FAIR Girls Admin
Executive Director Letter – September 2020
Dear Friends & Supporters,
Welcome Back to Fall! We missed you in August, but our team took some much needed down time to recharge from an intense spring and summer. For many, September is a time of exciting new beginnings and routines, as kids are back to school and we return to our regular work schedule. Here at FAIR Girls, our critical work with Survivors continues as we are gearing up for a busy start to our new fiscal year with several exciting projects in the works, including our Drop in Center expansion project and our “Back to School” social media campaign and webinar series to raise awareness, debunk myths and discuss trends related to human trafficking.
This September, more than ever, has me pausing to take a moment to reflect on and appreciate all that we have been through in Fiscal Year 20. Despite everything, I am so proud of our small but mighty Staff and Board and how they have risen to the challenges we have faced this fiscal year every step of the way, providing innovative solutions and systems to enable FAIR Girls to continue to serve trafficking survivors safely and responsibly. I look back on how we pivoted our annual in-person fundraiser to a virtual event and exceeded our best expectations in large part due to the creativity of our team and your kind generosity. I appreciate how we were able to provide real time solutions with our industry partners for survivors in need of a safe place to quarantine before transitioning to our Vida Home. I reflect back in awe on how we were able to reach and teach even more community members through moving our prevention education and training efforts online. I am inspired and hopeful about the progress FAIR Girls has already made on the action items set forth in our June statement regarding the systematic racial injustice, violence and civil unrest roiling our communities. As we look forward to the new beginnings of Fiscal Year 21, we will be working with our local law enforcement partners to expand our street outreach initiative, deepen our partnership with MPD’s Youth and Family Services Division, and train new recruits and veterans at the MPD Academy to ensure that victims of human trafficking are better identified, treated humanely and have access to the services they need. Indeed, we are positioned to be exactly where we need to be in the coming year – in the trenches trying to create positive change from within the systems that have historically criminalized, abused or ignored the survivors we work with.
We are also excited to highlight our FAIR Girls Volunteer Program this month. Volunteers are a critical part of sustaining our programs here at FAIR Girls! As many of us are mourning the loss of a hero and role model in Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we felt like it was important to highlight the inspiring and impactful things that we see volunteers in our communities doing every day to support, inspire and empower girls and young women survivors. We rely upon and appreciate the time and investment that all of our amazing volunteers dedicate to supporting our mission. We welcome supporters who are interested in deepening their investment to consider becoming a volunteer – there are so many different ways that you can get involved.
How can you let your light shine by sharing it with others? Please click here for more info. And I hope you take a moment to read below about supporters Lola Maraiyesa and Gabi Green and learn about why they have chosen to give back through volunteering and supporting FAIR Girls.
Armed with the reflection that we, like the Survivors we work with everyday, can not only survive but thrive even when the world throws us a devastating pandemic, civil unrest and economic hardship… I say Onward – Bring on Fiscal Year 20!
As always, we thank you for your generosity, kindness and continued support of FAIR Girls during these challenging and unprecedented times.
Erin B. Andrews
Executive Director, FAIR Girls
Honoring the Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and A Call to Action to Continue the Fight For Equality, Justice and Women’s Rights
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will undoubtedly be remembered as a trailblazer for gender equality and a fierce advocate for social justice. Guiding all of her work was her core belief that “women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” Her long life of service and leadership proved her commitment to that belief.
Across the country, many of us are mourning her passing, and the passionate, principled stances she brought to the Supreme Court. Throughout her time on the bench, she defended women’s equality in the workplace, upheld LGBTQ rights, and wrote stinging dissenting opinions in defense of racial justice. We are left with the uncertainty her vacancy brings on the Supreme Court and in the movement to advance social justice. However, Justice Ginsburg’s commitment to women’s rights offers us guidance and calls on all of us to uphold her legacy as we continue to fight!
Justice Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School, and was one of only nine women in her class of over 500 men. Upon graduating from law school, she faced barriers seeking a job in a male-dominated field, but this only fueled her commitment to fighting for women’s rights. In 1971, she founded the Women’s Rights Project with the American Civil Liberties Union. As a lawyer, she argued several cases before the Supreme Court, which advanced gender equality, and in 1993, she became the second woman ever to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. She accomplished all this, as many of us do, wearing the multiple hats of mother, wife, grandmother, colleague and friend. And she did it all with a level of grace, professionalism and civility that feels so sorely missed in our current culture.
