By Kiricka Yarbough-Smith and Roxy Logan
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) recommends a four-pronged approach to addressing human trafficking: Prevention, Protection, Prosecution, and Partnership. Unfortunately, prevention is often an underfunded and underutilized tool in the fight against trafficking. Resource-strapped organizations, both public and private, are often restricted to reacting to trafficking cases rather than undertaking more systematic efforts to prevent future suffering and exploitation.
To prevent trafficking, our movement must find innovative, low-resource, credible means of (1) addressing the emotional and material vulnerabilities of children most at risk for being trafficked and (2) confronting the cultural messages about masculinity and sexuality that drive willingness to sell or buy trafficked individuals.
Educating populations vulnerable to trafficking is a critical component of prevention. Effective prevention programs should educate and provide outreach to particularly vulnerable populations of children to help combat the negative cultural and emotional forces that place them at increased risk for commercial sexual exploitation. This programming should help combat negative images children receive about sexuality from adults and the media, as well as focus on how to develop positive self-images and age-appropriate, healthy views of gender roles and sexuality. This programming is suitable for all demographic groups.
Another technique some advocates have found useful is to reach out to the most vulnerable girls about the realities of prostitution and the techniques that traffickers might use to recruit them. Many trafficker-pimps initially portray sex work as a glamorous, easy way to make money and to earn the love and approval of the pimp. Traffickers carefully craft messages to lure in individuals based on their vulnerabilities, from the hopelessness engendered by multi-generational poverty to a basic desire for love. Programming must include a reality check for vulnerable young people on what the life traffickers offer really entails. Survivor-led programming here is likely to be the most effective, as youth are not always ready to listen to adults’ seemingly abstract admonitions about good long-term decisions.
Because many pimps exploit children’s vulnerabilities by posing as loving boyfriends, caretakers, or a surrogate family, prevention curricula also needs to teach previously abused or neglected girls to develop a healthy understanding of love that is free of abuse and exploitation. These programs are especially important for the most vulnerable demographics, such as urban low-income youth most likely to be targeted because of their lack of economic options and foster care children who may never have known what a healthy, loving family life is like.
It is important to offer after-school programs and hope for a better life to populations vulnerable to involvement in trafficking, whether as perpetrators or victims. Some advocacy groups have recently begun to offer resources for mentorships, internships, and constructive after-school activities that build self-esteem and offer legal, non-exploitative paths to financial and life success. To get the word out about such programs, advocates can offer materials and small group sessions to parents or youths in a targeted area. Depending on resources available, groups can also plan large-scale public events that bring in audiences through fun offerings, then give groups access to parents and youth who can use these resources.
Any single group can only reach a limited number of youth state-wide, so it is important for both large, top-down and smaller grassroots groups to collaborate to expand the reach of prevention efforts. To accomplish this, advocates can offer leadership programs that train youth to become effective movement leaders and advocates in their own communities. Larger groups not performing direct services and outreach can support these programs by offering logistical training to help existing agencies around the state to train and engage youth. Community volunteers may also help expand the movement’s real reach, as well as link vulnerable groups to a wider variety of community resources. To help expand community members’ involvement, groups may find it helpful to enlist and train volunteers from numerous disciplines to help expand prevention work into more workplaces and organizations.
To prevent trafficking, we must also address the availability and demand for trafficked people. The majority of sex traffickers and purchasers are male, so educating men and boys is essential to preventing trafficking. Organizations should work to reduce male participation in sex trafficking and similar forms of gender-based oppression by addressing unhealthy norms about gender-based dominance and instilling healthy, respectful models of masculinity.
Challenging damaging views of gender and sexuality is critical to addressing demand. The women’s movement has made major gains in addressing women’s equality, but today we are losing traction on developing a healthy, egalitarian sexual culture. Today, media from pornography to music videos often provides a haven for an anti-women backlash, in which gender roles are clear and regressive. To reduce demand, we must offer more positive forms of education about healthy sexuality and openly confront the negative messaging about gender and sexuality that normalizes the sale and purchase of women for sex.
To increase credibility with young boys, it helps to involve male staff members and, where possible, male athletes (local or national), musicians, political or business leaders, or other examples of positive male role models. These men can mentor boys on positive masculine identities and even work with athletic coaches to change the common terminology that devalues girls and reinforces links between sexuality, dominance, and aggression. The anti-trafficking movement’s prevention work must involve men in changing other men’s attitudes about commercial sex, respect for women as equals, and the meaning of healthy masculinity in our generation and those to come.
Kiricka Yarbough Smith provides training and technical assistance to service providers as well as resources and referrals to survivors of human trafficking. She also serves on the Executive Committee of The NC Coalition against Human Trafficking (NCCAHT) and co-chairs the NCCAHT committee to develop and implement Human Trafficking Rapid Response Teams across the state. She is also a member of Partner’s Against the Trafficking of Humans. Kiricka currently serves as a faculty member for the US Department of Justice Office on Violence against Women and Futures Without Violence project, building collaboration to address trafficking in domestic violence and sexual assault cases. She has also partnered with the Children Advocacy Centers of NC to develop and implement a domestic minor sex trafficking curriculum.
Roxy Logan is an anti-trafficking activist, writer, and attorney. She currently serves as a board member and fundraising committee chair for the Rape Crisis Volunteers of Cumberland County. Previously, she assisted the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault with their human trafficking efforts. She earned her B.S. (magna cum laude) in Political Science from the University of Southern California, and her J.D. (cum laude) from William & Mary Law School.