FG Staff Blog

Amplified Risk Factors to Human Trafficking Experienced by the LGBTQIA+ Community

One of the most terrifying aspects of Human Trafficking is that everyone is at some level of risk. There are, however, certain factors that can make individuals more vulnerable to falling prey to traffickers. The list of risk factors is extensive, but things like poverty, political conflict, and exposure to previous trauma are some of the most discussed. Poverty, for instance, increases an individual’s desperation, which is often manipulated by traffickers with promises of a better life. Political turmoil, and the environment of fear that comes with it, can also amplify an individual’s vulnerability to promises of safety and economic security from manipulative traffickers. Prior trauma may lead to low self-esteem, lack of a support system, and an increased need for acceptance – all vulnerabilities recognized and preyed upon by traffickers.

While these risk factors are capable of affecting any member of our society, certain disenfranchised groups face them at significantly higher rates. One such group is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, + (LGBTQIA+) community. Take previous trauma, for instance. Homophobia and intolerance mean that LGBTQIA+ individuals face stigmatization, ostracization, and abuse at disproportionately higher rates. According to a 2010 CDC NISVS (National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey) on the rates of rape, physical violence, and stalking by an intimate partner, members of the LGBTQIA+ community are at a far higher risk for victimization. Lesbian and Bisexual women faced victimization at rates of 44% and 61% respectively, compared to 35% for heterosexual women. Gay and Bisexual men were victimized at rates of 26% and 37% respectively, compared with 29% of heterosexual men. Further, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 47% of transgender Americans have faced violence at some point in their lives.

Poverty is also disproportionately prevalent in the LGBTQIA+ community. In 2019, the Williams Institute of Law at UCLA conducted a national study on rates of poverty in the LGBTQIA+ community. The results found that Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals have a poverty rate of 21.6% compared to cisgender straight people, who have a rate of 15.7%. For context, this disparity in poverty rates could be due to a number of factors, including, employment discrimination and historical bans or restrictions on marriage (marriage often brings financial benefits with it).

All of these risk factors are even further amplified for LGBTQIA+ youth. This is largely due to rejection by their families and communities. While being socially and familially ostracised on account of one’s sexuality is harmful to anyone, it is especially dangerous for youth as they rely upon that support system for the essential things they need to live (eg. shelter, food, water, medication, etc.). As a result of this familial rejection and at-home abuse, 40% of the 1.6 million homeless youth in the United States identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, or Transgender according to the Williams Institute of Law at UCLA. This often leads to feelings of desperation in these youth and forces them into “survival mode’ to acquire basic necessities such as shelter, food, and toiletries. According to the Polaris Project, this desperation leads to LGBTQ youth being 3-7 times more likely to engage in commercial sex work to gain these necessities. This type of survival behavior is indeed child sexual exploitation. Per the U.S. federal law, any time a child engages in commercial sex it is considered the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of a Child (CSEC), as minors cannot legally consent to engage in commercial sex. This survival behavior and resulting sexual exploitation often further stigmatizes these already marginalized youth as they are labeled as “prostitutes” or “sex workers” by members of their community or law enforcement.

Importantly, LGBTQIA+ individuals who also identify as members of the Black, indigenous, or other communities of color (BIPOC) community and other non-white communities face even higher levels of vulnerability to risk factors due to their compounded oppression and marginalization for being both LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC/non-white.

While the data makes clear that members of the LGBTQIA+ community are at a far higher risk of being victimized by traffickers, it is also clear that they face significant barriers in accessing the services, support, and resources they need to exit their trafficking situations due to deeply ingrained societal biases and misconceptions against LGBTQIA+ individuals.

Let’s take the medical field as an example of how society often fails these LGBTQIA+ trafficking victims. According to an article published in the Annals of Health Law magazine in 2014, 88% of victims of trafficking or CSEC will visit a medical provider during their victimization. Interactions with medical or healthcare professionals could be for an array of reasons, ranging from injuries from sexual or physical abuse to drug overdoses to treatment for sexually transmitted diseases. According to the Center for American Progress (CAP), LGBTQIA+ people are disproportionately mistreated by healthcare professionals than their cisgender straight counterparts. According to a CAP survey, 8% of LGBQ respondents and 29% of transgender respondents indicated a doctor refused to see them based on their sexual orientation or gender identity respectively. Further, 6% of LGBQ people and 21% of transgender people said a doctor or other health care provider used harsh or abusive language while treating them. Further, 8% of LGBTQ respondents indicated they avoided or postponed getting necessary medical care due to previous experiences of disrespect/discrimination at the hands of a healthcare worker. This data makes clear that LGBTQIA+ victims of trafficking and CSEC often do not get the care they desperately need, but also the sad reality that they may not even seek medical care in the first place due to these negative experiences.

