Ever since I was a junior in high school, I have been passionate about fighting against human trafficking.
It all started with a Community Ambassador Training held by youthSpark, a nonprofit that works to end child sex trafficking in Georgia (not the country, but the state, inside the US). After learning about such a heinous issue and becoming aware that it was such a big problem in my own state, I felt like I needed to act.
Soon after, I started a club in my school, worked to organize a field trip, speakers, and fundraisers to get students engaged, and was even able to intern at youthSpark, helping them find ways to get more teens involved.
Once I had decided to attend Georgia Tech, I still remember how excited I was to get started with One Voice Atlanta, a student organization on campus which works to raise awareness about human trafficking, help victims, and prevent such crimes from occurring in the future. Through One Voice, I have had amazing opportunities to connect with other community members, like the International Human Trafficking Institute (IHTI) and SKAL International Atlanta, being given the chance to speak and participate at film screenings, social justice nights, and symposiums.
It is amazing the kind of interest that we have been getting from all kinds of people on campus and in the community, including ArtWorks for Freedom, which interviewed us to capture the power of student activism.
From all of this, I hope that it is clear that I care a lot about this issue. And that this is not the first time that I have written or spoken about why human trafficking matters to me.
Based on my experience, here are some of the major lessons that I've learned from working against human trafficking:
LESSON #1: The way we view and talk about trafficking matters.
According to the Georgia Governor’s office, every month, over 300 adolescent girls are sexually exploited in the state of Georgia alone – that’s more girls prostituted each month than Georgia teens killed in car accidents over one year. What I have realized is that misconception lies at the root of sex trafficking, especially in the United States.
For years, thousands of prostituted girls under the age of 18 would be found on the streets of Georgia and locked up in jail alongside felons, thieves, and murderers. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that things began to change. As a result of work done by the Chief Judge of Fulton County Juvenile Court, innocent victims of prostitution started becoming treated as just that, victims, making Georgia "the only state in the nation with a statewide response to end sexual exploitation of children" (as reported in February 2011).
What this exposes is the powerful influence of our discourse on what occurs in reality. The law that was first implemented in 2000 brought about a major change in the way people wrote and spoke about the children who were being bought, raped, and prostituted out and therefore caused a dramatic difference in the way those children were treated legally.
The officer who chooses to write, “found a victim on the streets” as opposed to “caught a soliciting prostitute” on a report can create a world of difference for the victim. It’s the difference between getting the full support of the judicial system as well as receiving free victim and rehabilitation services or being treated as a worthless criminal thrown out into the world with no support, often causing victims to go back to the same lifestyle.
A major aspect of such a discursive-based misconception has to do with the words we choose to describe social problems. For example, using the word “prostitute”carries a dirty connotation. Rather than do justice to the victims of commercial sexual exploitation or sex trafficking, it is used synonymously with “whore” or “skank” – words that don’t make people think of all the child victims who have been exploited, violated, and abused.
The moment we hear the word prostitute, we think of someone making the decision to live a certain kind of life. What we don’t realize is that the main issue with trafficking is that people do not just wake up on a Friday morning and decide to sell their bodies in order to pay their rent; for children, many of their minds are not even fully developed enough to decide to sell their only bodies, and even for those above the age of 18, many have been conditioned after years of abuse.
LESSON #2: Everyone is part of the problem.
When I attending the Community Ambassador Training to learn more about child sex trafficking and how to make a difference, I was appalled to find that I was the only male (out of at least 20-30 people).
This is a problem. A huge problem.
How can anyone try to solve sex trafficking with only women? By focusing only the victims, which tend to be women, and treating this entire issue as a "feminist issue" ignores the many boy victims and completely disregards the fact that most of the demand is coming from men.
Something is incredibly wrong if so many men seem to think that it is okay to abuse, exploit, and forcibly rape women and adolescent girls for sex. We need to carefully examine our communities - what are we teaching to boys that causes them to grow up to become buyers and pimps to begin with?
And don't get caught up in how men are the root cause of this entire issue - that isn't true either. In fact, many of the pimps or people who recruit victims are women, and the number is growing.
What's even more aggravating is the role of the media and media representations of social issues. Specifically, a major reason behind the stigmas of sexual exploitation is the way news reporters and stations treat the pimps, buyers, and victims. For some inexplicable reason, news reports will freely report the names and faces of exploited victims but feel a strange obligation to disguise the face and name of the buyers, calling them “John Does”.
What this in turn does is signal to society that it is okay to be a predator, to literally be a rapist. It is my belief that what the media is doing is only representing one side of the story, only making one side seem at fault and letting the other get away free. After all, just because people think “prostitution is an age-old profession” doesn’t mean that it suddenly becomes acceptable for it to become overlooked and an expected everyday phenomenon.
LESSON #3: Everyone can be a part of the solution.
Yes, I'm talking to you.
(Cue motivational speech)
Ultimately, what I have realized is that we as individuals are afraid to get involved, as a society we have accepted social injustices, and as a country we are afraid to talk. We are afraid to discuss things that happen locally because it is a relief for many of us to believe the fake notion that poverty, hunger, and abuse are all terms that can only be used to describe people in other parts of the world (not us).
Human trafficking is often a word that is only uttered when speaking of international cases, but what many fail to realize is that it also occurs domestically. It is so easy to place the blame on “third world” countries for their sub-par conditions – lack of infrastructure, bad government, no community values – and yet our own country is littered with trafficking, especially my home town of Atlanta, proving that maybe it’s not third world conditions but a complacency with ignorance that exacerbates the world’s problems.
So the only way we can get better and save the lives of our children and our fellow human beings is by first disavowing ourselves from our preconceived misconceptions, because only then can we have the chance to have a better understanding of the problem and even be open to a potential solution.
Furthermore, it is essential to realize that no matter how daunting the fight against human trafficking may seem, each of us matters in it. Even simply reading this article and understanding the nuances behind the issue is something that changes the way you view it for the rest of your life. And you have the potential to touch everyone around you, whether it be your family members, friends, or strangers, which is incredibly empowering.
It means that you can educate those near you and gradually shift the often glamorized culture that surrounds such a horrific crime. Meaning the next time you hear your friends using the term "pimping my ride", you can clarify to them that unless they meant that their ride is exploiting and raping girls for profit, that maybe"pimping" is not the right adjective for them to use in that context.
It means that you can be more cognizant of suspicious behavior or activity happening around you and less willing to overlook trafficking the next time you see it, by taking the time to report a tip or give someone the Human Trafficking Hotline.
You don't need to go and start your own organization or nonprofit (although you could!). There are literally so many ways in which you can get involved, whether you are interested in speaking and writing, art and music, or just want to donate money. The options are limitless and often only a Google search away - it's all up to how you want to get involved.
At the end of the day, as a human being, I believe we are obliged to protect each other regardless of age or gender. Don't we all deserve to live freely and without fear, our fundamental right to safety guaranteed? So let's push for this vision of a future, together!