In honoring Justice Ginsburg’s legacy and life-long commitment to gender equality, we must also acknowledge the work that remains. Female-identifying populations continue to face inequality through violence and exploitation. Women still endure attacks against their autonomy to make important decisions regarding their bodies, health and futures. FAIR Girls, as an organization that serves female-identifying clients, can and will continue Justice Ginsburg’s work and uplift her legacy by providing vulnerable girls and women with the resources and services they need not only to survive, but to thrive.
Justice Ginsburg understood that true equality and liberation for girls and women depends on freeing the most vulnerable among us. When discussing the #metoo movement, she stated that her hope “is not just that it is here to stay, but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars.” Meaningful progress must include those girls and
women who are too often left behind, forgotten, and hidden. FAIR Girls knows this includes the more than 15,000 female-identifying victims, identified through the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline last year and the many more who are still being victimized and unreported.
FAIR Girls supports survivors of trafficking by offering direct services including crisis intervention, safe emergency and transitional housing, case management and economic empowerment. FAIR Girls also facilitates awareness through prevention education in our communities and local schools, empowering youth with tools to stay safe from exploitation and trafficking and becoming advocates themselves. And, in the echoes of Justice Ginsburg’s advocacy, FAIR Girls is committed to amplifying the voices of the female-identifying survivors we serve everyday in our continued fight for systemic change and justice. We do so through policy advocacy rooted in their lived experiences and needs, including reducing their criminalization, providing meaningful pathways to justice for their restoration, and barrier-free access to specialized housing, resources and services.
Justice Ginsburg had a gift for forcing others to recognize the inherent humanity of women in a society that continuously sought to dehumanize them. She once stated that she would like to be remembered as “someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability.” She will undoubtedly be remembered that way. However, while she helped pave the way for many young women who will follow in her footsteps, Justice Ginsburg knew the fight was far from over. She left each of us with a mandate to use our own abilities, skills, networks, and passion to continue the hard work. And as we continue in this fight for true gender equality, protection of rights, and justice for all girls and women, we too must rise to her challenge to fight to the very best of our ability.
The Changing Role of Technology in Trafficking
According to the World Bank, 75% of the world’s population has access to a mobile phone. Additionally, 4.3 billion people use social media of some kind. A Pew Research study found that in the United States, 95% of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 have access to a smartphone and 45% reported that they are online on an almost constant basis. The interconnectedness made possible by the internet certainly has its benefits; it is easier to keep in touch with friends and family, shop online, and remain up to date on current events and news from around the world. We are able to connect with those we do know, but we are also a click away from those we don’t—a new reality that is inherently dangerous, especially for vulnerable youth. Kids and teens often recognize to be alarmed when a stranger approaches them in person, yet this instinct does not always translate to online interactions due to the “anonymous” culture of the internet. In fact, a study by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that 25% of school-age youth admitted they had live-streamed with a stranger on social media.
Traffickers have taken advantage of this new opportunity to privately and strategically access such a young, vulnerable population. Social media and the internet have facilitated marketplace expansion in nearly every realm of commerce. Unfortunately, this includes harmful and illegal activity such as selling humans for sex and child sexual abuse material online. With social media being such a significant part of youths’ lives around the world, they are vulnerable to traffickers who undoubtedly seek to exploit them on these platforms. eMarketer.com estimates that 5.7 million children worldwide under the age of 11 have Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat accounts despite their age restrictions that are supposed to keep this young demographic from using them.
Online Sexual Exploitation
In recent years, traffickers have shifted their focus online to recruit sex trafficking survivors and advertise them to sex buyers. This may not always be an in-person sexual act; the internet has created an entire market for “webcam” or “cam shows” in which individuals perform live, interactive sexual acts on camera for buyers, who don’t even have to leave their couch to consume this product. However,coercing a survivor to engage in in-person sex work is still the most common form of sex trafficking through social media. Survivors do not have to be physically close to their trafficker in order to be exploited—they can be exploited through force, fraud and coercion without ever meeting their trafficker in person. A survey of domestic youth trafficking survivors by the non-profit Thorn in collaboration with Dr. Vanessa Bouché of Texas Christian University found that 42% of those who initially met their traffickers online never met them in person. These survivors are often manipulated through sextortion, which the FBI defines as “a serious crime that occurs when someone threatens to distribute your private and sensitive material if you don’t provide them images of a sexual nature, sexual favors, or money.”
