A few months ago, against my better judgment, I got into it with someone on Facebook about the #SaveTheChildren campaign. For those of you smart enough to steer clear of social media drama, the phrase was part of what I can best describe as a hashtag activist campaign claiming to be concerned with the safety and security of children subjected to human trafficking. This may seem like a noble cause, except for the fact that few of the people joining the “Save the Children” chorus had any concept of how to actually help or what they were even raging against.
Instead, and the thing that incensed me, was that they were blindly following some Q-Anon-prompted nonsense about liberals and pedophile rings and secret cabals. With all the fervor of their colonizer ancestors “discovering” something that has always been there, their newfound crusade struck the absolute wrong chord with me; as if vulnerable people, particularly women and children, haven’t always been at the mercy of immoral men and their twisted hunger for money. But all of a sudden some Q-adjacent group decides it’s a travesty that only Trump can put an end to they’re all ears and outrage? I simply could not leave it be.
To be clear, human trafficking is a very real problem and the numbers are staggering, almost unbelievable, when you consider how hidden the problem must be given its pervasiveness. According to the International Labour Organization, in 2016 more than 24.9 million people across the globe were trapped in a life of forced labor, with nearly one-fifth of them exploited for sex work. It should come as no surprise that of the sexually exploited, 99 percent are women or girls. In 2019, the Human Trafficking Hotline made more than 48,000 contacts with or about trafficking victims and reported 11,500 cases in the U.S., the vast majority involving sex trafficking. As an industry, trafficking in humans is a behemoth and highly profitable, generating an estimated $150 billion per year. And while sexual labor accounts for only 20 percent of trafficking cases, at $99 billion a year, it is by far the most profitable type of trafficking.
As I said, the stats are overwhelming. In our raging capitalist world, a true end to the scourge of human trafficking would entail a miracle big enough to also abolish the illicit drug trade, illegal arms sales, and war itself; in essence, all the things that make rich men richer. While we will and should continue working towards that miracle, there are a great many concrete and practical steps we can take to ensure that we do not compound the harm already inflicted on victims of human trafficking.
For one, those forced into sexual labor should never, ever be treated as criminals. Putting aside the patriarchal and misogynistic criminalization of sex work in general, when faced with persons who were forced or coerced into the industry against their will, it’s a real stretch of the puritanical playbook to then hold them accountable for the “crime” of being some kind of heathen. It is the only instance I can think of where we regularly charge someone as both a victim and a perpetrator. If we are truly committed to making survivors out of trafficking victims, then what sense does it make to saddle them with a criminal record that will inevitably lead to difficulty finding a job, a home, building a life? What exactly are we punishing them for?
Given the trauma already present following a life of exploitation and the uphill battle many victims will have to face to regain some semblance of a peaceful existence, it is downright inhumane to pile on further, wholly unnecessary obstacles that will prevent many from doing so. In fact, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has condemned the criminalization of trafficking victims as a human rights violation, insofar as it creates obstacles to a stable rehabilitation.
Thankfully, Nevada is having this conversation. Senate Bill 164, currently making its way through our legislative process, would prevent law enforcement from arresting, charging, or detaining anyone who is identified as a victim of human trafficking. It would require that in some instances, the person be referred to local and state agencies and resources. It would end the humiliating practice of subjecting victims to HIV testing, which can then be used against them to ramp up misdemeanor charges to felonies. All in all, this bill is simply proposing that we give the most vulnerable among us, those who have experienced abuse beyond that which many of us would even dare imagine, a hand up rather than a kick down. None of this should be controversial.
Back to my social media beef. That day, when the “children savers” were out in full force, I’d had enough of what I felt was false outrage. I very rudely suggested to one poster who was defending the hashtag that he knew nothing of the subject and should probably take his crocodile tears and performative indignation back from whence he came. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t that eloquent, either. Turns out he works in search and rescue and as a first responder who has helped break up trafficking rings. In other words, he probably is a lot more in the know than my little condescending self. It was embarrassing, and I apologized for jumping to conclusions and making assumptions I had no right or reason to make. It ended cordially but it has stuck with me for one major reason.
Maybe there are still issues where most people can come together. Maybe protecting kids and other victims of trafficking is one of those issues. And maybe, just maybe, we can all show up for victims in Nevada. I mean, the fact that I ended a discussion with a Q apologizer on good terms is either a sign of the apocalypse or a sign of miracles yet to come. Here’s hoping for the miracle.
To learn more about SB164 visit https://safeharbornevada.org/.
Martha E. Menendez, Esq. is the Bernstein Senior Fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic.