Human trafficking is often misunderstood as something that only happens to people from other countries after being kidnapped from their families. This is a dangerous misconception about the realities of human trafficking. In fact, human trafficking often happens domestically, and does not discriminate between urban and rural areas.
To understand how pervasive commercial sexual exploitation is, I interviewed Cumberland County, ME’s District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck. Cumberland County is home to popular travel destination, Portland, ME. We discussed human trafficking in his jurisdiction, which only has a population of approximately 295,000 people. District Attorney Sahrbeck has been a prosecutor since 2007, but it wasn’t until he became an Assistant District Attorney in Maine in 2012 that he became aware of human trafficking in his area. In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 that the Cumberland County District Attorney’s office instituted an official human trafficking department.
While talking to victims and perpetrators of human trafficking, DA Sahrbeck heard Maine’s landscape for human trafficking described as unique because hotels are cheaper, Mainers will pay more than people from other areas of the country, and Mainers were described as “more polite.” While human trafficking has been happening since the nineties, Maine’s current opioid crisis only worsened the situation because it allows for a new “mechanism of control” when the victim is dependent on drugs. Despite Maine’s small population, according to Hornby Zeller from the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault, about 200-300 Mainers are trafficked a year.
A dangerous myth for those who live in rural areas like Cumberland County is the idea that sex trafficking does not happen in their communities. In 2020, Maine had the lowest crime rate in the United States, which makes it even harder for Mainers to believe human trafficking happens in their state. To combat this myth, the community needs to talk about the dangers of human trafficking because it can happen anywhere- not just in the “big bad city.” For example, DA Sarhbeck recalled working on a case of sex trafficking in the town of Poland, Maine which only has a population of 5,000 people. According to DA Sahrbeck, the misconceptions about the realities of sex trafficking were also present in law enforcement. Police officers often do not recognize the signs of human trafficking and are incapable of identifying victims. The realities of human trafficking are so often kept in the dark that DA Sahrbeck recalled cases he had worked on where the victim didn’t recognize they had been trafficked until they had contact with law enforcement and started telling their story. Despite the prevalence of misunderstanding, there are some silver linings to having a small population in the fight against human trafficking. Less populated areas have the advantage of reaching and educating a larger percentage of their community as compared to metropolitan areas.
As my conversation with DA Sahrbeck shows, just because you are from a small town or rural area doesn’t mean that you are immune from the dangers of sex trafficking, nor does it mean you can simply close your eyes and hope the problem goes away. Each of us, no matter where we call home, has a duty to inform ourselves and enter into the fight against sex trafficking. Anywhere there is a demand for commercial sex, trafficking follows.
This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Natalie Anderson on being chosen!