Stereotypes shape the way we recognize and classify people or groups in society. However, as writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so brilliantly summarized, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” In applying these insightful words, we must examine certain myths and assumptions that fall dangerously into this “single story” category. Specifically, there are many problematic myths about human trafficking that contribute to a stigma that damages victims and survivors. One of the most pervasive myths is that trafficking victims are always kidnapped and held captive. In order to dispel this myth, we must first explore why it is false and why it is harmful to society as well as to those being exploited.
In referring back to Adichie’s words, it is true that some trafficking victims fall into the stereotypical image and are kidnapped and held captive, yet this is not the case the majority of the time. Statistics from the 2019 National Trafficking Hotline list the top five recruitment tactics for sex traffickers as: 1) recruiting an intimate partner or proposing marriage, 2) familial trafficking, 3) job offer or advertisement, 4) posing as a benefactor, and 5) offering false promises. Furthermore, according to the Office on Trafficking in Persons, despite the fact that some traffickers constrain the people they exploit, psychological means of control are much more common. Psychological means of control include, but are not limited to, controlling a victim through fear, trauma, drug addition, threats against their families, as well as taking advantage of other vulnerabilities such as poverty, homelessness, and abandonment. The Office on Trafficking in Persons also reported that some traffickers use more subtle methods of trafficking and controlling their victims by isolating them from family and friends, confiscating passports and other legal documents, intimidating and shaming them, threatening imprisonment or deportation, or controlling their financial resources. Furthermore, the Polaris Project, which holds the largest known data set on human trafficking in North America, explains that many victims know their exploiters and are manipulated by these individuals with the hope and promise of a better life.
The myth that trafficking victims are always kidnapped and held captive is problematic to the larger community because it paints a very incomplete image of who a trafficking victim could be. Through social media platforms, trending hashtags like #SavetheChildren have fueled widespread misinformation and completely unfounded conspiracy theories. By blindly perceiving that trafficking victims are ALWAYS kidnapped and held captive, we may ignorantly believe that such individuals are not truly victims unless they meet these criteria. Furthermore, victims may fail to realize that they are victims of trafficking, simply because they are not held captive or kidnapped like the stereotypical human trafficking images may suggest. When our perceptions of human trafficking victims are confined to a single story and those are the only stories that we are reposting, we limit our ability to recognize and fully aid all victims.
By acknowledging the grim realities of trafficking and moving past the idea of a “single story,” we can identify more victims and educate the public of the dangers of exploiters, and create victim-centric services that better assist the diverse experiences of victims. It is time we retire harmful stereotypes of human trafficking that only include images of victims bound with duct tape over their mouths. Instead, we must include and assist human trafficking victims whose narratives have been neglected for far too long.
This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Samantha Newman on being chosen!