Panic over sex-trafficking myths doesn’t help real life victims, local advocates say

Erin Williams is alarmed by the fervor she sees growing around sex trafficking.

As director of the only accredited community sexual assault program in Spokane, she serves many human trafficking survivors each year. Lutheran Community Services Northwest’s 24/7 hotline for sexual assault survivors makes it easier for survivors to find them.

Amid the pandemic, awareness about sex trafficking seems to have exploded, Williams said, but stories swirling online are far from reality.

While it might seem harmless to draw attention to an issue that truly exists in Spokane, mischaracterizing sex trafficking actually works against progress, she said. And images of boogeymen picking kids up off the street and keeping them as sex slaves skip over harsh realities that actually fuel the local sex trade: poverty and people not believing victims.

“The idea of some fantastical thing that happens in dark corners, I think it’s how people can distance themselves from an issue,” Williams said. “If something seems really gratuitous and unreal, it couldn’t happen to me, it couldn’t happen to my children.”

Wrong ideas about sex trafficking can keep people from stepping up in useful ways, she said.

For community members, really fighting sex trafficking will start with “not turning a blind eye” to people who live on the margins, who are hungry, homeless, drug addicted or domestically abused, Williams said.

Vulnerable populations are the most likely to get trapped in sexual exploitation, she said. Sex trafficking survivors are disproportionately people of color, indigenous and transgender women.

Sex trafficking is a serious issue in Spokane and it does often begin young, said Jenn Davis Nielson, an advocate at LCSNW. Survivors of sexual exploitation are also often survivors of intimate-partner abuse. Usually, it’s a relationship with a loved one or someone they trust that devolves into selling sex.

Adults and children exploited for sex, whether they keep their earnings, are often completely reliant on a partner or parent who begins to expect them to earn their keep, Nielson said. Victims might not describe that person as a pimp or trafficker, though.

Believing victims of sexual assault and domestic violence could prevent trafficking, Williams said.

Many victims of sexual exploitation say police didn’t believe them about an assault, and now say they will “never call 911 again,” Williams said.

For a child, safe adults to talk to are one of the best defenses against becoming entangled in trafficking, Nielson said. With those safe figures lacking as kids stay home from school during the pandemic, community members need to step up.

“We have a responsibility as a community, not only to be scared and use a hashtag like #SaveTheChildren on social media, but to really pay attention to the kids in our community right now,” she said.

Part of paying attention, Williams said, means ditching one of the biggest misconceptions: rescuing.

Because it’s not usually force that drags someone into human trafficking – it’s a combination of a victim’s desperation and a trafficker’s coercion – victims often feel they have chosen the best alternative.

“If we swoop in there and say ‘Hey, what you’re going through is wrong and I’m here to save the day,’ a teenager might say, ‘I know exactly what I’m doing, and if you push me in a direction I’m going to run in the other direction,’” Williams said.

“I want them to know, there are people who care about what they want – not what I want, not what (Nielson) wants – what they want for themselves,” she continued.

Victims of sex trafficking or any sexual assault can lean on LCS, she said. Twenty-five volunteers answer the program’s sexual assault crisis line at (509) 624-7273 at all hours. During business hours, survivors can also text the line.

Victims of all other crimes can also call (509) 747-8224 and ask for an advocate. Both lines can help survivors find the resources most useful to them at LCS, such as counseling, preschool services, substance-use disorder treatment, legal help, a citizenship program and medical treatment.

LCS advocates are there to help survivors navigate systems that are often “unfriendly” to them, including the legal system, Williams said.

While combined fears of the pandemic and natural disasters can leave Spokane residents scared, she said, if community members really want to protect others from victimization, they need to be sure to protect themselves from misinformation on social media first.

“It’s easier to imagine something that sounds so outlandish,” Williams said. “That’s how people safeguard their hearts and minds. The reality for folks we serve is one that is all too familiar.”

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