A few weeks ago, I had the privilege to view an advance copy of a short film depicting two people in conversation about sex trafficking. Faces obscured and voices altered, a man and a teenage girl gave parallel accounts. She describes how she joined a gang in early adolescence. He describes how as a gang member, he used to pick out girls who were vulnerable and bring them in. She describes how she began being traded out sexually, to other gangs, then to men she didn’t know. He describes how he used to sell women, then stopped because he realized he’d never want to see his own daughter being used in that way. She describes how she began looking for a way out when her young sister joined the gang and started selling herself so they could be together. In fifteen minutes, the stories of these two people shifted what I thought I knew about my community.
I live in Eastern Washington state. It’s the “red” part of Washington. It’s far from, Portland, the legal sex industry’s #1 American city and #2 city for sex trafficking. It’s away from Seattle, the #3 sex trafficking capital in America. My town, Richland, made number two on a list of best places to raise children. Near here are several farming communities. One of these, Sunnyside, WA, is home to the man and girl in the video I saw.
I know a fair amount about international sex trafficking; I know less about domestic trafficking, but I had always imagined it as a city problem. It’s what happens when you get large groups of people together–some vulnerable souls inevitably fall through the cracks. It’s harder to fall through the cracks in a small community like Richland or Sunnyside. So when it becomes clear that human trafficking is happening here, why wouldn’t we want to address it?
After I watched the video, a local pastor got up and talked about how he and others in the Sunnyside community had come together to reach out to victims of trafficking like the girl in the video. And he described something else. He said that while there are many in Sunnyside who want to end the injustice happening in their community, they are running up against a group of people in total denial. Actually, worse than that. They are meeting people who don’t deny that young girls being coerced into selling themselves and profits given to gangs; they just deny that there’s anything called “sex trafficking” going on in such a situation.
Read this editorial, written by a City Council member in Sunnyside in response to the anti-trafficking efforts. He opens with a paragraph describing “legitimate” trafficking. His definition: it happens overseas, to 5 year olds and blonde Americans like in the movie “Taken.” Then he differentiates. The girls in his community, the ones being targeted by gangs, join “voluntarily” and while they might be underage and “gangs might accept payment for services using [them]” it’s definitely, in his view, not sex trafficking. In fact, it actually “diminishes” the term to use it in reference to the girls in his community. He ends, “No matter what we call the exploitation of girls and women, I think we can all agree that we need to work to end it.”
That’s not good enough. Because the difference between calling someone a “prostitute” and a “sex slave” is not just semantics. Last I checked, no one under the age of 18 legally consents to selling her body. It doesn’t matter if she leaves the house with her pimp, or if he forces her to leave at gunpoint. And furthermore, if there’s any threat involved, then it’s definitely trafficking. If a women sells herself because she’s afraid of what will happen to her if she does not, it’s trafficking. At it matters what we call it because the legal, social, and governmental options available to help end it are different depending on how you define the problem. If a woman is a prostitute, then she is arrested. If she’s a trafficking victim, then the response needs to be completely different.
I left that film showing and meeting with a new respect for what we are up against in the fight to help victims of trafficking. Because most of the victims are not 5 years old, or blonde Americans with Liam Neeson to the rescue. Most victims of trafficking are the kind of people who slip through the tracks. The ones it’s easier not to notice. The ones with a past, or a bad attitude, or a gang affiliation. But if we can’t see these girls and women as our neighbors, and if we don’t have the courage to call what happens to them by its right name, then we will never be able to end it.