Bias within Law Enforcement agencies can also disproportionately negatively impact LGBTQIA+ individuals, including LGBTQIA+ victims of trafficking. A 2014 study conducted by the UCLA Williams School of Law yielded important findings with regards to the relationship of the LGBTQIA+ (and HIV+) community and law enforcement. According to the survey, 73% of respondents had face-to-face contact with police in the past five years. Of that 73%, 21% indicated an law enforcement officer had treated them with a hostile attitude and 14% indicated a law enforcement officer had verbally assaulted them. Moreover, all of these numbers were consistently higher among People of Colour, transgender, and gender-nonconforming respondents specifically. Another report conducted in 2013 found that 48% of LGBT survivors of violence who interacted with police said they experienced ‘police misconduct’ (incl. excessive use of force and entrapment). A 2011 study found that 22% of transgender respondents had been harassed and 6% had actually been physically abused by a law enforcement officer.

The inherent and dangerous bias that this data demonstrates consequently negatively impacts how crimes involving LGBTQIA+ victims are handled by law enforcement agencies. In 2014, a report on a national survey of 2,379 LGBT and HIV+ people found that over a third of LGBT/HIV+ crime victims’ cases were not properly addressed.

This systematic mistreatment, understandably, leads LGBTQIA+ folks to be wary of seeking assistance from law enforcement. In the 2011 survey, for instance, 46% of transgender respondents indicated feeling uncomfortable seeking police assistance. The 2013 survey found that only 56% of LGBTQ and HIV+ survivors of hate-based violence reported those instances to the police. Similar to healthcare and medical agencies, the danger of LGBTQIA+ related bias in law enforcement agencies lies in LGBTQIA+ victims not reporting their victimization, not being properly identified, and not being treated humanely as they seek safety and protection.

To illustrate the complex issue of implicit bias, let us explore the following hypothetical scenario:

Marvin is an adult gay man who acts and dresses more femininely. Under the coercion and control of a pimp, he is working as a commercial sex worker in a city where prostitution is illegal. While on patrol, two police officers see Marvin engaging in commercial sex. Given their implicit biases against gay and transgender men (for instance, the misconception that they are all hypersexual), the officers automatically assume that Marvin chose to work as a prostitute and do not even consider that he may be a victim of sex trafficking. As a result of these implicit biases, Marvin’s victimization will likely go unrecognized and unaddressed, and perhaps even more concerning, will likely lead to Marvin’s criminalization. Further, as a result of not viewing Marvin as a potential victim, these law enforcement officers have missed the opportunity for positive intervention and referral of Marvin to essential victim services.

Human Trafficking is one of the most complex issues plaguing our society today. Part of that complexity has to do with varying vulnerabilities across different demographics. The LGBTQIA+ community, on account of higher rates of poverty and previous exposure to trauma, in particular, is one demographic that is at a significantly higher risk of falling prey to traffickers. Moreover, the ability of LGBTQIA+ identifying individuals to seek help and exit their trafficking victimization is impaired by inherent bias within many of the essential service systems and agencies that these individuals intersect with on a daily basis. Armed with this data and knowledge, the next step is for the anti-trafficking movement to be actively engaging policymakers and related stakeholders in addressing these biases, protecting LGBTQIA+ individuals from exploitation, and reducing barriers to identification and specialized services for these most vulnerable victims.

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Fairgirls AdminAmplified Risk Factors to Human Trafficking Experienced by the LGBTQIA+ Community

The Psychology Behind the Grooming Process

While many may think of human trafficking as something that is more prevalent in other countries, the unfortunate reality is that human trafficking exists in the U.S. and among all of us, especially amid the pandemic. Vulnerable individuals are being preyed upon and exploited. Moreover, COVID-19 has exasperated vulnerabilities for already at risk populations such as individuals suffering from unemployment or housing instability. Therefore, it is essential for us to analyze and understand the issue. As we seem to raise awareness and prevent, we need to pay special attention to the grooming process. 