The rate of online trafficking and pimps advertising survivors online is accelerating rapidly. Online advertising maximizes profits for traffickers, thus improving their business model. For example, 1 in 7 respondents in Thorn’s survey who were required to engage in sex work on the street reported more than 10 buyers per day. Comparatively, 1 in 4 respondents who were advertised online reported more than 10 buyers per day. Therefore, online advertising of sex is becoming more common as street sex work decreases. Before 2004, the main advertising method was on the street and just 38% of sex workers were advertised online. However, for those who entered the Life in 2004 or later, online advertising had increased to 75%. The most popular online platforms for advertising (according to those surveyed by Thorn) were Backpage, Craigslist, RedBook, SugarDaddy, and Facebook. Advertisements are certainly not limited to these sites.
Thorn’s study was completed before Backpage was shut down. While we know that some sex worker advocates indicate that street sex work is on the rise since the government shut down Backpage.com, we also know from working with survivors every day that new online platforms facilitating human trafficking pop up frequently to keep the billion dollar business going. Many traffickers simply switched to using other websites with servers outside of the United States instead of Backpage, according to NPR. This online shift reduces opportunities for street outreach intervention programs (such as the one FAIR Girls’ began this past year) and reduces opportunities to better identify potential survivors through open lines of communication and resources.
How do traffickers manipulate children online?
Thorn’s study found that 55% of minor sex trafficking survivors in the US who were trafficked in 2015 or later reported meeting their traffickers for the first time using text, a website, or an app. Traffickers seek out youth they perceive to be more vulnerable, such as those who post about troubles at home or indicators of low self-esteem. Scrutinizing an individual’s social media accounts gives a trafficker an opportunity to learn about their targets’ lives and vulnerabilities, and therefore manipulate them most effectively. Social media provides traffickers with anonymity—they can easily hide behind a screen and a fake profile to avoid revealing signs that they are dangerous to a victim. They can communicate freely with victims, as many parents do not closely monitor their child’s social media interactions or accounts.
Traffickers send potential victims flattering messages that make them feel heard and valued, such as “you are beautiful” or “I know how you feel.” They build rapport with youth and begin to gain their trust—they may even pose as potential dating partners (sometimes on dating sites such as Tinder, Grindr, OKCupid, or SeekingArrangement). They often promise to support the victim, give them gifts, and help them “escape” their troubles. Additionally, traffickers occasionally pose as someone recruiting nannies, models, dancers, or for another kind of job to lure potential victims to travel to meet with them.
If a youth has few people in their life who support them, this online persona who makes them feel special becomes their replacement support system. Eventually, a trafficker will escalate the relationship, lure a victim to meet in person, manipulate them into “supporting” the trafficker in return for the trafficker’s attention, gifts, or love—from here it’s a quick entry into the Life. However, in some cases traffickers may never meet with their victims in person and instead use forms of sextortion to ensnare and manipulate them. Threats and coercion do not need to be conveyed in person to have a powerful hold on a survivor.
What can be done?
Promoting online safety is more important than ever! Teachers and parents can promote safe usage of technology in a non-judgemental way to youth. While acknowledging that social media can be a positive thing, we all can relay age appropriate information to youth about the dangers of the internet such as body image issues, cyber bullying, sextortion and human trafficking. Framing these conversations so that they are not fear based and emphasizing that these negative scenarios may never happen to them specifically make them more effective. The conversation can always be framed to say that this critical information is not only to help them stay safe but also to empower them to help a friend that they might see in trouble. Encouraging youth to keep their profile settings on private, turn off their location services, not post on social media until they leave a location, and not accept requests from people they do not know can protect them. Parents and guardians should discuss with and fully utilize parental controls available on the online platforms that the youth they live with access. We should be reminding youth that anything they share on the internet or via text or social media is no longer theirs and it lives out there forever—it can be screenshotted and spread without their consent or knowledge.
