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Human Trafficking: Tackling a Main-Street America Problem


By Jerrilyn Singley

Human trafficking is a massive illicit criminal enterprise affecting millions of individuals. Only recently has trafficking begun to receive the attention it deserves, however, there remain many common misconceptions.

One misconception is that human trafficking is only a problem in third-world countries with low economic stability and political social unrest (Tverdova, 2011). While it is certainly true that human trafficking is exponential in countries with low socioeconomic opportunities, the reality is that this underground enterprise is booming within U.S. communities, towns, and neighborhoods, making it truly a main street America problem.

human-trafficking picAccording to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, current quantitative data provides an eye-opening reality that human trafficking is rapidly approaching colossal levels (Hodge, 2008). In fact, trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation has been identified as one of the leading risks for American youth today (Kotrla, 2010). While this remains a threat to our youth, modern-day slavery can affect anyone of any age, race, gender, or background, making it very difficult for law enforcement to identify victims. With the rate of human trafficking proliferating at an incredible speed, many wonder how a crime of this magnitude can not only expand, but occur at all in our own backyards right underneath the fabric of our daily lives.

Where Sex Trafficking is Hiding
The answer is that human-trafficking rings must infiltrate American society and businesses subtly so that consumers do not realize where their money is going (Tabb, 2005). Commonly, when it comes to sexual exploitation, human trafficking is hidden behind legitimate adult organizations including strip clubs, massage parlors, escort services, and even truck stops (Polaris Project, 2014).

In American society, sexual exploitation through human trafficking is frequently observed in the form of prostitution, exotic dancing, and even pornography (Potocky, 2010). Unfortunately, many Americans do not realize that the women entrapped in these trades are often not willing participants, but rather enslaved with few opportunities to escape.

For many of these women, they were initially forced into the sex industry as children and this is the only life they know (Bellows, 2013). Traffickers frequently prey upon susceptible individuals that society is often quick to overlook such as delinquent juveniles, runaways, or those who have low self-esteem and confidence, making them easy targets for traffickers’ false promises of a brighter future (Brennan, 2008).

Thankfully, a seed of awareness is beginning to grow in our society thanks to recent success stories. For example, the FBI initiative, Operation Cross Country, rescued 168 trafficked youth with the subsequent arrest of 281 pimps (FBI, 2014). These numbers prove that our country can no longer overlook human trafficking and assume it is a problem occurring in far-away countries. This is an epidemic in America that targets and endangers our youth, steals their innocence, dreams, and, most importantly, their basic fundamental rights of freedom.

Combating Trafficking Through Collaboration
Fighting human trafficking effectively requires a large-scale resolution and a synergized focus among many agencies using a three-fold approach of: awareness, reform, and rehabilitation.

Raise Awareness
First, as we have seen, there needs to be a continuation of awareness of this criminal industry in our society. If preventative measures are not taken, countless individuals will continue to be sold and exploited. Through the efforts of law enforcement, community outreach, and non-profit organizations, the message must be direct and clear: Human trafficking is affecting us all and quite frequently occurs right beneath the surface of our daily lives (Tverdova, 2011).

Also, as a nation, we must look to our own culture and practices that contribute to the proliferation of human trafficking. In recent years, American society has adopted a culture of tolerance as it pertains to the commercialization of the sex industry (Kotrla, 2010). The issue of sex in our culture has changed dramatically over the last decade and what was once considered a private and intimate affair has since moved into the spotlight and is identifiable as a new public norm that is not only praised, but also celebrated by many industries (Goren, 2003).

Examples of this culture of tolerance are visible in mainstream movies, music, and even books. Take for instance the overwhelming success of the book Fifty Shades of Gray, a story that flaunts deviant sexual behaviors that are a trademark of the human trafficking industry such as dominance and submission, bondage, and discipline (Goldman, 2012). This book became an almost overnight success and broke records by remaining on the bestseller list for more than a year and selling an approximate 20 million copies.

