Hashtag activism, conspiracy theories, and the truth about human trafficking

Until we are willing to have an honest conversation about the intersections of race, poverty, sexual abuse, and the shadow economy supported by undocumented immigrants, we will not make significant progress to help the true victims of human trafficking in the U.S.

Hashtag activism, conspiracy theories, and the truth about human trafficking

by Ruthi Hoffman Hanchett

Recently, my social media feed has been flooded with posts, images, and hashtags about human trafficking. As someone who has been actively engaged, learning, teaching, and advocating for the abolition of human trafficking for 20 years, I am glad to see so much interest. Yet, I am concerned that the trend is linked to sensationalized and false narratives driven by conspiracy theories and misinformation, that do not do the public or the real victims of human trafficking any good.

When friends first started asking me about Wayfair, I did a deep dive into the reports and conspiracy theories behind them.  What I learned (and am still learning) is that there is a growing trend linking child sex trafficking to everything from devil worship, to online cabinet and pillow sales, to the ‘danger of wearing masks,’ to powerful, blood-drinking elites in Washington and Hollywood with secret tunnels from the Whitehouse to pizza parlors. While I cannot refute every claim (check out NCOSE’s[i] statement for an excellent response), what bothered me most about these stories and claims is that they do not fit the narrative of what we know to be true about human trafficking.

When it comes to human trafficking, the public often thinks in images of kidnapped girls smuggled in car trunks with rope-bound hands, sold for sex, by scary-looking traffickers, lurking in dark corners.

But the truth is, most of the estimated 40 million[ii] victims of human trafficking around the globe are actually exploited for their labor. They may be immigrants in the U.S. working under unsafe conditions, with little to no pay, because they fear deportation. Or they may be in South East Asia, where the greatest number of slaves currently reside, and girls may be sold in marriage, while entire families toil to pay off a small debt.

When it comes to sex trafficking in America, and specifically children, the reality is, most children are not kidnaped and forced into commercial sex. The commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is often a long process of grooming, where a trafficker may look like a boyfriend, a business partner, or even a relative. Most children are sexually abused by people they know and lured into a life of abuse by false promises and coercive relationships.

Thorn’s survivor survey [iii] shows that, “traffickers invest heavily in gaining trust, with 88% of victims saying their trafficker told them they would take care of them, 83% responding that the trafficker bought them things, and 73% noting that the trafficker told them they loved them.”

These traffickers and the people who commercially sexually abuse children are not just the elite with power, money and fame like [iv]Jeffrey Epstein, but they are also every day average people of all classes, races, and ethnicities (see the recent arrests in Fresno [v]).

However, statistically, the victims of CSEC are not the young, innocent looking little girls we see in the social media posts, but sadly those whom our society has already failed.  The majority of children who are commercially sexually exploited have experienced sexual abuse, run away from difficult homes, and/or been involved in the foster care system.

  • The National Foster Youth Initiative reports 60% of all CSEC victims have histories in the child welfare system. [vi]
  • Children of color are disproportionately victimized in commercial sexual exploitation in the U.S. [vii]
  • The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found children of color (mostly Black and Lantinx) made up 358 of the 460 (78%) cases of child sex trafficking investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice between 2008 and 2010.[viii]

The “top that,” sensationalized storytelling of popular media may bring attention to the issue, but in quiet moments, survivors have shared that these extreme narratives can make them feel like their real experiences don’t matter as much, or are not worthy of our compassion. I fear that the salacious reports of stolen children hiding in cabinet will prevent us from seeing the real victims walking the streets at night or washing our dishes in the back of the restaurant.

We cannot let the drive to find the most emotionally extreme story prevent us from the empathy due to all victims, or to ignore the warning signs of the subtle ways most trafficking victims are groomed and exploited in our own communities.

Until we are willing to have an honest conversation about the intersections of race, poverty, sexual abuse, and the shadow economy supported by undocumented immigrants, we will not make significant progress to help the true victims of human trafficking in the U.S.

Human trafficking is all those things that make for a good conspiracy theory: secretive, nefarious, and hidden right before our eyes. But human trafficking does not require unproven conspiracy theories or powerful elites to make it true; it is alive and well and happening in our own communities today. We need to move beyond what some have called, “hashtag activism” and celebrity-narrated rescue operatives, to do the long, hard work of investing budget and time to address the root causes and end the demand for human trafficking.

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