The Biggest Misconceptions About Sex Trafficking, According To An Expert

After years of research, Dr. Mellissa Withers has come to some startling conclusions.

The Biggest Misconceptions About Sex Trafficking, According To An Expert

When you imagine the person running a sex trafficking ring, you may not imagine a woman. But you should.

According to Dr. Mellissa Withers, an associate professor of global health at the University of Southern California who has been researching sex trafficking for nearly a decade, more than half of the traffickers she's come across in her research have been women. It's just one of the many misconceptions she's debunked during her time studying the issue.

"In the movies, they [people being trafficked] have been kidnapped, chained to a bed, drugged and they're beaten and held against their will and locked in some room and can never escape," Dr. Withers told A Plus. "That's pretty rare that that actually would happen. In fact, many of the victims that I've worked with have cell phones, had Sundays off where they were allowed to leave and go to the church or the mall. And yet they didn't escape, they didn't make a break for it because of a whole host of issues."

When Withers began her work, one of her own misconceptions about sex trafficking helped to open up a new way to fight the practice. Like most people, Withers believed that when someone was being sex trafficked, they rarely had contact with the outside world. She was shocked to find out that victims not only have contact with the outside world but may have contact with medical professionals — like primary care physicians. 

Often times, she says, victims of sex trafficking will have injuries, will need family planning services or need a vaccination, and as a result, it's not irregular at all for them to see doctors. One victim Withers interviewed had been to health care providers 18 times while she was being trafficked, and yet nobody identified her as a victim. 

"It's such a wasted opportunity," Withers said. 

In recognition of that opportunity, Withers has begun training health care professionals on how to spot people who were victims of sex trafficking. With the help of a $1 million grant from the state of California, she's been teaching medical professionals about the realities she's come across.

"Traffickers are very savvy and they know how not to get caught," Withers said. "They are really, really good at hiding it. What happens often is the trafficker, the woman, will take the person being trafficked into the doctor's office and will say, 'this is my cousin from Indonesia' or wherever and 'she doesn't speak English and I'm here to answer questions for her, I'm here to help.' And it doesn't really raise any red flags."


The first tip, she tells everyone, regardless of their profession, is that there is not one way someone being trafficked looks, and no single demographic that is particularly at risk. People being trafficked aren't necessarily those born outside the United States. 

Withers tells all the clinics she visits that they should be seeing patients alone. If someone can't speak English or says they can't, then the health care provider should offer a translator — a service which is required in most states. She hopes to help get clinics a binder that has information on what resources they have in their area in case they see a patient who may be a victim. 

There are other red flags people can look for, too: if someone works long hours, doesn't have an identification card, or if someone is present and asks to speak for them, these may be signs of sex trafficking.

 Unfortunately, there's a good chance trafficking is happening around you. Withers described foreign crime sex trafficking rings as "very organized" and the "second largest criminal enterprise after drug trafficking, tied with arms trafficking." 

Dr. Anirudh Ruhil, an expert in data analysis for public policy and a professor of leadership and public affairs at Ohio University, says in India alone there are believed to be as many as 16 million victims of sex trafficking. In the last decade, some organizations or government agencies have begun trying to use data analytics to thwart human trafficking, like Operation Red Alert

"Operation Red Alert is a joint project in India by My Choices and Quantum to inform parents, teachers, village elders and children about human trafficking activity in their vicinity," Dr. Ruhil said in an email to A Plus. "This effort is fairly new (began only 4 years ago) so it remains to be seen how effective it will be. The fact that it is relying on some novel machine learning algorithms to identify the most vulnerable villages is a familiar, time-tested algorithm-based approach to a vital problem."

Withers says anyone — not just health care professionals — can get involved and help. One of the best ways to do that is to call one of the hotlines to alert professionals if you think you know of a sex or human trafficking case. 

"It is hard to tell but you don't have to be 100 percent sure to call the tip line," Withers said. "You should really let the people in charge who does this for a living investigate and decide whether or not it's a trafficking case. Certainly, an alert citizen who can call it in is important."

One piece of good news is that more people are getting involved in reporting possible trafficking cases. Three groups of people have really stepped up: truck drivers, airline employees, and motel employees. Each of the groups is often in a position to witness human trafficking firsthand. 

"In our culture, people are hesitant to get involved in other people's business," she said. "I think it's important to let people know that you should call because you just never know. How awful you would feel if you didn't call and it turns out your instincts were right?"

If you or someone you know might be the victim of human trafficking, you can call the national hotline: 1 (888) 373-7888

Cover image via Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images: View, from behind, of an unidentified victim of sex trafficking during a meeting at My Life My Choice, an anti-human trafficking agency, Boston, Massachusetts, March 24, 2016. The organization, founded in 2002, aims to prevent the commercial sexual exploitation of adolescent girls through survivor-led programs.

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