Efforts to prevent child sexual exploitation online extends beyond direct conversations with young people. Some social media platforms such as Facebook claim to actively monitor their sites to prevent child sexual exploitation and abuse material, although their protocol is not always clear. However, some others like Tik Tok turn a blind eye and do not have adequate privacy measures or community guidelines. Now that 1.5 billion young people have been affected by school closures worldwide due to COVID-19, there is a heightened risk of online sexual exploitation on account of more children being online for distance learning. Some ways that we can counter the potential dangers of this increased online presence are creating parental controls for all youth social media accounts, for social media platforms to better and regularly train content moderators or using PhotoDNA by Microsoft. PhotoDNA works to identify child victims by examining photos uploaded to the platform and cross checking them against known child sexual abuse material from child pornography websites and online sex marketplaces.
However, there are no comprehensive and cohesive laws that require social media platforms and chat room sites—in which we have seen increased exploitation, grooming, and recruitment even before COVID—to comply with these important preventative measures. FAIR Girls supports increased accountability and transparency from providers of social media sites and online platforms. Currently, there is proposed legislation titled the “EARN IT (Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies) Act of 2020” that addresses this issue. If enacted, it would establish a National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention led by the Attorney General that would be tasked with recommending best practices to providers of social media sites to prevent the online sexual exploitation of children. If companies certify that they have implemented the best practices prevention practices approved by the National Commission, they may be protected from civil and criminal liability for conduct on their sites that violates certain provisions of federal criminal law. Currently, how safe a social media or online platform is from detecting and preventing online child sexual abuse and exploitation is largely in the hands of private companies looking to profit by turning a blind eye, but the EARN IT Act could change that. Creating incentives for these social media and online companies to do their part to make their sites safer, is one step in the right direction. However, while it is incumbent upon all social media platforms to put adequate controls to prevent, identify, and report child sexual exploitation into place, it is also the responsibility of parents, guardians, schools, faith-based youth groups, and the community in general to utilize those preventive measures and to continue to raise awareness around this issue, through demanding that local schools and youth programs implement prevention education curriculums, such as FAIR Girls’ “Tell Your Friends,” for all middle school aged youth and above to ensure that we are providing our communities’ youth with the tools they need to stay safe from manipulation, recruitment and exploitation online.
Executive Director Letter – July 2020
Dear Friends & Supporters,
I hope that you all are finding new ways to enjoy some summer “downtime,” rest and relaxation. I always find July to be a wonderful time to step back, take a deep breath, recharge my batteries after the crazy chaos of grant season and our annual fundraising event. As we begin the last quarter of our fiscal year and the lull before the storm of the busy Fall, I like to use this time as a check-in, an opportunity to assess how the organization is doing. Have we made progress towards our organizational goals? How are we doing financially, operationally, programmatically? What do we need to prioritize now?
Much like the benchmark meetings we have everyday with Survivors, it is important to set aside this “taking stock” time to ensure that we are going in the direction we want to be and to make adjustments if we have gotten sidetracked. Unfortunately, this July feels more like we are all stuck in a confusing and stressful waiting pattern. Waiting to hear about what school will look like in the Fall…waiting to see where this pandemic will take us next…waiting to learn what the economic impact will be for small nonprofits like us. That last one weighs heavy right now, as we have been informed that the critical government grant funding that we rely upon to sustain our Vida Home, our Street Outreach program, our Prevention Education efforts could be cut 20-50% or more for FY21 based on reductions in federal VOCA funding and reprioritization of local funds to COVID related costs. But while we wait… we are still busy planning here at FAIR Girls! We are planning for as many contingencies as possible. I have watched the dedication, selflessness and commitment of our amazing FAIR Girls staff and our Executive Board as we face the uncertain future. We are planning for how to best handle more clients and staff being exposed to asymptomatic COVID positive individuals. We are planning for how to keep our Vida Home and Drop-in Center operating in the safest ways possible. We are planning for how we sustain our programs over the coming year in the absence of government funding.
