Boston has long had a network of human trafficking rings that hide in the background of day-to-day life, overlooked and misunderstood.
Human trafficking, which includes both commercial sex and forced labor acts, traps people in cycles of exploitation and is as prevalent as ever in Boston. Sellers often target vulnerable populations, especially communities who have been left unprotected during the COVID-19 pandemic and on the internet.
“When you talk about prostitution and exploitation and sex trafficking, who is always most impacted is our most vulnerable community members,” said Nikki Bell, a survivor of sex trafficking and the founder of Living In Freedom Together, a Worcester-based nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the sex trade and supporting survivors.
These communities include LGBTQ youth who are at risk for homelessness, young women of color in foster care, those living in poverty, and people with substance abuse or mental health disorders who are experiencing homelessness, according to Bell.
Bell says that the pandemic has left these populations even less protected, with economic repercussions like increased unemployment and housing insecurity, leaving them without stability— a factor that traffickers search for to assert their control.
“During the pandemic, we know that vulnerability increased,” said Bell. “Where vulnerability exists, and people are living at the intersection of different vulnerabilities, there’s increased risk for trafficking and exploitation.”
Jasmine Fiandaca, founder and director of Jasmine Grace Outreach and Bag of Hope Ministries, is a survivor of sex trafficking who now speaks and consults on the issue, offering first-hand insight to how traffickers “break your human spirit and build you back up as a product.”
Fiandaca identifies certain aspects of American culture that perpetuate cycles of sexual exploitation, especially in large cities like Boston. She cites pornography as a gateway for men to normalize purchasing women for sex, while social media’s “glamorization” of sugar daddies and posing nude for websites like OnlyFans slowly lure women into trafficking through concealing the industry’s true horrors.
“There’s no one I’ve ever met that has come out of the commercial sex trade, whether they’ve had a trafficker or not, unscathed,” said Fiandaca.
Fiandaca believes that the “vicious” cycle of human trafficking persists because of the increasing demand in cities like Boston, and that exploitative and traumatic situations will continue to occur until there is no longer a market for selling and purchasing bodies.
“The commercial sex trade does deep, deep soul damage,” said Fiandaca. “I don’t even have a word for the type of trauma and how long it takes to recover.”
Kayse Lee Maass, who leads the Operations Research and Social Justice Lab at Northeastern University, says that there is a common public misconception of how human trafficking occurs and who it impacts the most.
“When people think about trafficking, typically what they think of is sex trafficking and very sensationalized images of trafficking, where you have a young, white woman who was maybe kidnapped and either has her mouth duct-taped shut or her hands bound,” said Maass. “But the reality is that trafficking looks like what we see in our everyday lives.”
It happens on construction sites and farms, in restaurants and bars, and other locations the public might not expect, Maass says. Most traffickers target people who are already in their lives, she adds, such as employees, family members, and relatives.
“A lot of trafficking, we often think about it as happening by some stranger, like this kidnapping mentality,” said Maass. “But, often times, people are trafficked by people they know or people they trust.”
Julie A. Dahlstrom, director of Boston University Law’s Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program, provides legal protection for non-citizens who have been trafficked. The people often struggle to leave an abusive work environment or take legal action against a trafficker.
“For most of my clients, if they had an immigration lawyer when they arrived and access to the system before the exploitation occurred, they would not have had to experience forced labor,” said Dahlstrom.
Dahlstrom believes that to prevent increases in human trafficking in Boston, the city needs to create stable and accessible housing through programs like affordable housing or universal income.
“Unless there are systems or ways to address those underlying root causes, often people are vulnerable to being trafficked,” said Dahlstrom.
Rawan Khalili, a student attorney at Boston University Law’s Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program, believes that increasing education and awareness about human trafficking is key to protecting vulnerable people, especially non-citizens, against exploitation.
“In order to recognize the signs of human trafficking, you actually would need to know that human trafficking exists and that it can exist around you,” said Khalili. “Otherwise, it goes unseen, which is how a lot of folks get sucked into these exploitative networks.”
Khalili says trafficking can occur in spaces like public transportation, malls, and in the streets. Therefore, taking safety measures is important in daily life: being cautious with who you speak to, carrying pepper spray, using the “buddy system,” and removing yourself from uncomfortable situations.