Human trafficking is often misrepresented in the media and thus incredibly misunderstood in our society. There is an image of someone being dragged into a white van in a parking lot, being coerced into trafficking, and locked in a cage, kept against their will. While this does occur, this image is the minority of cases in the United States. Far more often, people are lured into trafficking through manipulative tactics, and a long process of psychological manipulation. Since this is a psychological process, exploiters seek out people who will be more vulnerable to their tactics. This leads to the question: how can a child, a sibling, a parent, or a friend become vulnerable to this type of manipulation? What makes the people you know vulnerable?
In discussing vulnerability, people often get caught up in the factors that may put someone at high risk and therefore disqualify their loved ones, or even themselves, from potentially being at risk. However, vulnerability can be hard to identify, and frankly, everyone has vulnerabilities.
Someone could be vulnerable due to sharing their trials on the internet. Consider a friend, posting about their breakup on their social media. An exploiter could easily see these posts and make an advance, offering a romantic relationship, and appearing as a boyfriend on the outside. This fills an emotional need, a gap your friend may be feeling. This exploiter gradually builds a deeper romantic relationship with your friend until they text all day, every day, and your friend begins to stop hanging out with her peers, spending her time only with him. Over time, she becomes isolated from everyone but him. This boyfriend now begins to push limits and boundaries, but no one is around anymore to tell her it is not normal to cross these lines, and he is now her everything. As limits are pushed, and behaviors are normalized, your friend is asked to sleep with a few people to get income, otherwise they will be evicted. At this point, she may be willing to do anything for her boyfriend, and frankly, they need this rent payment. This turns into a pattern and becomes her new normal. She does not recognize anything out of the ordinary, she sees it as “her choice” and “her responsibility” to provide for her and her boyfriend. This is how vulnerability can turn into trafficking.
You can prevent trafficking situations by recognizing who is vulnerable and at risk. Studies show that the greatest risk factor to trafficking is growing up in a household of dysfunction. Childhood abuse and neglect put children at a higher risk and are shown to be extremely common in people who become trafficked. Abuse and neglect leave a child vulnerable to manipulation. These are called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE Factors. An exploiter knows that when someone has a history of childhood abuse and neglect, there is often an emotional need the child desires to have filled, and thus will fill that emotional need for their own benefit. When there is a need, an exploiter can use that to cause the vulnerable person to become dependent on them.
Other common vulnerability factors and communities at higher risk include:
- Those in an unstable living environment or homelessness
- Those involved with child welfare or the juvenile justice system
- Individuals with a substance use disorder or who are living with a person with a substance use disorder
- Individuals with mental illness
- Minority populations
- The LGBTQ community
- People with disabilities
- Undocumented citizens
By knowing the warning signs of human trafficking, you can help vulnerable people in your community get the help they need. However, sometimes the warning signs can be hard to recognize. Further complicating the issue is the versatility of trafficking on the internet, which means that some trafficking survivors never have to meet their trafficker in person. This can make the identification of a trafficking survivor very complicated. However, some of the warning signs you should be aware of include:
- A fast-moving relationship (i.e. short dating period, moving in quickly, quick marriage)
- Someone entering into an unbalanced relationship with a much older partner or a much wealthier partner.
- Tattoos or brandings of names, gang symbols, or using words such as “property of”, “___’s girl.”
- Suddenly having more expensive items.
- Dressing more maturely or wearing clothing that is not age-appropriate (mainly seen in minors)
- Signs of other forms of abuse (ex. marks, bruises, not being able to carry their own money)
- Isolated from other people
- Living with an employer
- Not able to have a one-on-one conversation, someone is constantly monitoring their conversations.
- Do not have control of their social security card, birth certificate, or other life documents.
- An employer collects a fee for their employees’ “opportunity” to work in a particular job.
- Mentioning a “pimp” or “manager” while working in the commercial sex industry.
- Are threatened by an employer with deportation or physical harm.
- Stating a desire to leave their current employment but having a fear or an inability to do so.
Your role in prevention, identification, and the healing journey of a survivor could be critical. By being a healthy connection for a vulnerable person, you can be a catalyst for the healing of Christ. Though you may never see the completion of the work God may do in the life of your family member, acquaintance, friend, or mentee, by being a healthy connection you are investing in their healing. Scripture highlights the importance of your role in these areas:
“I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their hard work.” (1 Cor. 3:6-8)
If you are concerned that someone you know may be in a trafficking relationship, utilize the National Human Trafficking Hotline to seek clarity and report any tips. You can call them at 1-888-373-7888, text them at 233733, or utilize their website to submit anonymous tips or chat with someone there. https://humantraffickinghotline.org/en