As many of you know, FAIR Girls had to cancel our annual in-person fundraiser due to COVID-19. While we were disappointed that we were not able to celebrate in person together, we used the opportunity to innovate and pivoted to our first ever virtual fundraiser! The event and auction – A Celebration of Resilience and Hope: Ending Human Trafficking One Life at a Time – took place entirely online on June 30th. And, due in large part to all of you – our amazing supporters – it was a tremendous success! It was indeed the silver lining on an otherwise gray cloud. While we had no experience in producing a virtual event and no idea what to expect in terms of outcome, we did not let that stop us. We decided to approach it the same way we approach working with survivors – with open minds and hearts, creativity, flexibility, and teamwork… and lots of coffee! We are so proud of the end result and the ways we were able to still share our work with you. With your generous event sponsorships and donations, FAIR Girls can continue to provide critical life saving programs and services to survivors of trafficking. I also want to say a heartfelt thank you to the survivors who trusted us to share their personal journeys, our Staff and Executive Board who shared their passion for our work, our local and national supporters who took time out of their busy schedules to share why they support FAIR Girls, and our partner vendors who worked side by side with us to make this virtual fundraiser a reality.
If you weren’t able to join us for the virtual fundraiser on June 30th, please take a moment to check it out at https://fairgirls.org/celebrate, including the survivor stories, the strength and passion of our staff and Board, and the inspiring support from local and national leaders. Your continued donations are directly and positively impacting the sustainability of our life-saving programs as we face and plan for the economic uncertainty of the coming months.
In other good news, please take a moment to read below to get acquainted with Devyn Brown, our wonderful new Director of Programs. While a transition is always challenging and we were sad to see Shannon Sigamoni move on to the next phase of her career, we are so excited that Devyn has taken on this leadership role for our FAIR Girls team. Last but not least, thank you. Thank you for your continued support during these challenging times. Thank you for your unwavering faith in FAIR Girls and our mission to end human trafficking, one life at a time. Thank you for your investment in the lives of survivors!
Erin B. Andrews
Executive Director, FAIR Girls
How Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich Reimagines True Crime
True crime media has exploded in recent years—whether it be podcasts, television series, documentaries, or movies, this genre has a unique ability to grip listeners and viewers. We are all familiar with the latest binge-watches and media executives are hard pressed to create the next one. Series like Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Evil Genius, Don’t F*** with Cats, Leaving Neverland, Tiger King, and Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes follow the stories of criminals, fleetingly making them the subjects of everyone’s fascination. More recently, re-enactments such as Waco, The People v OJ Simpson, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile have transformed infamous crimes into full scale cinematic productions with big names like Zac Efron and John Travolta. Recently, Netflix released the latest of its string of true crime shows. Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich details the crimes of financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.
After decades of sexually abusing countless girls and young women with little consequence, Epstein finally faced sex trafficking charges in 2019. In the four-part series, Director Lisa Bryant highlights how Epstein curiously evaded punishment for so long. She exposes Epstein’s manipulation of the law as well as the suspicious complacency of the individuals who were charged with bringing him to justice. Filthy Rich plainly shows how the system failed his victims, many of whom were from low-income neighborhoods and disadvantaged backgrounds.
The true crime genre is problematic and complicit in supporting the systems that failed Epstein’s victims. There is something inherently voyeuristic and insensitive about turning a crime that likely damaged many lives forever into a means of entertainment and profit. True crime shows and movies often feel cold and exploitative in their focus on the perpetrator; empathy is too often abandoned in favor of mindless entertainment. Whodunnit shows like Dateline and Investigation Discovery broadcast an apathetic approach to murders, disappearances, and sexual violence and exploitation – often reducing the victim’s pain and suffering to little more than a few hours of leisure for viewers. These shortcomings culminate in an entertainment genre – and hence a media culture – that values grisly details of exploitation and violence over details about the victim impact or survivorship.
Filthy Rich’s emphasis on practices ingrained in our justice system that benefit white, wealthy individuals is especially poignant right now, as we mourn the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and unacceptable racial injustice and violence against our Black community members. The institutionalized racism prevalent in our criminal justice system is highlighted by how long it took to hold Epstein accountable. Consider how a wealthy white man can freely abuse and traffic dozens of girls for years despite multiple police and FBI reports of his conduct, yet George Floyd was murdered by a police officer just for suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill.
