What a New Documentary Can Teach Us About Sex Trafficking

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by Amanda Rodhe

The recent release of the Netflix documentary The Disappearance of Madeleine McCann has sparked an international dialogue about sex trafficking.

The series recounts the story of a young British girl who went missing in Portugal while on vacation with her parents. Although she was taken nearly 12 years ago, the case has never been solved. A number of theories persist about what happened to McCann, but one of the hypotheses endorsed by the documentary is that she was kidnapped and sold into a sex trafficking ring.

McCann’s story gained international attention at the time of her disappearance. Her parents were incredibly persistent in getting her name into the press and trying to reach anyone who might have information about what happened to her. Unfortunately, most people are not well educated about sex trafficking. If this is indeed what happened to McCann, it’s possible that someone might have seen something significant and not even known it, simply because they weren’t aware of the signs.

Here, we’ll take a closer look sex trafficking: what it is, who it affects, and what’s being done to stop it.

What is Sex Trafficking?

Polaris, a national organization dedicated to ending human trafficking of all kinds, defines sex trafficking as “[the] use [of] threats, manipulation, lies, debt bondage, and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will.”

There is often confusion about the definition of sex trafficking versus sex work. And in truth, there is a lot of overlap. Many pimps exert control over and take money from the sex workers  they engage with. And people in relationships, even young people, may use power and control to coerce a partner into having sex with others for money. According to Polaris’ definition (and the laws in many states), that constitutes sex trafficking. Essentially, whenever there is a third party who is benefiting financially from sex work, and is exploiting or coercing the person doing the work, that is considered sex trafficking.

Who Are the Victims of Sex Trafficking?

There are a number of common misconceptions about the people who become victims of sex trafficking. Some assume that all victims are immigrants who are forced into sex trafficking because of a lack of other employment options. Others think victims are runaways, lured in by the kindness of a stranger and then forced into sex acts in order to repay them. Still others think they’re young children, kidnapped and traded like a commodity across international borders.

In reality, sex trafficking victims can be any or all of the above. There is no one way that sex traffickers find their victims or one particular kind of person they target. The victims are sometimes children, but other times they’re adults. They may be from the U.S. originally, or they may be immigrants. Some are kidnapped and violently forced into the sex trade, while others find themselves in a difficult life situation where they’re easily manipulated and coerced into sexual acts.

What Are the Signs?

Sex trafficking victims are often not identified because they’re afraid to speak up. They’ve been manipulated and exploited by their captor, and so even if they’re interacting with others from the outside world, they likely won’t announce that they’re a victim.

Instead, it’s up to us to recognize the signs of human trafficking. Innocents at Risk, a nonprofit that works to protect women and children who are victims of trafficking, provides a list of warning signs.

Victims are not well cared for, so they are sometimes injured or appear malnourished. They may wear the same outfit every day and not have any legal forms of identification. Because they’ve been emotionally manipulated, they may seem afraid of strangers, reluctant to make eye contact or speak to others. They also may be scared of law enforcement or other authority figures.

Who’s Working to Prevent It?

Preventing sex trafficking can be difficult because there is, relatively speaking, very little information available about sex trafficking. There’s also a lot of misunderstanding among the public about what sex trafficking is and isn’t. These facts combine to make it difficult for law enforcement to stop the practice and for ordinary citizens to identify and report it.

Fortunately, there are some organizations that are working to educate those citizens who are most likely to come in contact with sex trafficking victims. The New York Times recently wrote a profile about an organization called Truckers Against Trafficking.

Victims are often forced to work at truck stops, offering sex to truck drivers who are parked overnight and sleeping in their cabs. Truckers Against Trafficking works with drivers to educate them about sex trafficking, helping them to identify potential victims, and providing them with a hotline to report suspected incidences of trafficking.

The program has been very successful, with truckers calling into the hotline 2,250 times since its inception. This has resulted in law enforcement opening up 612 cases involving 1,133 victims.

Some airlines and hotels have undertaken similar programs. Because sex trafficking victims are sometimes transported by plane, Delta has trained nearly 60,000 of their employees to recognize the signs of sex trafficking. Similarly, hotels are a place where employees might come into contact with victims as they’re being transported. Radisson Hotel Group has been training employees to identify sex trafficking signs for the past 15 years, and they’ve made their commitment to ending trafficking a part of their Human Rights Policy.

Day One also provides workshops to both youth and adults that focus on sex trafficking prevention. Our Professionals Workshops on the topic, which are tailored towards adults who work with young people, discuss the intersection of dating abuse and domestic sex trafficking. Additionally, if you do not work directly with young people but would still like to get education,  we provide corporate workshops that can be tailored to your business or organization.

The story of Madeleine McCann is a tragic one. Her family and loved ones remain without answers more than a decade after her disappearance. And while her case has gained a great deal of public attention, the sad truth is that there are thousands of people we’ve never heard about in the news who are victims of sex trafficking, just like McCann may be.

But the McCann documentary may help another victim’s story end happily. Her disappearance has drawn attention to the often misunderstood and overlooked realities of sex trafficking. When ordinary people better understand what it is and who it affects, that just may lead to the identification and rescue of other victims.

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