January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, a chance to acknowledge the millions of vulnerable children, women, and men who currently live in slave-like conditions, forced into labor or to sell their bodies for sex, with little or no chance of escape.
The term “trafficking” can be misleading. To many it implies movement, like the crossing of borders; but the truth is that being trafficked is a state of being exploited.
In America many of us think of human trafficking as an “over there” problem; a sad tragedy that happens in other countries, or to foreign-born people who are smuggled into the United States—not something that occurs to our citizens. This is far from the truth. Domestic human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, is widespread and affects many people, particularly women and children.
Economic desperation. Physical force. Psychological coercion. Crippling addiction. These are just a few of the reasons adults are forced into prostitution. In cases involving minors, many are living on their own after escaping violent homes—often already victims of sexual and physical abuse—making them especially vulnerable to traffickers. Once caught up in this exploitative system, adults and children alike are subjected to unthinkable levels of trauma, including beatings and rape. The violence continues over and over again until it eventually seems normal. The longer a person is forced to endure this type of life, the harder getting out can seem, until they are left completely trapped in a cycle of abuse. Whether a person is forced, tricked, or coerced into prostitution, or sees selling sex as her only option for survival, the illegal sex industry thrives on hopelessness and vulnerability. Conditions that pimps and traffickers are all too willing to exploit for a profit.
So how do we stop it? Providing better opportunities for people trapped in the sex trade and arresting those who keep them there are crucial first steps, but they’re a short term solution. After all, survivors could easily remain vulnerable to future exploiters, and for every pimp and trafficker put in jail, there is another one willing to take his place and his profits.
If we truly want to end sex trafficking, we need to attack the source—the sex buyers who fill pimps’ pockets. We need to hold these buyers accountable with arrests, criminal records, and heavy fines—not slaps on the wrist or deferments. Unlike traffickers or their victims, sex buyers often work full-time jobs, hold places of respect in their communities, have families, and are in committed relationships. They are the ones with the most to lose, and therefore are most likely to be deterred if faced with real legal and social ramifications. With fewer sex buyers funding their bank accounts, the incentives for traffickers would diminish, and in time the industry—and all the harms inherent to it—would disappear.
Human Trafficking Awareness Month is a time for reflection, but can also be an opportunity to bring about real change. If we as a society agree that it’s time hold sex buyers accountable for fueling the illegal sex trade, we will take a giant step towards living in a world where Human Trafficking Awareness Month is no longer needed at all.
Do you believe that stopping sex trafficking starts with holding sex buyers more accountable? If so please share this blog on you own social media pages and help grow the conversation.