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January is National Human Trafficking Prevent Month, and it deserves our attention

Human trafficking is an unpleasant topic, one that few are eager to discuss. However, avoiding the subject only allows it to persist in silence. January is National Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and it is as good a time as any to inform ourselves about the reality of the issue so that we can combat it from every possible angle.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” As this definition notes, this type of abuse is not only limited to sexual exploitation but also includes forced labor, in which victims are compelled to provide work against their will. Globally, it is estimated that 27.6 million people are being trafficked at any given time, with these activities collectively yielding $150 billion in illegal revenue each year. It is no exaggeration that human trafficking is a modern form of slavery, alive and functioning on an enormous scale.

While it is true that this issue is a worldwide problem, it is important to not get so caught up in the big picture that we neglect the offenses that occur in our own communities. The U.S., despite being a nation that markets itself as a land of freedom and independence, is a hub for human trafficking, with more than 17,500 people trafficked into the country each year. In 2021, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline received 10,359 reports of trafficking cases, with 291 cases being identified in Ohio alone—and yet these numbers do not even reflect the countless number of cases that were never reported.

In fact, the hidden, underreported nature of human trafficking is one factor that makes it so difficult to take down. For one, traffickers often threaten to harm their victims should they attempt to flee or report their situation. Victims may fear losing access to basic needs such as food and a place to live if they try to escape. Others may feel shame in coming forward or may even be so effectively manipulated by traffickers that they do not recognize they are being exploited. Those who are undocumented in a country often fear deportation and face language barriers. In other words, the reasons victims and survivors do not speak out are numerous and complex, making it essential that we as a community know how to identify and support victims as best we can.

Spotting human trafficking is not only challenging because traffickers are skilled at keeping their activities undercover but also because bystanders tend to hold misconceptions about what trafficking looks like. For instance, while the majority of trafficking victims are female, males can be victims as well. The LGBTQIA+ community is also frequently overlooked as a vulnerable population, suffering from even greater rates of underreporting and stigmatization. Another myth is that human trafficking always involves kidnapping by a stranger. Although it may occasionally occur this way, it is also common for traffickers to target people whom they already know. Once again, education and awareness are necessary to ensure these misconceptions don’t prevent us from stopping human trafficking.

I want to highlight one myth in particular: the false notion that pornography can be neatly separated from human trafficking. Considering that a 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior journal found that 76.5% of surveyed college students access sexual entertainment online, this idea is worth discussing. Not only is sexual abuse widespread in both the production and distribution of porn, but it is also impossible for viewers to determine if the porn they are watching is consensual. Even sites which claim to prohibit non-consensual content, such as Pornhub, consistently fail to uphold this standard. With the porn industry taking in an estimated $97 billion per year, the minutes and dollars spent on it are no small matter. College students deserve to be aware of the close connection between pornography and human trafficking.

The full extent of the human trafficking issue and comprehensive education on how to help victims cannot possibly be contained in this article alone. We need to go a step further in educating ourselves and our peers about what we can do to stop human trafficking where we are right now. There are opportunities to do so both on campus and online: On Jan. 31, the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women is hosting a discussion panel to provide education on human trafficking in the college campus setting. Registration details can be found on CampusGroups. One to One Fitness Center is offering self-defense classes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which include training on situational awareness. Online, the Polaris Project and the U.S. Department of State’s website are good places to look for information.

Turning a blind eye to human trafficking does a disservice to its victims and to our communities at large. Such a complex issue requires us to unite against it and to listen to the voices of those who have suffered at its hands. It is worth setting aside some time to equip ourselves with the knowledge and skills to put an end to human trafficking.

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