While anyone can fall prey to trafficking, pimps/traffickers often seek out and recruit victims with vulnerabilities such as those without strong community ties, a sense of identity, and/or a safe place to live. The grooming process is known as the process through which traffickers recruit and exploit victims, and convince them that they have the power to choose to be participants in their own exploitation. While a substantial amount of research has been conducted on the grooming process and how traffickers choose their next victim, studies that investigate the psychology of human trafficking, or more specifically, the psychology behind the grooming process, are few and far between. However, it is important that we have a comprehensive understanding of the grooming process, victims’ needs and vulnerabilities, and how traffickers take advantage of this knowledge, before we can begin to explore the psychological elements pertaining to human trafficking.

In order to better understand the psychology behind the grooming process, let’s begin by looking at the first step a trafficker takes when recruiting a victimassessing and identifying the victim’s needs and/or vulnerabilities. Some common risk factors of human trafficking include: substance abuse, truancy, chronic homelessness, and having a disability. More specifically, there is a greater risk for individuals to be trafficked if a family member or friend who is involved in commercial sex work lives with these individuals, which is found to be exacerbated due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory regarding an individual’s hierarchy of needs is an essential place to start when thinking about the needs that a trafficker is going to be trying to appear to meet for a groomed victim (Operation 250, n.d.). First, Maslow’s theory explains that our most pressing needs are classified as physiological needs. These include necessities such as water, food, sleep, and air. Second, humans require a certain level of security that can be fulfilled by avoiding danger and having freedom from fear. This need can be met through protection provided by law enforcement officers or simply by having a job to secure one’s financial needs. Additionally, our needs for love and belonging must be met through companionship, healthy relationships, and having a group identity. For instance, having a strong support system composed of friends and family can help fulfill this need. However, it is at this particular level of Maslow’s hierarchy that traffickers will take advantage of this need by creating the illusion of love to lure the victim(Operation 250, n.d.). In other words, this particular strategy of luring victims by having them develop romantic or even paternal feelings for the trafficker is a defining characteristic of a Romeo Pimp.

The last two needs that Maslow identifies in his hierarchy are not as pressing as the others to fulfill, however, traffickers often pay close attention to whether these needs are being satisfied for a potential victim because they can be manipulated. After the need for love and belonging is met, humans require a healthy level of self-esteem,therefore, individuals with a weaker sense of self-identity are at greater risk to be targeted. Finally, the last human need that is featured in Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualization. Sadly, this realization of one’s highest potential is capitalized by traffickers who provide these women and girls with false dreams for the future. For example, a trafficker may promise a victim that the situation is only temporary and they will be able to accomplish their dreams together someday soon. 

Once a trafficker has assessed which of the victim’s needs are not being met, they begin to satisfy those needs for them, luring them into a false sense of support and security. In this step of the grooming process, a trafficker makes an “effort to build rapport with the victim” (Operation 250, n.d.). For instance, a trafficker may provide financial incentivization such as gifts for this purpose. If a victim seems hesitant or resistant, a trafficker may employ additional coercive tactics such as blackmail or bribery. 

After the victim’s needs have been satisfied, the victim trusts the trafficker to take care of them. At this stage, the trafficker may also attempt to persuade the victim that engaging in sexual behavior with them is good for them, and even educational. Once the process of relationship-building has manipulated the victim into exploitation, the final step of the grooming process is reached. This is otherwise known as when the victim is “turned out” or exploited and sold to buyers or “Johns.”

Upon a closer investigation of the grooming process, we can identify the dysfunctional attachments that occur because of the presence of danger associated with sexual exploitation. In other words, victims of human trafficking can form unhealthy “trauma bonds,” which can be noted by having an attraction to people who have hurt them in the past, attachments to known untrustworthy individuals, and persistent attempts to maintain contact a trafficker who acknowledges no responsibility for hurting them. In addition to these barriers preventing victims from escaping the trafficking world, other obstacles that exist include a limited knowledge of resources to help, fear of failure, dependency on their trafficker, and lack of a safe home to return to. Overall, these connections between Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the grooming process contribute to our understanding of the underlying psychological intentions that human traffickers possess.

Now…What can we do now with this information?

We can raise awareness of the need for more research exploring the psychology underpining human trafficking and the grooming process. Additionally, we can share this information with our networks. With an increased community awareness about how traffickers capitalize on human needs, we can educate ourselves and others in order to better protect against victimization and exploitation. 

