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Athens News Matters: Sex Trafficking Myths

Kiichiro Sato
/
AP

Sex trafficking, which encompasses everything from small-town street prostitution to international smuggling rings, is on the rise, both in Georgia and across the nation. Stories about the warning signs and how to prevent it abound on social media sites like TikTok.

But in this next story, a research fellow at the University of Georgia’s Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreachdebunks myths on social media about sex trafficking and talks about what’s really happening - and how to lower your risk. Reporter-producer Allison Salerno has the story.

Please note that this story, which lasts about seven minutes, will be disturbing to some listeners.

There are tales you can’t avoid on TikTok. Women warning women about sex traffickers stalking them.  

And then there are men on TikTok warning women about traffickers putting zip ties or tee shirts on cars to mark potential victims. Here’s a man on TikTok who says he’s a dad who found zip ties on his adult daughter’s car three days in a row. He says he knows who put those zip ties on: Sex traffickers and people who steal women. 

And thousands of young adults think these stories are real. I caught up with Kate Costello at the Tate Student Center, where she was doing biology homework.  Costello is 19,  and a sophomore at the University of Georgia. She said the TikTok stories frightened her. 

Elyssa Schroeder is a Ph.D. candidate and a fellow at the Center for Human Trafficking, Research and Outreach at UGA’s School of Social Work.  She’s worked for 14 years in the anti-trafficking movement and has been awarded a Fulbright research grant to conduct research in west Africa on human trafficking.

Schroeder says these TikTok stories perpetuate myths. Yes, sex trafficking is real - and growing. 

But traffickers are not approaching women at Target stores.

It does seem to always be Target, doesn't it,” she says. “ which I think is really interesting and speaks to where these myths or these kind of stories or real fears are coming from, and typically it is coming from white, middle-class women and targeted for that population “

 And as far as women’s cars being marked by traffickers? That isn’t happening either. Instead, traffickers target people without community or family connections. 

“Traffickers are very smart,” Schroder says. “They're business people. They would not abduct or signal somebody for abduction who was really well integrated into a community that would be looking for them afterwards.” Schroeder says that since the pandemic, sex trafficking is on the rise. It is an organized business. it is cheaper to traffick a human than to traffick drugs or guns. 

Kasandra Dodd is a licensed clinical social worker and a doctoral student in the School of Social Work.  She worked for 16 years in child welfare in Washington, DC. Many of her clients were teen moms - and victims of sex traffickers.  She agrees with Schroeder. Sex traffickers are not stalking Target stores or tagging young women’s cars. 

“That's not real. And I worked with all clients throughout my 16-year career, but predominantly with, young girls who were being trafficked. That was never the case in my experience for any of them. How they came into, we call it, when they came into the life, when they became victims, survivors of trafficking. “

Instead, Dodd says, most victims already know their traffickers. 

Another misconception is about who is vulnerable to traffickers. It’s not generally white middle-class women. 

Both nationally and in Georgia, Black women and members of the LGBTQ community are the people disproportionately victimized by sex traffickers. 

And the damage of this TikTok disinformation? Dodd says it draws attention - and resources - away from people who are most likely to be sex trafficked. 

One nonprofit working to help women who have escaped from sex trafficking is right here in Athens. It’s called the Divas Who Win Freedom Center.

It was founded by an Athens woman - Chanda Santana. Santana left the sex trade 25 years ago and she’s in long-term recovery from addiction. Her own daughter was sex trafficked out of Athens the summer she was 17.  

Divas who Winrun a consignment boutique on Tracey Street and also have a free immersive exhibit to teach about the process of trafficking. 

Visitors walk room by room, wearing an MP3 player. Shanda Santana narrates her daughter’s story. 

Santana’s daughter was lured to trafficking through a friend - and through the trafficker’s Instagram posts that showed false images of a glamorous life in Atlanta. 

The value of the exhibit is that it lets visitors see that sex trafficking is a step-by-step process. It involves grooming and manipulation with false promises. And that it can happen anywhere - including in Athens. 

As for Costello, the UGA student, she was relieved to learn that sex trafficking isn’t happening through abductions at Target stores or by traffickers tagging cars.  

What’s the best protection against traffickers? Schroeder offers college students some advice. 

“So if I'm a college student, I'm, and I'm worried about human trafficking, either of myself or someone I know, the very first thing I would suggest is, um, being connected to people. Connection is really at the heart of who we are as human beings and as a sense of safety in our community.”

Divas Who Win
Walk through the interactive, immersive Freedom Experience to better understand human trafficking and how to put a stop to it. Walk through the interactive, immersive Freedom Experience to better understand human trafficking and how to put a stop to it.

Click here for free tickets: https://www.divaswhowin.org/freedom-experience/

If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, you can call the national human trafficking hotline at 888-373-7888 or text “help” to 233733.