Let’s Put Sex Trafficking on the National Agenda

Becca Stevens and the women of Thistle Farms.

In 1997, Episcopal priest Becca Stevens opened the residential portion of Thistle Farms, Magdalene, a home for four women survivors of sex trafficking, addiction and prostitution. Four years later, Stevens founded the social enterprise: a natural bath and body product line that trains and employs survivors. Fast forward fourteen more years and Thistle Farms is featured in episode one of three-part documentary series, A Path Appears, based on the book of the same title by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Just within the week of the broadcast premiere, Thistle Farms raised over $20,000 in sales.

Stories like these speak loudly to the influence of media when it comes to raising awareness about sex trafficking in the United States. The public’s response didn’t stop at $20,000. The enterprise opened twenty accounts with new retailers from people who were inspired by the series and gained extensive visibility, allowing them to build a larger network and connect with other trafficking organizations.

Sadly, not all efforts to prevent domestic sex trafficking and raise awareness about the issue make it into the public eye. In fact, the scope of the problem is not fully understood as sex trafficking data is notoriously difficult to document. This is why using media to shine a light on the issue of trafficking is more important than ever. Radio, print, social media, film, games and apps, all can help lift the veil from an issue shrouded in darkness.

All of the Show of Force: Social Good interventions and transmedia projects follow this theory of change and are a testament to how media can play a role in influencing positive behavioral transformation.

“This whole effort starts with awareness,” says former Administrator of USAID, Rajiv Shah, in episode one of A Path Appears: Sex Trafficking in the USA, “and the media plays a tremendous role in making sure that everyone understands that this is both the challenge of our time and a tremendous opportunity.”

In a study by the SOF: Social Good’s USAID funded program in Kenya, it was found that media plays an increasingly important part in society, providing a framework for interpretation and mobilizing citizens with regard to various issues. When a group of parents were exposed to media and involved in group discussions on girls’ education there were significant behavioral changes. The number of participants who said they would not let their daughter get married until she finished high school increased by 13 percent post media exposure.   

Psychology Today’s article entitled Brain, Behavior, and Media, Bernard J. Luskin Ed.D., LMFT says, “Media and social media are distributors and drivers of social change. We need increased understanding of the effects of media to help manage our future.” Luskin goes on to list the “good effects” of media that include fostering public understanding of crucial issues.

Photo courtesy of My Life My Choice

Audrey Morrissey, Associate Director, and the women of My Life My Choice, Boston-based anti-trafficking organization featured in A Path Appears.

With media having such a powerful impact on society, there comes the matter of the importance of language used around the subject of sex trafficking. During the McCain Institute’s Domestic Child Sex Trafficking and the Child Welfare Response panel on November 5th, the misuse of the term “child prostitute,” was brought up. “You cannot say someone is having sex with a child,” said trafficking survivor Barbara Amaya. “They are raping a child.”

The growing concern about the  sexual trafficking of minors led to the enactment of the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 to combat trafficking. The statute protects survivors because children “can never consent to prostitution. It is always exploitation” (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005). In other words, children who are involved in the commercial sex industry are defined as victims of a severe form of trafficking in persons (rights4girls.org).

This is why the term “child prostitute” does not convey the full circumstance of the child and should therefore be removed from our vernacular. These children are, by law, victims of sex trafficking. Referring to them as prostitutes raises the notion that there was consent involved, and fails to express the legal and moral context of what these girls go through (rights4girls.org). The term dismisses the harm, violence, trauma and coercion that the girls endure. If our language reinforces the criminalization of the victim, how can we expect the public to extend a helping hand?   

Photo courtesy of My Life My Choice

For now all we can do is push the issue into the spotlight and educate the public about this occult epidemic in our society. We can change our language around the issue by replacing “child prostitute” with terms like “sex trafficked child” or “child sex trafficking victim.” And we should not only provide information to the masses, but also offer solutions and ways for people to become more involved. For instance, when the media prints or airs news on trafficking it can be useful to include a local anti-trafficking help line number and other assistance sources (UNODC).

Co-author and featured journalist of A Path Appears, Nicholas Kristof says, “You can’t solve problems if we are not aware of them. You can’t solve problems if they’re not a national agenda.” This is why we’ll be asking all of our Social Good Ambassadors and those interested in getting this issue on the national agenda to join us in raising awareness about domestic sex trafficking in their communities. Next week we’ll be rolling out toolkits and materials to help individuals who are hosting screenings of episode one, “Sex Trafficking in the U.S.A.” In addition, we’ll suggest actions and local organization they can get involved with. If you’d like to join us, please sign up here.