Lately, as I’ve taken on the day-to-day role of managing the Shamrock Foundation, I find myself talking a lot more about the foundation. Before now, the foundation only really ever came up in situations where I was talking to people working in the same or similar fields, who are already familiar with the types of issues that we’re confronting. But now, when just anyone asks me, “What do you do?” I have a direct lead-in to share about the foundation. People are usually very interested at first to hear about what we do, acknowledging how rewarding it must be to do this work. They’ll often ask what our mission is, and I’ll share it, along with describing the kinds of organizations that we support and the issues that those organizations are tackling.
Most of the time, the conversation will be going along quite well until I mention that we fund various organizations that fight sex trafficking, including sex trafficking in the U.S. That’s when things start to turn awkward. People are usually ok with talking about the sex trafficking that’s happening in other countries–faraway places that can be categorized as “different.” Maybe they’ve seen the (terrible) movie Taken or heard about the trafficking of Eastern European or Southeast Asian women. But the trafficking of American women? American children? That’s less commonly known about, and people often appear pretty uncomfortable with talking about it.
People demonstrate their discomfort in various ways. Sometimes they laugh or crack a joke. Sometimes they just sit there paralyzed, stricken with silence and with a pained expression on their faces, clearly wishing for a change in the subject. When that happens I generally let it drop, and we move on to something else. But it makes me wonder, “How can I talk about the fight against sex trafficking, particularly domestic sex trafficking, in a way that doesn’t just make people uncomfortable? How can I elicit their interest in a difficult subject? Engage them? Become an advocate for the cause?” Most importantly I think, “How can we ever hope to prevent sex trafficking if we’re too afraid to talk about it?”
Often, it seems that people are unaware that this type of crime is happening right here at home, or they can’t believe that it could be happening here in the U.S. We’re progressive–we’re American–we’re supposed to have choices about our futures, and we’re supposed to be able to live the American dream. Maybe people think that if American women and children are engaged in prostitution, it’s because they chose that life. Unlike the poor and marginalized in developing countries, there’s a belief that if you’re American, it can’t be exploitation–it must be a choice. If you’re American, and living that life, it must be your fault, and it’s up to you to get out.
I’m guessing this is why people feel uncomfortable discussing the topic–it threatens our perceptions of ourselves, our values, and the country we live in. We’re the world’s largest economy, we’re educated, we’re a democracy, we embrace freedom, and we don’t tolerate the kinds of socioeconomic conditions that would lead a child to this life, right? However, the facts of domestic sex trafficking tell a different story:
How many it happens to: The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 American children are the victims of commercial sexual trafficking and prostitution each year. (July 19, 2010 Testimony of Ernie Allen, President and CEO, National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, for the Victims’ Rights Caucus, Human Trafficking Caucus, U.S. House of Representatives, available at http://www.missingkids.com/Testimony/07-19-10)
Who it happens to: The average age of a child first used in prostitution [in the U.S.] is 11 to 14, with some as young as 9 years of age. Children used in prostitution consist of both male and female victims and come from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. A large percentage of these children left home because of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. These children often have low self-esteem and are extremely vulnerable. These runaways become a prime target for sex offenders, pornographers, and pimps. (June 7, 2005 Testimony from Chris Swecker, Assistant Director, Criminal Investigative Division, FBI, available at http://www.fbi.gov/news/testimony/exploiting-americans-on-american-soil-domestic-trafficking-exposed, hereafter referred to as “FBI Testimony”)
What makes them vulnerable: Numerous studies estimate that 70 to 90 percent of commercially sexually exploited youth and adult women in the sex industry were sexually abused prior to their recruitment. (Rachel Lloyd, Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale, 2011, p. 65)
Why it’s so hard to escape: Juveniles who become involved in sexual trafficking face a myriad of obstacles and enormous needs if they want to leave that life, including very basic needs such as safe housing, subsistence, and schooling. In addition, they may need drug treatment, medical treatment, and mental health services. They may have problems related to victimization prior to their life on the streets. Most cannot return to their family of origin, so they need help to prepare for independent living. (FBI Testimony)
From these statistics we can begin to see that, like most of the issues being tackled by the organizations that we support, it’s not quick to talk about the dynamics of domestic sex trafficking. It’s not really possible to sum it all up in one or two sentences that explain the factors that lead to trafficking, what we can do about it, why it matters, and why it’s not something to joke about. It takes time and a desire to understand how issues of poverty, abuse, neglect, and a lack of education can converge to increase the likelihood that someone might become a victim of trafficking.
I’m starting to get comfortable with the realization that talking about sex trafficking will make those I’m talking to uncomfortable. But that doesn’t make me want to stop talking about it. It just makes me want to figure out how to talk about it in a way that people can take in, and to arm myself with the statistics and information that will resonate with people and make them realize that not only is sex trafficking happening here in the U.S., there are also things that each one of us can do to fight the problem. I’m ready to keep talking.