A few months ago, one of my friends and I were talking about studying abroad soon, and, having overheard us, her mom insisted that we all sit down to watch Taken together for the afternoon. Her point was to bring up the dangers of traveling alone in a strange place and the horrors that could happen to girls like us when we’re away from home and beyond American borders.
While the movie definitely struck a chord with me and made me consider a world I’d frankly sooner prefer not to think about, that message didn’t quite sit right with me. The truth is, horrors can happen to girls anywhere, including in the United States, and for some people here, the risk is far more likely. For me to disregard those facts, it felt like a misuse of my freedoms.
Taken, for those familiar with the film, also brings up a lot of misconceptions about the sex trafficking industry that really need to get unpacked. In the real world, the white, middle-class girl who is traveling away from home is exponentially safer and more protected than an underage woman of color in America, especially if she’s spent any time in the foster system, is under the poverty line or is running away from home.
However, most of the outreach campaigns put forth in our country are not geared toward the real problem at hand, choosing instead to focus on a narrative that depicts young, suburban, virginal white women. Law enforcement is also rarely deployed properly in the right areas of society to engage the issue. What we really need is more intersectionality in our victim protection laws and outreach campaigns targeted specifically to aid women of lower income, minority or marginalized groups.
Some will say that sex work is an empowering opportunity, and for those who go into the industry entirely of their own accord, I hold nothing against them choosing to work this way. But that confidence narrative is one we tend to lean into most often because it washes out a much dirtier truth that makes us uncomfortable.
The reality of most sex work is that street prostitution begins at an average age of 12 to 14 years old, which, under almost every legal system in the world, is far below the legal age of consent. The trade, historically and currently, is rooted in the exploitation of minors and the domination of minorities and misrepresented, unprotected women. The reality is that there are nearly 25 million people in the world currently forced into sex slavery, and, by most estimations, that number is only growing.
Now, if you’re like me and numbers like this start to make your skin crawl, then know that there’s still hope out there. There are a few things that you can do to help promote awareness along with programs you can check out to help offer resources.
The Silver Spoon
Often when women are being smuggled out of the country, either as sex slaves or child wives, they will be pushed through airport surveillance. Often drugged and never out of sight of their pimp or guardian, women have one chance to flag down help when they go through security. A silver spoon tucked into one’s underwear is the oldest form of getting airport attention, but any odd piece of metal tucked somewhere it shouldn’t be—one’s sock, underwear, bra, headdress, etc.—can signal to the right authorities that something is clearly not right. From there, the woman will be pulled aside by security to a separate room away from any predatory gaze and questioned on her own to see if she is in need of any help or assistance.
As far as useful organizations, in my research, I’ve found Love146, Polaris and Thorn to be some of the most powerful and productive engines of change in the sex trafficking crisis. Love146 works specifically with the exploitation of children and specializes in prevention and rehabilitation through educational programs and empowerment homes for survivors. The Polaris Program takes a wider, more procedural legal approach and works with authorities worldwide to disrupt the industry on a massive scale and prevent direct avenues from funneling young women into the system. Thorn focuses on the tech side of sex-trafficking, given that most relationships between women and their pimps begin through online messaging. Using pattern-recognizing software, they will filter through ads posted to commercial sex sites and identify potential cases of child exploitation and actual slavery, rather than just business between consenting adults.