life

Trafficking doesn’t look like you might think it does.

I’m gonna get cranky and serious for a minute.

The Epstein case and Pizzagate hoax brought child trafficking into the public eye.

Well, the “public eye.”

For some sectors of society, human trafficking has been a known reality. People were aware that there was danger, just like they’re aware that breast cancer exists. Just look at the long-running efforts to find answers about missing Indigenous women for one example. Unfortunately, narratives surrounding human trafficking have begun to solicit attention by playing to a very specific type of fear — the fears culturally pushed on middle- to upper middle-class white women. This isn’t an uncommon tactic, either. To paraphrase Henry Zebrowski’s comment about a true crime documentary, “Are ya scared, ladies? Are ya scared?”

Look at it this way. How many posts on social media have you seen about “unpublicized numbers of missing children,” or pieces of paper, flowers, or plastic bags used to “mark” cars for kidnapping attempts, or families being targeted at Walmart, IKEA, or the grocery store? Many of them aren’t even new, they’re just making the rounds again.

The trouble with these stories is that they put forth a picture of human trafficking that ends up doing more harm than good. While concerned about strange people at gas stations, shops, and parking lots, they’re overlooking what human trafficking is, how it works, and what it looks like. These stories overlook these things in favor of a more dramatic image that strikes a chord in the people most likely to make sure they’re posted over and over again. And they do it in ways that might actually be putting kids in danger.

I’ll give one very specific example. There was one mother who was concerned about her kids getting snatched. She always held their hands in public, never let them out of her sight in crowds, and even had nightmares about someone kidnapping one of her children. She paid far less attention to the fact that one of her kids was of a marginalized gender and orientation, mentally ill, and suffering from living in an unstable home. In focusing on the idea of tot snatchers, she had overlooked the things that were actually dangerous.

These were things that a potential trafficker saw. Maybe it was the way the kid carried themselves, their worn, ill-fitting clothes, or the fact that they were walking home down an otherwise-vacant street, alone, long after other kids had already left school. Either way, he crept on this kid and tried to convince them to get in his car for “a ride home.” He even held out his watch as he circled around behind them, encouraging them to get closer, to see exactly how late it was.

Abductors choose their victims the way a hyena picks out the sick and injured.

Luckily, I panicked and ran for it.

I second-guessed myself afterward, too. Maybe he was just trying to be nice. Maybe I was the asshole here, getting an innocent man in trouble. When he turned up the next day with a group of his friends, harassing my local crossing guard to try to find out where I lived, I decided that I was probably right the first time.

Not all kids are so lucky. My experience was an outlier in some ways. For one, this guy was a stranger to me — the majority of kids (76%) are snatched by those they know. (He also could’ve been a garden-variety serial killer, but I’m giving him a very, very small benefit of the doubt here.)

There are other reasons why posts that say things like, “we should be publicizing the numbers of missing children the way we publicize COVID numbers” are severely missing the point. The number of people who aren’t concerned about missing children is vanishingly small, and always has been. Who would this statistic help? The only people who have somehow managed to remain unaware of child trafficking until now are the people who haven’t experienced a reason to pay attention. A statistic isn’t going to do it.

It also plays into several myths about human trafficking. A significant number of trafficking victims aren’t “missing” at all. Trafficking doesn’t require someone to disappear. People forced into labor against their will are trafficked, even if they never go missing. A teenaged girl whose boyfriend exploits her vulnerability to convince her to perform sex work to earn money for him might go home to her unknowing parents every night. She’s still being trafficked.

Not all trafficking victims see themselves as missing, either. They may have genuine feelings for the person trafficking them, and think they are helping. They may not be desperate to leave their trafficker, or seek help to do so. Believe it or not, some may not want their families to find them.

Lastly, of the roughly 800,000 children reported missing yearly in the US, a huge number of them are victims of parental kidnapping — one source claims over a quarter, while the Parents.com page linked above claims 49%. (The discrepancy may lie in the fact that almost half of all kids kidnapped by a parent aren’t considered missing by the other parent.) There’s also the number of runaway and homeless youth: 1 in 10 young adults between the ages of 18-25, and 1 in 30 children between 13-17. This includes kids who ran away or were kicked out. Conflating missing children with trafficked children overlooks a vast array of other reasons kids disappear, as well as a ton of kids who actually are being trafficked.

There are also children trafficked by their foster or adoptive parents. The situation of “rehoming” “problem” adopted kids is a very deep rabbit hole that’s outside the scope of this post, however. It’s also somehow manages to be even more depressing to write about.

Anyone can be trafficked, but some people are much more likely than others. Human traffickers are like other criminals, they don’t want to go after a target that’s more trouble than its worth. They don’t want to snatch someone who will draw attention. People who have exploitable vulnerabilities — who are walking home late and look lonely and uncared-for, who have been kicked out of their homes for being gay or trans, who run away from an abusive family, who are recent migrants who experience difficulty navigating a new language and country — are the easy targets.

If this was about murder instead, trafficking victims would often fall into the category of “the least dead.” They’re the people who tend to attract less attention and coverage when something bad happens. Few criminals want people to take an interest in their activities.

This doesn’t mean that all kinds of people don’t get snatched by strangers. It does mean that posts and memes focusing on that specific scenario do a disservice to the very people that need to be protected. It’s kind of like posting about how huffing drain cleaner can give you lung cancer. While true, it’s also not a very effective way to prevent lung cancer.

The Epstein case also narrowed the focus to sex trafficking. In reality, human trafficking encompasses far more types of labor. By playing on the media-friendly fear of sexual violence, it draws attention to one very specific type of child trafficking. How many memes about missing children examine the amount of trafficked labor it takes to pick vegetables, butcher meat, mine ore, or sew garments? They don’t, because that doesn’t garner enough attention.

The thing that really shits me is the bone-deep irony of people who purchase counterfeit designer goods reposting memes about human trafficking. Not only do counterfeit goods rely on trafficked labor to produce, they’re a significant income stream for organized crime syndicates. So is sex trafficking. Purchasing fakes doesn’t just save the buyer money — it incentivizes human trafficking and puts money directly into the pockets of the organizations that profit from it. Fake purses create a market for trafficked kids.

Tl;dr, human trafficking is an enormous problem that goes way, way deeper than is often represented. Memes about protecting oneself and one’s family from kidnappers, or publicizing numbers of missing children versus COVID numbers aren’t helpful, and may be actively harmful by misrepresenting what trafficking looks like. Even if they’re well-intentioned, they end up supporting an agenda different from actually ending human trafficking.

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