What the evidence says about ending the trafficking of women and girls
Today, thousands of women—First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey among them—will gather in Washington, DC, to hear from experts, advocates, and grassroots leaders about the progress the United States and the world have made toward gender equality and the challenges left to overcome.
The Urban Institute’s own Meredith Dank, a senior research associate with the Justice Policy Center, will speak at the United State of Women summit today as part of a panel on ending the trafficking of women and girls. Dank has done extensive research on human trafficking, interviewing victims and traffickers and producing the first-ever scientifically rigorous study of underground commercial sex economies in the United States. She will join experts and advocates from the nonprofit, private, and legal sectors for a discussion, moderated by Ambassador Susan Coppedge, about the state of trafficking and potential solutions.
We sat down with Dank before the panel to discuss what the evidence says about trafficking and what it means for trafficking to be included in this historic summit.
AT: You conducted the first scientifically rigorous study of underground commercial sex economies in the United States. What did you learn that surprised you?
MD: It solidified for me just how much this is not a black-and-white issue and how complicated it is. The reasons people get involved in sex trafficking, whether they’re the trafficker or the trafficked person, tend to be pretty much the same: poverty, lack of living-wage jobs, lack of access to good education, a lack of mentors and community leaders, systemic racism, a pattern of cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. This is for both sides. This doesn't excuse what these traffickers have done, and even in conversations with them, they acknowledge this, but this shows that a lot of what's driving the issue is more of an overall systemic failure with our child welfare system, our criminal justice system, and just general access to support within impoverished communities.
AT: How do young women and girls end up being trafficked?
MD: There tends to be a failure with the child welfare system, with the educational system, or within the family unit. The young person is often left in a particularly vulnerable state. Whether they’re in the foster care system or chronically running away from home, this kind of leaves them open to somebody coming along. And what often happens, at least according to the traffickers I spoke to, is in the beginning they tend to use emotional coercion to make the young woman or girl feel that they're in a relationship and that they really care about her. That process can last as little as a week or two or sometimes two months, and then things start changing pretty quickly. But by then the bond is there. And it's hard, because for a lot of the women and girls I spoke to, they've never felt that someone has cared for them in their life, and this person has. And even if there’s physical abuse, it oftentimes does not reach the level that they’ll report to police, a school official, a case worker, or a parent. One minute their trafficker might beat them, and the next minute they might buy them something. That bond is pretty thick.
AT: What can be done to stop girls from becoming trafficking victims, and how do we help those who are already part of the system?
MD: One of the big issues that I’ve seen not only in that study but in other research is that we continue to criminalize the women and girls and arrest them for prostitution-related offenses, which just perpetuates the need for them to continue engaging in the commercial sex trade. Giving them a criminal record greatly decreases their ability to get employment, housing, education, and other services necessary to gain stability in their lives.
We do need more community programming, more female-empowerment programming, and more programming for boys around how to properly respect and treat women. A theme in some of the interviews with traffickers was that this is how they saw women treated in their families or in their neighborhoods, and what they saw was that you can physically, emotionally, and psychologically abuse women and that's okay, that's normal.
AT: What are some of the most common misconceptions you hear about sex trafficking?
MD: That if you're involved in prostitution you must be trafficked. This is where we as a society have made this into a black-and-white issue, and it's a lot more complicated than that. People will argue that there are those who have full agency and chose to do this, and on the other end of that spectrum are those who are coerced and forced into doing this by a trafficker. But you have a lot of folks in the middle who have no choice but to do this in order to make a living and survive. And people can go in and out—it's a fluid spectrum, it's not static.
There’s also the misconception that this only happens to people who are born in other countries and come to the US, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Or that this only happens to women and girls when the research says this is not a gender-specific issue. Boys, trans youth, gender nonconforming youth—they all can be trafficked.
AT: The United State of Women Summit covers such a wide variety of topics, many of which affect far more women than human trafficking does. What does it mean for trafficking to be included in the discussion?
MD: It’s very exciting. We need to be aware that trafficking exists and need to be educated as a society about who's vulnerable, the pathways in which someone gets into the commercial sex economy, but also how somebody can get out of it as well. And that often involves the community. What’s always been shocking to me is when I hear from people who say, “Oh, I saw somebody on the street and they weren't dressed appropriately for the weather or they looked like they needed help.” Well what did you do? Did you go up to them and ask if they were okay? Or did you ignore them? That's generally what we do; we don't want to get involved. But all it takes are three simple words to potentially change someone's life, and that's, “Are you okay?”
A woman named Cindy stands on a street corner waiting for customers. She has only been in the sex trade for one month, turning to prostitution after being abandoned by her family, two brothers and an abusive father. Photo by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images