing and shelter, she said.
Teens longing to feel grown up
Arias said it would be wrong for the public to assume, however, that trafficking only happens to those who are alone or broken.
“It also happens to kids who are doing well at school, who don’t have low self-esteem,” she said.
Arias told the story of a divorced mother who contacted her because the mother was concerned about the roommate of her daughter’s father. The 22-year-old man had led the teenage girl to believe they could have a relationship. When Arias did some research, she found the man, among other things, had friended many younger girls on Facebook. Immediately the warning lights began to go off for Arias that this man could be a predator or potential trafficker.
“When a man is kind, loving, paying attention, saying all the right things — the girl falls in love to the point they’re willing to do anything,” she said.
That girl may think she’s finally found someone to treat her like the adult she thinks she is or wants to be.
“Eventually he’s going to want her to do adult things,” Arias said.
Just who are these traffickers?
“The truth is, they’re more similar to drug traffickers than people think,” Adams said. “It’s all about the money.”
Human traffickers are looking to make easy money – and a lot of it, she said. In fact, human trafficking offers financial gain in a way drugs do not.
“You can sell drugs once, but you can sell bodies over and over,” Adams said.
And, they’re savvy. Adams said trafficking is going increasingly underground. There’s no need for women to stand out on the street where men can drive by and solicit sex. It can all be done online.
Take Backpage.com for example. The website has frequently been linked to human trafficking, though its owners have successfully defended its constitutional right to exist. In addition to ads for many legitimate goods and services, the site includes an adult services section sorted by region, some of which may include human-trafficking activity. Many of the listings for “escorts” of various types are none too discreet in implying that prostitution is their real business.
CPP surveyed Backpage regional adult services listings for one day, Aug. 1, and found that for that date the site included 93 listings under the Asheville region and 70 under the Boone region, with many more in adjacent areas, such as Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greenville, S.C.
A fight to change the culture
In the end, even if websites like Backpage.com could be shut down in an effort to end human trafficking, Adams thinks that would only put a patch on the problem.
The real, long-term fight is in ending demand and in open discussion of the issues from which trafficking stems, she said.
She urged everyone to look at their own beliefs and cultural norms, citing North Carolina’s treatment of the LGBTQ community as just one example. Government actions sometimes send a message that parents believe justifies their views, causing their children to become marginalized.
“These parents’ beliefs are reinforced by our state government,” Adams said. “People in our government don’t even support (these youth).”
Adams believes the issue of rape needs to be openly discussed, saying it’s a topic most people back away from.
“We, as a whole, set the ground work for trafficking,” she said.
“So many discussions of trafficking don’t even mention rape. We can’t end sex trafficking if we don’t talk about ending rape.”