While Filthy Rich may fall under the genre of true crime, it sets itself apart from other well known shows in its category. Unlike hit series Don’t F*** with Cats and The Ted Bundy Tapes, Bryant takes a victim-centered approach to Filthy Rich. She includes little information about Epstein himself save for what is necessary for viewers to understand his wealth, connections, and sociopathic tendencies. Conversely, every survivor interviewed shares details about their childhood, profession, hobbies, relationships, and life after their horrific abuse. The survivors interviewed are given a platform to tell their lived experiences beyond just an “entertaining” description of Epstein’s abuse and exploitation of them. Instead of passively watching the show, viewers are challenged to focus on the survivors’ humanity and empathize with their pain and struggle to process and heal from the atrocious abuse Epstein subjected them to.
Human trafficking is a crime that is difficult to grasp for many. It is often misunderstood in a way that leads to victim blame. For example, if victims are not physically prevented from leaving their trafficker, they are often written off as consensual sex workers. This common mistake makes the show’s survivor testimony all the more critical to educating our community, addressing myths and misconceptions and raising awareness. Bryant expertly documents Epstein’s and accomplice Ghislane Maxwell’s calculated economic and psychological manipulation of his victims, including his threats and stalking of those who tried to seek help. In doing so, Bryant makes clear that these women—some just children at the time—were trapped. The dire importance of intervention by those who see the signs of trafficking is revealed through a man interviewed in the series who worked for Epstein and saw signs of the abuse firsthand. At the time, it made him uncomfortable and suspicious—looking back, he wished he had acted on those suspicions. This highlights just how important it is to educate the public on what human trafficking looks like and what it doesn’t and what to do if you do suspect it is happening hidden in plain sight.
Survivors of human trafficking (and televised crime victims in general) are often sensationalized like murder victims in the average Dateline episode. True crime series are often performative; even the docuseries Don’t F*** with Cats that attempts to offer social commentary by critiquing our obsession with true crime seems ingenuine in light of its showing the killers’ own recordings of his crimes with barely a mention of his victim. Sadly, white, wealthy women who are low-risk victims tend to be the subject of popular shows as their victimization is more shocking and thus entertaining in our country. Filthy Rich amplifies the voices of those who are more often the victims of crime—young, low-income women, many of which suffered sexual abuse as a child.
Survivors of sex crimes—whether the subject of a show or a newspaper article—are usually nameless and faceless to us. Sometimes that is for good reasons such as safety and confidentiality. Sometimes it is because our media culture does not value their pain or abuse enough to accurately portray it. When Epstein’s crimes finally came to light in 2019, his life and persona dominated the national narrative rather than a larger conversation about sexual abuse or commercial sexual exploitation of children. Filthy Rich addresses that head on by focusing on the dehumanization of Epstein’s crimes, allowing victims to share their lived experiences with the world despite not being able to share it while facing their trafficker in a court of law. With Epstein’s alleged accomplice Ghislane Maxwell now in custody, perhaps survivors will finally see one of their abusers brought to justice. Furthermore, Maxwell may be capable of exposing other traffickers and pedophiles unknown to law enforcement who engaged in sex crimes with Epstein. As current events and the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates, exposing the ingrained racism and shameful double standard of our criminal justice system is critical to ensuring that future Epsteins (and Maxwells) do not escape justice. Until wealthy White criminals can no longer strike absurdly lenient deals with law enforcement behind closed doors, true “justice” will remain elusive – an empty promise.
Behind the Throne: A Deeper Look at Netflix’s Tiger King
It all comes down to perfect timing. While Netflix had no way of knowing we would all be forced into quarantine when they dropped Tiger King, they ended up providing the world with the perfect form of escapist entertainment. There is a reason Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness has been the number one show on Netflix since it came out. All I can say is wow…just wow.
The docuseries follows the truly wild story of Joe Exotic, a flamboyant, gun-toting, so-called zookeeper of nearly 200 tigers and his rivalry with animal activist Carole Baskin, the owner of Big Cat Rescue in Florida. Some other notable characters include Jeff Lowe, who was arrested for sneaking tiger cubs into Las Vegas casinos, and “Doc” Antle, a doctor of mystical science who operates Myrtle Beach Safari. The show covers everything from animal abuse to missing limbs, country music diss tracks, a presidential campaign, and a whole lot of crazy outfits.