*This blog post featured elements from Dr. Ian Elliot’s work on understanding the psychology behind the grooming process*

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Fairgirls AdminThe Psychology Behind the Grooming Process

Trauma Bonding

In regards to human trafficking, people often wonder: ​Why don’t victims just leave? ​Particularly in cases where pimps and traffickers don’t rely on overt violence and physical force, it can be difficult to understand what prevents women from leaving trafficking situations. The truth is that coercion and emotional manipulation can be the strongest factors preventing women and girls from recognizing their victimization and/or seeking a way out of their exploitation. While traffickers and pimps utilize an array of techniques, perhaps the most difficult for survivors to break free from is trauma bonding.

According to researchers Sanchez, Speck, and Patrician (2019) trauma bonding is “the invisible strong emotional tie that develops between two individuals, where one person frequently harasses, beats, threatens, abuses or intimidates the other person.” Intermittently, traffickers also incorporate acts of “kindness” which may include gift-giving, affection, or simply a brief reprieve from working. The cyclical nature of affection and abuse causes victims to internalize the positive interactions as meaningful and “the real” personality of the trafficker. Traffickers often identify women’s and girls’ unmet needs, whether for shelter, food, or love and self-esteem and fulfill them. They create both physical and emotional dependency. Trauma victims may also take on the worldview of their abuser and view their relationship as sacred, further strengthening their connection.

Trauma bonding is not a sign of weakness or naivety, rather it is a normal biological response to prolonged trauma and a psychological coping mechanism. Researchers have compared trauma bonding to Battered Women’s Syndrome in domestic violence or Stockholm Syndrome in kidnapping circumstances. Trauma bonds are a way our brains try to protect us during traumatic experiences but have harmful consequences both short and long term. First and foremost, trauma bonds prevent women from being able to exit trafficking. A key component of trauma bonds is the isolation from friends, family, and support systems and distrust in institutions such as law enforcement or social services. Without a concept of what it means to be safe, women may feel they have nowhere else to go. Trauma bonds can also be so strong that women may return to traffickers many times before they are finally able to escape, even if their needs are being met elsewhere. Trauma bonding may also lead to PTSD, depression, anxiety, and a number of other mental health issues.

While we must acknowledge the pain associated with trauma bonding and trafficking, we must also recognize the strength and resilience of survivors. By having an understanding of trauma bonding and its lasting impacts, anti-trafficking advocates and service providers can present more holistic, judgment-free care. Providing survivors with resources to address their immediate needs, as well as opportunities for decision making and autonomy, allows service providers to better support survivors’ restoration process.

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Fairgirls AdminTrauma Bonding

Misogyny in the Media and Human Trafficking

Women in today’s society seem to be stuck in some sort of push-and-pull between two very different time periods. One moment, women are living in the progress that has been made toward gender parity, in the workplace and social norms. Another moment, it feels like the hurtful, outdated stereotypes and misogynistic behaviors are resurging. Despite the antiquated rhetoric spit out by politicians, my hopeful, feminist mind works to reassure me that our progress is indeed an accomplishment; yet, the media’s depiction of women remains lagging behind with little effort to catch up. Human ​trafficking​–the use of force, fraud, or coercion to recruit, harbor, and obtain any person to engage in involuntary labor or commercial sex– is not often covered by media outlets or if it is covered it is done so in an exploitative, sensationalistic manner that often perpetuates myths and misconceptions about human trafficking. In general we know that the media’s objectification of women perpetuates the discourse around and perceptions of how women can be and are treated.

More specifically, the media perpetuates misogyny and rape culture that normalizes women being treated as commodities. For example, the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke includes lyrics such as “I know you want it” and “the way you grab me, must wanna get nasty” that normalize the idea of going for it with a woman even if the intention is unclear (or ​the lines are blurred​). And we’ve all seen the movies where a man has done something wrong (cheating, lying) but follows it up with one kind gesture (flowers, saying ‘I love you’) and suddenly he is fully forgiven. This helps human trafficking both flourish and remain hidden in plain sight. Women and young girls are dehumanized in the process, stemming from societal reinforcements about women’s roles, emotionality, and ability (or lack thereof). Some common drivers of trafficking include poverty, promises of a better life, and discrimination against women and children–all circumstances for which the victim is often blamed.

