Victims of human trafficking can be anyone

W. Va. — When it comes to recognizing victims of human trafficking or abusive relationships, local advocates said one of the main things to remember is they look like the average person.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Andy Cogar said trafficking victims in West Virginia are often portrayed as shadowy figures in movie-like situations. He said in West Virginia that isn’t usually the case.

“They [survivors] look like you and me,” he said. “That’s what people have a hard time recognizing. That’s what law enforcement has a hard time recognizing. The fact of the matter is human trafficking victims, sex trafficking victims in particular — and that represents about three quarters of human trafficking in the United States, as far as we know — we have to be culturally sensitive to the reality that anybody can be exploited.

“People are exploited who come from nice families, who come from wealthy families or nice neighborhoods, or who are pretty or nice or smart and who are men and women. That’s what when I talk about learning curves, when I talk about hurdles, when I talk about the effort to raise awareness — that’s what I think I need to do more work on, more intentional work on, is helping people recognize that fact — that a trafficking victim can look like anyone.”

Cogar said there are no stereotypes when it comes to a human trafficking in terms of what they look like or in terms of their background.

“There are, however, commonalities with respect to their personal vulnerabilities,” he said. “That’s where, when I speak to groups, I emphasize that aspect of it. Trafficking at bottom is the exploitation of vulnerability. The vulnerability might be youth. It might an addiction. It might be the fact someone is a runaway. That they come from a broken home.

“That vulnerability does not necessarily correlate with socio-economic status. It doesn’t correlate with race. It doesn’t correlate with education. And while certainly lower educated people are going to have perhaps more vulnerabilities and poorer people are going to have perhaps more vulnerabilities, trafficking victims can be anybody.”

Sam Wilmoth, a Title IX education specialist with WVU, said  power imbalances are common for victims of trafficking or violence.

“What I would say in general… is that one of the things we see, a thread that runs through all the kinds of violence that we deal with, is that there’s often a power imbalance,” he said. “That we often see somebody who has some kind of power over someone and exploits that leverage in one way or another.

“In sexual harassment cases, that might be a supervisor who is exploiting a supervisee. In sexual assault cases, that could be someone of a higher status or an upperclassman, who leverages that social pressure over a freshman. In domestic violence, it could be someone who is using disproportionate power to exploit someone who happens to be an undocumented immigrant or someone like that who may fear coming forward.”

Wilmoth said these power imbalances may show up in professional situations.

“So, if I was a medical practitioner, I might look for signs like a young woman comes in for a medical appointment and has a person with them who won’t leave the room,” he said. “Maybe that person says they are someone’s romantic partner but there’s sort of no way of confirming that. Maybe you’ll seeing nonverbal things in that medical context, like somebody doesn’t want to speak freely or has limited English proficiency, and you’ve got this mysterious guy who’s trying to talk for someone else.

“Those kinds of signs for a medical practitioner are sometimes pretty nuanced, and hard to spot. But, sometimes for a college professor or a therapist at the Caruso Center or someone who’s in Title IX, also have to be looking out for those things as well.”

Wilmoth said  signs of a power imbalance may be considered in some human trafficking situations.

“When we are seeing warning signs like that, one of the things we might consider besides domestic violence, is is this a human trafficking survivor?” he said. “The majority of those types of cases would be more likely to go to law enforcement than they would to a university office, if for no other reason than that students who are meeting their obligations and going to classes and all those kinds of things, are probably less likely to be in one of these tightly controlled sex trafficking or labor trafficking situations because many of those folks aren’t necessarily even able to leave an apartment or a place where they are being forced into prostitution or something like that.

Alison Bass, WVU assistant journalism professor and author of “Getting Screwed: sex workers and the law,” said after interviewing sex workers and studying statistics, she found adult victims of sex trafficking are not common in the U.S. compared to labor trafficking of migrant workers and teenage runaways.

“The big problem in trafficking is, as it has always been, teenage runaways,” she said, “people who are underage youth, both boys and girls, who have run away from homes where they have been abused or neglected. In some cases, that includes LGBT youth who have been made to feel not welcome in their home or their community and have been evicted.

“So, they go to the larger urban areas and they are selling sex for survival on the streets. Now, some of them don’t consider themselves trafficking victims. They are doing it because they are trying to earn a living. But, you know, federal law, because they are under the age of 18, considers them trafficking victims.”

Bass said one of the neglected populations in trafficking advocacy are boys, particularly gay youth, who are not seen as victims.

“There are almost as many young boys who may have been abused as children and maybe an older man took advantage of them and they needed to get out of that situation and so they moved to New York and they are selling sex for survival. Or, they discovered they are gay, and their family can’t tolerate it, so they leave.

“For many gay youth, it’s almost empowering to sell sex. They can choose their partners, but they aren’t viewed as victims. Why are the female sex workers viewed as victims, but the male sex workers are not? The difference is the way we look at male and female sexuality. That’s the difference because there are almost as many male sex workers as female sex workers, but they don’t have the same stigma.”

Cogar said there is a data issue when it comes to the number of males engaged in human trafficking, but he said according to the number of prosecutions of traffickers and trafficking victims,  victims are mostly female in sex trafficking.

“It is true that we need to be sure to acknowledge as a community that men can and will be, too, victimized as human trafficking victims,” he said. “Even though a significant majority of victims are women, when it comes to labor trafficking, it’s closer to 50/50. It’s really sex trafficking where the disparity exists, but again human trafficking is not just sex trafficking. We do have labor trafficking in West Virginia and the United States, so we have to be cognitive, and we have to raise awareness about the reality of men as victims of human trafficking.”

Karen Haring, executive director of Liberia Inc., said while she is not an expert, she is a trained volunteer with Shared Hope International, an organization working to combat trafficking. She gave a list of behaviors she uses to educate the community on possible trafficking.

“Signs of physical abuse such as bruises or cuts,” she said, “unexplained absences from school or truancy, less appropriately dressed than before, sexualized behavior, overly tired, withdrawn, depressed or distracted, brags about making or having a lot money, displays expensive clothing, jewelry or shoes. A new tattoo—tattoos are often used by pimps to brand victims. Older boyfriend, new friends with a different lifestyle, gang involvement, disjointed family connections, running away, living with friends, experiencing homelessness.

“Pimps typically exhibit the following behaviors. They are often jealous, controlling and violent. Significantly older than their female companions. Promising things that seem too good to be true. They encourage victims to engage in illegal activities to achieve their goals and dreams. They buy expensive gifts or items. They are very vague about his or her profession, because women can do it too. Pushy or demanding about sex. Encourages inappropriate sexual behavior. Makes the victim feel responsible for his or her financial stability. Very open about financial matters.

“Those are some helpful things for family members, friends and people in the community to be aware of if they think something is going on.”

Previous ArticleNext Article