Right now it is easy to just escape into this type of outrageous entertainment that everyone seems to be talking about. Social media has been overwhelmed with posts about which celebrities should be cast as Joe Exotic in an HBO series and countless memes of Carole feeding her husband to a tiger but, hidden among all the craziness, lies a much more sinister issue. While watching the show, I started to notice some signs that seemed familiar. It seemed to me that Joe Exotic and Doc Antle’s actions in the series often reflected strategies commonly used by human traffickers.
No matter what else you may or may not believe about Joe Exotic and “Doc” Antle’s zoos, each owner has engaged in exploitative labor practices. In the second episode, Joe Exotic admits to exploiting vulnerable populations when he explains his preference for hiring people straight out of prison because, “if it’s all they have, and it’s decent, they’ll work hard enough to keep it.” Additionally, Joe utilizes staff to notify him when individuals in the community appear to be homeless or drug addicted so that he can prey on them. Traffickers often target similar populations and exploit vulnerabilities such as housing insecurity, job insecurity, and drug addiction, promising that things will be better. In reality, Joe’s workplace is far from “decent;” employees are made to live in pest-infested trailers with no running water and are left to eat expired meat donated by Walmart for the tigers.
While Joe refers to “Doc” Antle’s zoo in Myrtle Beach as being “a little more upscale” and Doc’s zoo certainly appears more professional than Joe Exotic’s, the business practices are still far from acceptable. One former employee describes what she thought working at Myrtle Beach Safari would be like, “When I read what it was like there, it sounded like a utopia…They talked about how everyone was vegetarian and how they used, like, principles of yoga to train animals.” She later goes on to describe the reality of working there; “You know we lived in these terrible horse stalls basically. Like with sliding doors with bars on them. It was full of cockroaches. I mean like everywhere.” It seems like “Doc” is using a common tactic known as “bait and switch” in which a trafficker promises one type of work, but the reality turns out to be much different. By the time the true conditions are known, victims feel trapped and as if they have no other option.
Throughout the show, there are also signs that both Joe Exotic and “Doc” Antle are utilizing manipulation tactics to sexually exploit young men and women. Joe’s ex-husband, John, describes being “showered with gifts and stuff. He bought me a truck. Actually, he bought me like four or five different trucks.” Unfortunately, Joe’s other husband, Travis, died before the filming of the docuseries. While there are no quotes from Travis himself, Joe’s former campaign manager recalls how Joe capitalized on Travis’ drug addiction:
“There are people out there. They will look at a person who is in desperate, dire need of something. In Travis’ case, he was addicted to meth. And they take that need and they fulfill it until they become the only person that can fulfill that need. And in exchange, that person gives them whatever sexual or any other favors they want. That was the relationship Joe had with Travis.”
When I first heard this quote, I was shocked by its similarity to the definition of a “booster pimp” used in our Human Trafficking 101 trainings, “a pimp that creates or utilizes a previous drug addiction to control victim.” While Joe Exotic may not have been trafficking Travis, it certainly seems that he was exploiting his addiction for his own sexual gain. For many, Tiger King is a fun and engaging way to escape the monotony of quarantine and while there is nothing wrong with watching it, we should be sure to recognize the signs of Human Trafficking when they are right in front of us. While it might be easy to let these details take a backseat to the over the top, sensational drama presented in the show, we can not and should not ignore the fact that real people are facing real abuse and exploitation at the hands of these charismatic and manipulative characters.
If Tiger King entertained you, inspired you, disgusted you, or opened your eyes to exploitation and abuse that many victims face every day, please consider supporting FAIR Girls. Our mission is to end human trafficking, one life at a time. By visiting us at www.fairgirls.org, you can subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on social media or send an email to email@example.com. We share real opportunities to be part of the solution. We strive to make a positive impact in the lives of human trafficking survivors.
If you or someone you know is a victim of Human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888)-373-7888 or the FAIR Girls crisis line at (855)-900-3247.
A Celebration of Resilience and Hope
Ending Human Trafficking, One Life at a Time
FAIR Girls 2020 Virtual Fundraiser and Online Silent Auction