All of these vulnerabilities disproportionately impact the Black community, and especially Black women and girls face the blame for these false assumptions of weakness from a young age. The adultification of Black girls portrays a false narrative, where Black children’s transgressions are viewed as malicious and intentional, as an adult’s actions

would be, rather than childlike (​Georgetown​, 2017). What’s more, Black girls are perceived to need less nurturing and comfort, be more independent, and be more knowledgable about sex compared to White girls of the same age. Even before a young Black girl turns five years old, society has determined what she needs and how she will act. Traffickers are then bred and trained to see them in this way, and thus feel entitled to treat them as such. Young men are socialized to see women as “less human” as this subordination of women becomes justified with media reinforcement. Women as a whole are sexualized and objectified in songs and television, but are then seen as egotistical or inappropriate when they try to talk about their own power and strength. When a young woman considers seeking help or resources, she may be deterred from expressing her needs from the fear of being accused of lying, or she may be denied the resources she requests after taking the huge leap to reach out for help. Overall, women are continuously told who they are and how they act, while simultaneously being criticized for not ascribing to society’s standards. When it comes to trafficking and the dehumanization of women, their fate is decided ​for them by cultural and societal norms.

Misogynoir​, a term coined by the queer Black feminist and academic Moya Bailey, is the specific hatred, dislike, distrust, and prejudice directed toward and attributed to Black women. Racism and misogyny have become socially embedded in more than just media. In the medical field, Black patients’ symptoms are taken less seriously, and particularly Black women’s pain is invalidated. According to the ​CDC​, Black women are less likely than White women to develop breast cancer, but are 40% more likely to die from it. It was only recently that Black patients were included in medical research studies; for so long, medical professionals were ascribing white outcomes and trajectories to Black patients, or wrongly attributing health concerns to differences in biology (which have ​been​ ​disproven​) rather than to the result of racism and poverty, poor healthcare and living conditions. For human trafficking victims, who are already more likely to come from poverty, seeking medical help or rehabilitation is met with this extra line of barriers. It is hard enough for victims to leave their trafficker and seek the help they need –there should not be this additional complexity to reach help and safety to heal.

This is all a lot to process. We cannot control all traffickers, and we cannot control the media, ​but we can control our consumption and evaluation of media and news stories​. By using a critical eye when watching the news, reading an article, or even starting a new TV show, we can retrain our brains and our biases away from misogyny. Here are a few ways we can all help combat misogyny:

  1. Encourage women to share their opinions​ and to feel confident when sharing what they know. The more women who are comfortable speaking their minds and using their expertise, the more normalized it will become. It’s not bragging, it’s knowing your stuff.
  2. Question everyday misogyny​ in the workplace when it happens. It doesn’t have to be aggressive, but rather ask yourself or a colleague ​why​ they think a certain way or made the decision they did.
  3. Push back against mainstream media​ trends and assumptions! The only person who can accurately represent you is YOU, so mindfully engage with your and others’ social media content to build each other up.

Women deserve to be described as compassionate, empathetic, and intellectual, not “emotional.” Black women have earned the right to be described as strong, communicative, and gleeful, not “aggressive.” Though we have moved backwards in the way we speak about and perceive women, and in an especially public and shameful way, it is never too late to change, evolve, progress. Women must stand together and support one another, and it is on ​all of us​ to acknowledge the role that we all play in perpetuating this harmful language.

To learn more, feel free to read:

Black Women face racism in the ​medical field​:
Why you need to know what ​‘misogynoir’​ means right now

To report a case or receive help, please visit:

FAIR Girls:​ ​https://fairgirls.org/

National Human Trafficking Hotline:​ ​https://humantraffickinghotline.org/

Or call:

FAIR Girls 24/7 Crisis Number: 1-855-900-3247
U.S. National Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888, or send a text to “BeFree” (233733)

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Fairgirls AdminMisogyny in the Media and Human Trafficking

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.

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Fairgirls AdminHonoring the Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and A Call to Action to Continue the Fight For Equality, Justice and Women’s Rights

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.

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Fairgirls AdminThe Changing Role of Technology in Trafficking

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. 

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Fairgirls AdminHow Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich Reimagines True Crime

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 info@fairgirls.org. 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.

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Fairgirls AdminBehind the Throne: A Deeper Look at Netflix’s Tiger King