We also see new trends emerge such as that of pimp culture, which identifies pimps as being successful, a status symbol, or commonly reaching a level of achievement in society (Staiger, 2005). The extent to which our society has embraced an overly comfortable culture of tolerance is quickly proving to have an immense effect upon impressionable youth (Chung, 2007). When youth are the target markets of largely unregulated and sexually charged materials and content, the result is individuals who grow up believing it is the norm to objectify and degrade women, in addition to having a desensitized attitude towards sex and the rights of others (Anderson, 2009).

Although the culture of tolerance is ever-expanding to new lows, policies need to be instilled to create tougher regulations for businesses in the sex industry, specifically the pornography segment. There also needs to be increased ratings and monitoring of all entertainment content that features explicit content and is available to minors (Bouché, 2011).

Reform Practices of Response and Training
Secondly, combating human trafficking will require a level of reform as it pertains to response, training, and recognition. Sadly, many law enforcement agencies and non-government organizations struggle to come up with the necessary funding and resources to focus on human trafficking in their communities. By striving to raise awareness of this issue, we can clearly see the need for increased scholarly research with a clear focus on obtaining empirical data about human trafficking organizations and all of its facets and industries on a domestic and globalized scale (Marcus, 2012).

Furthermore, with increased knowledge and funding, first responders and other law enforcement personnel will have the training opportunities they require to better locate and identify trafficking victims throughout the course of their investigations. When multiple agencies join forces against human trafficking, each group brings their own unique skill set and focus that can exponentially increase the likelihood of success in fighting trafficking (Marcus, 2012).

Focus on Rehabilitating Victims
Lastly, there needs to be an increased focus on the rehabilitation of trafficking victims. To date, there are few trafficking-specific rehabilitation centers available, which often leads to a dilemma for law enforcement personnel. Victims of human trafficking are commonly detained in correctional centers which can lead to a host of problems. These include the revictimization of the individual or an increased lack of trust as many times the victim has been brainwashed to believe that law enforcement will only arrest and prosecute them (Hepburn & Simon, 2010). Such a situation can further complicate law enforcement’s chances of prosecuting the trafficker and gaining the victim’s trust and cooperation (Hepburn & Simon, 2010).

Commonly, without the right road to rehabilitation, trafficking victims frequently find themselves going back to the very industry that enslaved them. To combat this, members of the law enforcement, medical, and social-service professionals must come together and work towards the creation of specialized rehabilitation centers in their area that feature a vast array of services for trafficking victims like medical care, counseling, legal services, secure lodging, food, and even job skills (Meier, 2000).

Effectively combating human trafficking in America requires a multi-faceted approach from many different agencies with the goal and mindset of eradicating this criminal enterprise from our streets, neighborhoods, and towns. Only when our country accepts the fact that human trafficking is occurring domestically and is willing to take the vital steps necessary to take a stand against this abhorrent industry, can our nation begin to abolish this modern-day slavery and strive to protect the rights and freedoms of all individuals.

Jerriyln Singley headshotAbout the Author: Jerrilyn Singley graduated with high honors from American Military University with a bachelor’s of arts in criminal justice. Jerrilyn is former police dispatcher and volunteers as a victim advocate with her local police department.


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  1. I work for Chab Dai, a counter-trafficking organization/coalition founded on the principles of collaboration and connectivity. This article is spot on with the need for us to all work together if we’re ever to be successful in addressing human trafficking. One of our projects is Freedom Collaborative, an online platform designed to encourage and facilitate such partnerships and cooperation to make all of our work more effective and efficient. We want to see this collaboration between all stakeholders in counter-trafficking: academics, law enforcement, business sector, government entities, NGOs, on-the-ground practitioners, survivors, etc. Freedom Collaborative consists of a Registry of vetted organizations, an interactive map, a library of 1200+ resources on various aspects of human trafficking, Specialist profiles for experts in the field, and more. All the tools are meant to help form these relationships that are so important to our efforts having positive, long-term results. If you’re interested: http://freedomcollaborative.org/ or http://static.freedomcollaborative.org/howitworks.html


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