Thursday, July 26, 2012

How Are Girls Trafficked?

Movies like "Taken" have done for sex trafficking, what "Pretty Woman" did for prostitution. Many of us have seen Julia Robert's play the down-on-her-luck prostitute who is swept off her feet by a good looking, wealthy businessman who is looking for love and woos her into a fairytale life where everything is good. This single piece of media has had an impact upon our understanding of prostitution and exploitation of women...but that is another story...

Certainly, "Taken" is not a love story; it is an action packed thriller intended to entertain us. Action movies are great and Liam Neeson is great actor too! As a whole, the movie is a lot of fun to watch. We love the idea of a hero who has unlimited skills, unlimited resources, and can save a girl from being sexually trafficked and exploited. Unfortunately, there are not many people like Liam's character. Nor are there situations that turn out quite the way this film portrayed.

Liam Neeson's character coming to the rescue.
In fact, many of the movies about trafficking have very little basis in reality. They are created by film makers and film companies looking to sell tickets, not abolitionists looking to end global slavery. The abolitionists that have made films have had a hard time getting them funded and watched by the masses. As a result, many of these mainstream films major in sensationalism. They seek to shock, appall, and in some cases educate and even challenge us. But, ultimately these films are there to entertain us.

So, what does this have to do with how girls are trafficked? Well, a lot actually. In the discussion of whether art imitates life or life imitates art, we are confronted with the fact that films about trafficking have given us a false sense of reality about the world of trafficking (or at least a skewed view of it).

At conferences, meetings, and speaking engagements we are regularly greeted with phrases like "Oh, it is so horrible - the thought of girls being kidnapped and trafficked to other countries.", "I always tell my daughter to be looking out for strange vehicles that might grab her off the street and traffic her.", or "It is horrible how girls can just be nabbed up and taken away to something so awful." But, is this really how it happens?

Maggie Grace in Taken - just before being kidnapped.
We were wondering if these kinds of thought processes are really the kinds of thoughts that live in public consciousness about sex trafficking? Do we really believe that sex trafficking occurs because there are predators seeking to kidnap pretty girls and sell them into the sex trade? The answer is yes. Sex trafficking is an emotionally heavy issue that is often challenging to process. The idea of people being enslaved, abused, exploited, and thrown away is difficult. We often have to dispel belief in order to accept the fact that this horrible crime exists.

Yet, it does really exist. So, it often makes us feel 'better' (used loosely) to think of cruel men pulling up in a black van and kidnapping a girl than it is to consider that most traffickers never need to lay a hand on a girl (initially) in order to traffic them. Most girls, in fact, go willingly. In the counter trafficking world, we use the term push and pull factors to understand how trafficking happens.

Push factors are the general reasons why many victims want to leave their home country, and the Pull factors are the reasons that draw them to their destination. But, if we expand this definition to a more micro-level, we see something significant at work. A push factor can also be poverty, dysfunctional family, domestic violence, abuse in the home, lack of opportunity, and other things that tend to 'push' people out of situations and place them in more vulnerable ones. Pull factors on the other hand can be job opportunities, the offer of money, the offer of love (a pimps most classic ploy), or another factor that seems better than the push factor circumstances.

While violence is certainly employed against victims of trafficking, there is very little need for this on the part of traffickers, who can use much more effective means of drawing people into their traps. The offer of a better life or better circumstance drives people to put themselves in precarious situations where traffickers, pimps, etc. can develop control.

Why is all of this relevant? First, because it helps us frame how girls are really trafficked. When we realize that many victims were already 'at risk' before being trafficked and that many of them put themselves in situations where traffickers were able to gain control of their lives, we can begin to understand the mindset of victims and develop effective programs to help them find healing. Second, when we have a more realistic view of traffickers methodology, we can help educate vulnerable populations, train law enforcement, and create more effective laws and policies to address the problem.


  1. Thanks so much for this article! I will share the link on my blog.

  2. Bonnie, thank you...we appreciate you spreading the word!