I spent this afternoon in a coffee shop seated at a bamboo table across from a sex trafficking survivor.
A sex trafficking survivor. Let that sink in.
Over the past eight years, I’ve immersed myself in the issue of human trafficking and talked with many people connected to the sex industry. You’d think that it would all blend together after a while, that I’d be numb by now. But the stories never cease to shock me.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the people seated around us would think if they overheard snippets of our conversation:
“I felt trapped and desperate.”
“He took me to hotels month after month. It was always nice hotels, like the Hilton. I always wondered what strangers thought of us, if they saw what was going on—if they knew.”
“I didn’t think I had value. I had faced so many rejections, and I was hungry for love.”
Every trafficking victim has a different story, but those are common themes: desperation, invisibility, feelings of low self-worth.
My conversation this afternoon reminded me of an issue that is too often ignored—the intersection between human trafficking and foster care.
In the U.S., the FBI estimates that over 100,000 children are victims of sex trafficking each year. Of that number, according to the National Foster Youth Institute, 60 percent have been a part of the child welfare system. That means 60,000 youths who are or were in foster care will be sex slaves this year.
Children without families—who often feel desperate, invisible and worthless—are especially vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.
According to the American Youth and Policy Forum, 26,000 young people who turn 18 age out of the foster care system each year. Many of them end up in prostitution. But it’s not just older teens who are victimized—the average girl entering the sex trade today is just 12 years old.
And these victims of sexual exploitation are often hidden in plain sight.
Human trafficking is deeply entrenched underground in the hospitality industry. The survivor I talked to today described spending most of her time in hotels around the country. In her many months as a prostitute, her “boss” was never questioned and she was never once asked if she was okay. Her experience reflects the bigger reality: hotel operators and travelers typically turn a blind eye to human trafficking—not out of malice, but because they are often uneducated about the issue and don’t know the signs to look for.
But some hospitality associations are taking their corporate social responsibility (CSR) seriously and taking steps to combat trafficking through education, preventative measures and other actions.
The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) has developed a CSR strategy to help hospitality businesses like hotels recognize and combat human trafficking. Here are three of the many ways that AHLA has moved hotels to take action:
- Display a human trafficking awareness poster in your hotel office.
- Use this social media toolkit, developed by the Polaris Project, to educate and empower.
- Regularly train hotel staff to recognize the signs of trafficking and respond appropriately.
Hotel Management, a leading magazine for the hospitality industry for 140 years, is also taking action to educate about and fight trafficking through this effective five-step plan.
But to rescue foster children and others from the jaws of sexual slavery, it will take more than just hotel operators. You and I need to do our part too. And that starts with being educated about what trafficking looks like.
I recently attended a survivor speak-out event hosted by Lane County Against Trafficking, where I heard the incredible true story of a woman who rescued two middle school girls from prostitution in my local mall.
It was Black Friday, and the woman was standing in a long line. In front of her, a man stood between two preteens, each holding a stack of underwear. He was talking to them about how they were going to get their nails and hair done next. He said something about people paying more because they were young. The woman in line behind them had recently attended a training session about how to recognize signs of human trafficking, so she knew what to do. She casually ducked out of line and behind a rack of clothes, taking note of everything she could about the trio. Then she called the police. Later, she learned that because she had been aware of her surroundings and made the call, the trafficker was caught, and the girls were rescued.
You could have been the one in line behind them. You may pass victims of trafficking every day and not know it. Like the few hotel chains that are taking ownership of their corporate social responsibility, we have a responsibility too. Take a moment to familiarize yourself with the signs of human trafficking and the most common types of trafficking. You may one day rescue a foster child—or any person—from slavery. So be prepared.
In the coffeehouse today, I asked my new friend what it was like to go from hotel to hotel without any strangers asking if she was safe or okay. She said it made her feel even more hopeless, more invisible, more trapped. If just one person had reached out, her life might have been different.
Let’s not let this happen to anyone else. Be the one who reaches out and leads the way to freedom.
Featured image: source