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Student Blog Series: Misinformation and Clickbait Undermining Work to End Sex Trafficking

Posted: April 7, 2022

You have seen the headlines about a new trafficking scheme surrounding a big event, or maybe a friend has told you she got contacted by a potential trafficker. Maybe your idea of sex trafficking is like the hit movie Taken. Perhaps you believed that the major online furniture company, Wayfair, was a platform for traffickers or that most sex trafficking is part of a ‘cabal’ that is operated by the rich, famous, and powerful, similar to the exploitative actions of Jeffrey Epstein. Every week there seems to be some new story in the news about how people are being randomly taken off the street and trafficked, but the reality is these are often just clickbait stories that reinforce myths around human trafficking making it harder for actual traffickers to be caught. These stories pedal an ‘iconic victim’ stereotype that largely ignores the realities of the modern sex trafficking market, creating what some refer to as a ‘sex trafficking panic’ that leads to harmful legal crackdowns on the victims rather than the buyers. Furthermore, these misconceptions blur the lines between the truths and myths of trafficking and misdirect community resources.

The reality is that traffickers seek out the most vulnerable and exploit trauma to traffic people. Sex trafficking and the reason why traffickers are able to maintain control over victims is more nuanced than the Hollywood story most Americans are familiar with and fearful of – sex trafficking is inextricably linked to the exploitation of race and class disparities. Traffickers use psychological manipulation to target victims of abuse, neglect, childhood trauma, addiction, and a general lack of necessities among other things. It’s important for the public to understand how these myths and misconceptions can harm actual victims of trafficking by downplaying the socioeconomic factors that create a supply of trafficking victims, giving traffickers easy access to potential targets of trafficking, all the while these sex trafficking panics criminalize and stigmatize victims rather than the exploiters and buyers. Further, these myths make it difficult for trafficked people to recognize their own victimization because they have this dramatized idea of trafficking in their mind, which may prevent them from seeking support to get out of the situation.

The best way to prevent these stories from gaining traction and misdirecting community resources is consistent education and training for police departments, first responders, healthcare workers, and the public in general. It is important for the public to understand that reposting and sharing these seemingly wild stories out of group hysteria reinforces this ‘iconic victim’ stereotype undermining the work that anti-trafficking advocates are doing to limit the supply of trafficking victims at the source – where the exploitation begins.

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Taylor Wilson on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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