Human trafficking is an incredibly large — and undoubtedly upsetting — industry.
It rakes in an estimated $150 billion worldwide every year, coming in as one of the largest illegal trades alongside drug trafficking, arms trade and wildlife trafficking. But the realities of human trafficking are often ignored — and not just because we rarely talk about modern slavery.
How we currently talk about human trafficking can be just as harmful. It’s often riddled with misconceptions and myths, leaving the majority of us misinformed or under-informed about the ways it affects the world. But this isn’t entirely surprising, considering the criminal practice’s secretive nature. Confronting the truth, after all, is more difficult with everything under wraps.
When talking about human trafficking, it’s essential to be well-informed to accurately represent the problem at hand — and that means we need to tackle these misconceptions head-on.
Here are six common human trafficking myths — and what you can do to help combat the crisis.
Myth 1: Human trafficking is synonymous with sex trafficking.
Human trafficking — also known as trafficking in persons or modern slavery — is described by the U.S. State Department as the “act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion.”
But it’s often used solely as a synonym for involuntary sex work — and sexual slavery isn’t actually the biggest component of trafficking globally.
About 22% of those trafficked are exploited for sexual labor. While that is deserving of our attention, 68% are trapped in forced labor, and they’re often left out of the conversation.
To get at the root of a human rights violation, it’s important to accurately represent it. It’s important to shed more light on the experiences of those living in forced labor (without diverting attention from sexual exploitation)
Myth 2: There’s a definitive face of human trafficking.
We often think of trafficked persons as fitting a certain profile: a young girl from a low-income family, living in a poor country and forced into sex work. While an estimated 70% of those trafficked are women and girls, this description isn’t entirely accurate.
Trafficking happens in different contexts globally. It’s also a problem for men and boys, especially when discussing the realities of forced labor. Sexual exploitation also affects homeless LGBTQ youth populations, often at risk due to financial instability.
At any given time, an estimated 21 million people around the world are trapped in the cycle of trafficking. Their stories often look very different.
Myth 3: Human trafficking is only a problem in developing countries.
Poor countries usually get the most attention when talking about human trafficking. But it happens around the globe — and yes, that includes countries like the U.S. and the UK.
Though some countries — like India, which sees the highest rates of trafficking worldwide — are certainly more at risk, it’s important to know that modern slavery doesn’t only exist in low-income regions. In fact, our lives are deeply intertwined with the realities of human trafficking, even if we don’t notice it.
Sexual exploitation isn’t always visible in Western countries, but labor exploitation is easy to discover when we look at the products we use daily with a critical eye.
Myth 4: Human trafficking always involves smuggling individuals across borders.
Despite the term “trafficking,” transportation isn’t required — it refers to “compelled service,” not necessarily border crossing.
In fact, for those in forced labor and sexual slavery, trafficking often happens close to home. About 35% of those trafficked are exploited domestically, with 37% crossing borders within the same sub-region where they’re from.
Any form of exploitation that takes away a person’s agency with force, coercion or fraud can be considered trafficking, no matter the location.
Myth 5: We should be most concerned about human trafficking during major sporting events.
During major sporting events, like the Olympics and Super Bowl, there’s an uptick in law enforcement surveillance and mass social attention around human trafficking. Many argue hyper-masculine sporting environments breed more demand for sex-trafficked women and girls — but advocates disagree on whether that’s entirely true.
But, most of the time, women and girls aren’t trafficked specifically for these events. Often, they’ve been in forced sex work long before massive crowds come to the area. Many advocates worry focusing attention disproportionately on specific mass sporting events detracts from an important reality: Sex trafficking isn’t isolated to one time of year or one location.
Myth 6: Trafficked persons will try to seek help in public.
Research has found that trafficked individuals are often stuck in a cycle of self-blame and deep fear, making leaving the situation seemingly impossible. Traffickers often threaten violence against those they exploit and their loved ones if they seek help from authorities.
Sometimes coercion runs so deep that those in forced labor and sex trafficking don’t identify as “victims.” This, in turn, is a major piece of what makes human trafficking so overwhelming to tackle — but there are things you can do to help.