Untangling the Trends on Trafficking
December 21, 2023
As we approach January of 2024, we are thinking ahead to Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Month. Over the last year, there has been a significant increase in the discussion of Human Trafficking in the United States. Twice this year, according to Google Trends, the term “human trafficking” experienced two significant jumps. The first in December of 2022 following the arrest of controversial social media influencers Andrew Tate and his brother Tristan Tate, and the second in July of 2023 following the release of the surprise blockbuster “Sound of Freedom.” Both events led to larger conversations surrounding what Human Trafficking is and isn’t, where it impacts people, and what needs to be done. While we often welcome discourse on topics relevant to our work, this jump in popularity seemingly had a less than favorable impact on the critically important work.
To start, we need to create an understanding of the issue. Human trafficking is widely defined by the United States Department of Justice as “involves compelling or coercing a person to provide labor or services, or to engage in commercial sex acts. Coercion can be subtle or overt, physical, or psychological. Exploitation of a minor for commercial sex is human trafficking, regardless of whether any form of force, fraud, or coercion was used.” Relevant to our work, Massachusetts state law defines the trafficking of children as the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). The Children’s Advocacy Centers of Massachusetts recognize that CSEC occurs when a person under the age of 18 is offered, or given, something of value to them in exchange for some type of sexual act. It doesn’t have to be in person, and it doesn’t need to be money for it to be commercial sexual exploitation. Value could be anything to a child, including food, clothing, a warm place to sleep, better grades, vapes, alcohol or other substances, a trip to a salon, or even a ride somewhere.
Another form of sexual exploitation can take place online. Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) is also considered a form of sexual exploitation and abuse. Often referred to as child pornography, CSAM is any photo, video, or visual image of a child under 18 engaged in sexual behavior or unclothed. CSAM is much more than photos and videos; it is a form of exploitation and abuse documented and shared across the internet in perpetuity. Every time an image is viewed, shared, paid for, or downloaded, the child is being revictimized and a crime takes place.
It doesn’t have to be in person, and it doesn’t need to be money for it to be commercial sexual exploitation.
Google Trends doesn’t necessarily dive into the information that defines these issues even though it is widely and publicly available. These trends focused on the more controversial and sensationalized elements of the epidemic of human trafficking. The Tate Brothers were arrested in Romania and accused of sexual assault, human trafficking, and other acts of violence against seven women across three continents. Andrew Tate is accused of using a “Romeo” style of exploitation, which is generally defined as romancing women or making them believe they are in a relationship before beginning to exploit them. Once a “relationship” was established, he is accused of forcing women to make pornographic content, alleging that women had debts to repay, and using threats of violence to keep them engaged in sexual behavior. Conversely, the “Sound of Freedom” focuses on former U.S. Government Agent Tim Ballard who leaves his formal position at the Department of Homeland Security to rescue children from sexual exploitation in Columbia. The film centers around Ballard’s Operation Underground Railroad, an anti-sex trafficking organization, and its work to rescue children from sexual exploitation.
The challenge with both media events, which garnered a lot of attention to the issue of human trafficking, is the disparity in the way it led to trafficking being viewed. Andrew Tate’s nearly rabid fan base quickly launched a staunch defense of him and his brother, with claims that allegations were fraudulent and that he was being targeted for his masculine and conservative views. The “Sound of Freedom”, on the other hand, portrayed child sex trafficking and exploitation as a problem outside the United States, and at times a far-reaching conspiracy tied to “global elites” who exploit children for ritualistic fashion. Both of these events have led to an overgeneralized understanding of human trafficking, which is both unbelievable for its simplicity (that women can be manipulated into their own exploitation), and believable for its complex ties to a global conspiracy, which operates outside the United States.
While the Tate brothers’ situation is more of a socio-political issue and contributed to debates from pundits on cable and social networks, the “Sound of Freedom” led to a large response from the organizations and communities that have been committed to end human trafficking for many years. One of those organizations, our statewide partners My Life My Choice (MLMC), a survivor-led organization whose mission is to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children, had significant concerns about the film. Based in Boston, MLMC has provided education and training to more than 20,000 providers of youth services, has provided mentorship programs to more than 900 exploited youth in the Commonwealth, and prevention education to more than 3,800 girls. They have shared their curriculum and provided education to more than 36 states in the nation, and in 2018, an evaluation funded by the National Institute of Justice indicated their programs were completed with “rigorous evidence of effectiveness.”
In a blog post from July titled “Setting the Story Straight”, My Life My Choice criticized the focus on the exaggerated stories about the organization Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.) and its founder Tim Ballard. “Sound of Freedom” created a false narrative of the sexual exploitation of children, which took the focus off the root causes of the exploitation industry. It also minimized the complex needs, care, and treatment needed for survivors of exploitation, as well as reinforced the misunderstanding that trafficking happens far away.
While this was just one voice which rose during the peak of the film’s popularity, many other issues have since come to light. The jump in attention for the organization had the opposite effect one may imagine. Tim Ballard separated himself from the organization within several months of the film’s release after a series of allegations by employees made accusations against him for sexual misconduct. Some of these behaviors mirrored those behaviors used by traffickers themselves to groom, manipulate and exploit women who had joined the organization to support survivors. By November of 2023 Ballard is facing lawsuits for allegations of sexual misconduct and assault by no fewer than six women. Ballard and O.U.R. have faced additional backlash from faith-based organizations, media and politicians over accusations of engaging in fraud and promoting conspiracy theories.
My Life My Choice stated in their article: “Some may believe that any dialogue about human trafficking raises awareness and builds the movement, and therefore “Sound of Freedom” has an important role to play. We disagree. This film takes attention and investment away from the true work of supporting survivors and shifting the circumstances that makes CSEC possible.” We could not agree more.
As the Child Advocacy Center for the Cape & Islands, we provide the coordinated response to crimes against children, including the regional multidisciplinary response to concerns of sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. We work collaboratively with the Cape & Islands District Attorney’s Office, all departments of law enforcement, the Department of Children and Families, and the Department of Public Health for this coordinated response.
More than 400 children were sexually exploited or trafficked right here in Southeastern Massachusetts last year. Not in Haiti, Thailand, China, or Mexico, but here in the communities across Massachusetts.
In January of this year, Children’s Cove partnered with the Child Advocacy Centers of Bristol and Plymouth Counties to put out a report regarding the impact and concerns of exploitation and trafficking of children in Southeastern Massachusetts in the calendar year of 2022. Regionally, our centers saw an increase in referrals of more than 40%, many beginning with or being solely online sexual exploitation. There were 420 referrals for concerns of exploitation of children in the region, including 355 female identified children, 63 male identified children and 2 transgender identified individuals. The range of ages for children impacted were from 5 years-old to 17 years-old and the distribution of these cases were that approximately 77% of these cases were individuals between 13 years-old and 17 years-old, and 23% were children who were 12 years-old and younger.
More than 400 children were sexually exploited or trafficked right here in Southeastern Massachusetts last year. Not in Haiti, Thailand, China, or Mexico, but here in the communities across Massachusetts. We have been responding to cases of commercial sexual exploitation of children across Massachusetts for many years now, and we need the same level of support for these very real children in our community. To learn more about commercial sexual exploitation of children visit our website, or to watch films about how exploitation manifests itself in our communities these are some recommend films: “Very Young Girls,” “I am Jane Doe,” and “A Path Appears.”
Together we can work to create a community where children are free of abuse, have a voice that is heard, and where they enjoy healthy, safe, and empowered lives.