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Myths and facts about human trafficking

There are many misconceptions about the nature of human trafficking which can compromise a dermatologist’s ability to recognize it during a patient visit. For example:

  • Myth: Human trafficking does not occur in the United States. It only happens in other countries.

  • Fact: Human trafficking exists in every country, including the United States. It exists nationwide — in cities, suburbs, and rural towns — and in your own community.

  • Myth: Human trafficking victims are only foreign-born individuals and those who are poor.

  • Fact: Human trafficking victims can be any age, race, gender, or nationality. They may come from any socioeconomic group. A socioeconomic group is the social standing or class of an individual or group. It is often measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation.

  • Myth: Human trafficking is only sex trafficking.

  • Fact: Sex trafficking exists, but it is not the only type of human trafficking. Forced labor is another type of human trafficking; both involve exploitation of people. Victims are found in legitimate and illegitimate labor industries, including sweatshops, massage parlors, agriculture, restaurants, hotels, and domestic service.

  • Myth: Individuals must be forced or coerced into commercial sex acts to be victims of human trafficking.

  • Fact: Under U.S. federal law, any minor under the age of 18 who is induced to perform commercial sex acts is a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether he or she is forced or coerced. Some state laws also relax the federal requirements of force, fraud, or coercion because it is understood that exploitation does not only, or most often, occur by physical force or abduction. Psychological manipulation is far more common, and this has implications for how physicians understand trafficking and interact with potentially exploited patients.

  • Myth: Human trafficking and human smuggling are the same.

  • Fact: Human trafficking is not the same as smuggling. “Trafficking” is based on exploitation and does not require movement across borders. “Smuggling” is based on movement and involves moving a person across a country’s border with that person’s consent in violation of immigration laws. Although human smuggling is very different from human trafficking, human smuggling can turn into trafficking if the smuggler uses force, fraud, or coercion to hold people against their will for the purposes of labor or sexual exploitation. Under federal law, every minor induced to engage in commercial sex is a victim of human trafficking.

  • Myth: Human trafficking victims will attempt to seek help when in public.

  • Fact: Human trafficking is often referred to as a hidden crime. Victims may be afraid to come forward and get help; they may be forced or coerced through threats or violence; they may fear retribution from traffickers, including danger to their families; and they may not be in possession of or have control of their identification documents. We have to emphasize the lack of material resources and ALTERNATIVES that define these patients’ lives. The trauma is huge and prevents action, absolutely, but even if someone wants to exit they typically lack way more than documents: a place to live, an alternative way to make money, supportive family or community, etc. etc. Emphasizing this social context is a way to avoid an over-emphasis on the crime/captivity imagery that, although true for some, really distracts from the more common situations — especially those a dermatologist is likely to encounter.

    Exploitation often happens within intimate relationships (e.g., romantic partners and family members). This makes it extremely complicated for some individuals to understand or describe their circumstances as exploitative at the time of a medical encounter. Physicians must not assume that a potential victim sees him/her/their self as a victim at all. Unfortunately, imagery in the anti-trafficking movement and popular culture has emphasized misleading notions of rescue when trafficking is discussed. This is a gross simplification of what help-seeking looks like. Unless the psychological dimensions of exploitation are understood, recommendations for engaging with potential victims and survivors will fall short and potentially cause harm.