Voices of Youth: How public misperception of human trafficking makes it harder to combat

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student journalists Paighton Gimotty and Lucy Tobier examine the challenges of combating human trafficking.

Human trafficking, the unlawful act of coercing people into forced labor or sexual exploitation, is still rampant in Michigan and across the world, largely because it is wildly misunderstood. According to Bridgette Carr, the founding director of the University of Michigan Law School's Human Trafficking Clinic, trafficking is treated as an unknown problem, when the tools to combat it actually exist. 
Bridgette Carr.
"Human trafficking is not a unicorn," Carr says. "And until we stop treating it like a unicorn, we're never going to get anywhere. We act like it's not comparable to anything. We act as if we've never seen anything like it before. That's not real. That's not true. Human trafficking looks like exploitive work. It looks like sexual assault. It can look like kidnapping at times. It can look like domestic violence. We estimate the scope of the black market and drugs. We estimate how many people have been sexually assaulted. We estimate this stuff all the time by researchers who are well-respected. And then yet somehow, when it comes to trafficking, we go, 'Oh my gosh, it's a unicorn. I can't do that. It's so different.' It's not. It's just another horse."

Safe harbor laws, which can be used to shield victims of human trafficking from criminal liability, are often also misunderstood in Michigan. According to Carr, the presumption of being a victim is tied to someone's obedience in court. 

"We use a structure that presumes you're a victim. And that presumption is connected to not what happened to you, but your obedience as long as you substantially comply with court-ordered services," Carr says. "And so in Michigan, the reality is: for 16- to 17-year-olds who are sold for sex, you are a victim if you are compliant, not because you're exploited."

Felicia Brabec is a clinical psychologist, former Washtenaw County commissioner, and current state representative for House District 55. She is interested in the criminalization of human trafficking survivors because of her work as a therapist, examining how power and manipulation are used. In her policy work, she's interested in finding systematic ways to increase government support. 
Felicia Brabec.
From Brabec's psychological background, she sees an "othering" narrative constantly used in discussions of human trafficking. Although many cases are caused by someone close and familiar to the victim, there still exists a "stranger danger" mentality tied to trafficking. Brabec believes this mentality – which is completely separate from data – is due to a need for safety and security.

"From the psychological perspective, when we think about our needs in general, part of what's at the base of those needs are safety and security," Brabec says. "So if we're actually acknowledging and saying, 'Those people who are close to me are going to be the ones that are more likely to harm and victimize me,' that can really turn our world and that sense of safety upside down. So we do exactly what Carr is talking about in this othering because it fits that psychological sense of safety and protection because otherwise, I think our nervous systems would be in overdrive."

But the narrative of strangers trafficking people most often is hurting actual victims and misrepresenting the state of trafficking. 

"If we cared about human trafficking in the way you hear people talk about it, government leaders and others, we should care a lot about vulnerability in our communities," Carr says. "We should be deeply concerned about the lack of affordable housing. We should care a lot about access to jobs that pay a living wage. And those are not the topics you hear talked about when the trafficking rhetoric is raised. Instead, people want to talk about dangerous perpetrators and people being snatched from parking lots and it's just not the reality of trafficking. I just don't think that our response is tied to reality. It's instead tied to a rhetoric that doesn't serve survivors."

Carr believes this rhetoric exists to oversimplify the situation by claiming that if you get the few "bad actors out there," trafficking will go away. This, she says, makes trafficking more comfortable to talk about and removes the blame from those close to victims, or even ourselves when we purchase goods made with exploitative labor. But it is not reality.

In 2014, Carr helped establish the Human Trafficking Specialty Court in Washtenaw County to change how trafficking cases are handled in the legal system. In 2021 Washtenaw County Prosecutor Eli Savit announced he would not charge those who work consensually in the commercial sex industry, which means the court is not as frequently utilized now. 

Car says a decade ago, she would have thought such a change was "never going to happen", and sees it as a step forward.

"I'm not saying that we know what the perfect solution is about how to regulate the commercial sex industry, but goodness, I am grateful to Eli for trying something new," Carr says. "Because everyone else is just trying the exact same thing and the exact same thing is almost all of the criminal liability on my clients."

However, despite the progress, the work continues. Carr wants 16- and 17-year-olds to be granted immunity by state law, but has been met with dismissive pushback from legislators and says she is realistic about future legal moves. One small change, which Carr says would have a big impact, would be to start collecting statewide data about what happens when law enforcement officers encounter 16- and 17-year-olds in the commercial sex industry. Having more data will allow Carr and others who advocate for victims to be treated as such to show that the legal system is not living up to its claims that it supports victims, while also creating more transparency. 

But Carr says the question should not be focused on how safe Washtenaw County is, but instead on how everyday decisions are contributing to exploitative labor practices. 

"The biggest impact, connection, and role that almost anyone reading this is going to have with trafficking are buying goods and services made by exploited labor," Carr said in a recent Zoom call. "We spent all this time talking about 16- and 17-year-olds sold for sex. Very few of us are buying sex on this call, and very few of us are at risk of being sold for sex on this call. But ... I guarantee all of us, myself included, either consumed, wore, purchased, or drove something today that was in some ways created by exploitive labor. Every single one of us. And we have not spent any time talking about that and that's the connection to trafficking that is everyday, tangible, and real in people's lives. And no one wants to talk about it."

Carr believes it is hard for people to own that they create demand for exploitative labor. Brabec agrees that acknowledging the choices one makes and the impact they have is ugly, but it is important. When asked what people could do to help the situation, Brabec encourages starting hard dialogues.

"Contact your representatives and contact your senators. I think just being able to educate and call attention to these issues [is important] because again, the theme that we're talking about in terms of why sex work is criminalized, the conceptualization of trafficking, is because it's unpleasant to acknowledge and to think about, and unpleasant at best," Brabec says. "And so, if there are constituents who are reaching out and saying, 'I need you as my representative to think about this, to consider this, to have a conversation about it,' that makes a difference."

Lucy Tobier is a freshman at Swarthmore College and a former editor-in-chief for The Communicator, Community High School’s student publication. She reports on educational policy and sexual assault awareness.

Photos courtesy of the sources.

Neutral Zone Executive Director Lori Roddy and Concentrate Managing Editor Patrick Dunn served as Lucy and Paighton's mentors on this project.