Tribe Against Trafficking highlights actions to prevent illicit human crime

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Posters used to advocate against the sex trafficking industry during the Tribe Against Trafficking week. ETHAN BROWN // THE FLAT Hat

Last week, student organizers at the College of William and Mary organized Tribe Against Trafficking, a weeklong series of events devoted to ending sex trafficking both globally and locally. The events, which included panel discussions, lectures and a tie-dye session on the Crim Dell Meadow, all sought to support conversations regarding human trafficking’s implications for both survivors and bystanders. 

The week marked the second time Tribe Against Trafficking has been held on campus. Last year, Anna Rader ’20 spearheaded its creation and helped preside over its inaugural week. Tribe Against Trafficking was born from Rader’s experiences working against sex trafficking in high school, and she wanted to bring that spirit to the College’s advocacy community. 

“After engaging with this issue throughout high school, I was excited by the opportunity to take part in the Baptist Collegiate Ministry’s annual “Stand for Freedom” event, a day of raising awareness on human trafficking,” Rader said in an email. As a part of both on-campus anti-trafficking student groups, HEART and IJM, I realized the following year that these effort (sic) could be combined into a greater campaign across campus.” 

With collaboration alongside other groups like the International Justice Mission, Tribe Against Trafficking was born as a concerted effort to combat trafficking. Megan Coughlin 21 helped organize this year’s iteration of Tribe Against Trafficking and said that the primary objective of the week was to communicate to students at the College that their actions can play a significant role in combatting sex trafficking if they pursue ethical shopping practices and conscious consumption habits.   

“We can fight labor trafficking through ethical shopping whenever we can, and we can learn the signs of trafficking to recognize in those around us,” Coughlin said in an email. “In the future, we can each work to fight trafficking in our careers, no matter what field we work in, because there is always a way to fight trafficking.” 

“We can fight labor trafficking through ethical shopping whenever we can, and we can learn the signs of trafficking to recognize in those around us,” Coughlin said in an email. “In the future, we can each work to fight trafficking in our careers, no matter what field we work in, because there is always a way to fight trafficking.” 

Tribe Against Trafficking sought to illustrate that knowledge about sex trafficking is vital in fighting it effectively. Gracie Harris 21, another one of Tribe Against Trafficking’s organizers, hosted a talk April 17 that explored narratives of empowerment and exploitation often associated with sex trafficking.  

According to Harris, what some individuals see as empowering in the sex work industry like working in online pornography or escorting — more closely resembles a toxic cycle of imprisonment and involuntary exploitation.  

Harris noted that there is a common societal misperception that sex workers enjoy vast degrees of autonomy in their professional pursuits. However, many sex workers do not have sufficient legal or professional protections and fail to have substantive autonomy or freedom of choice in their occupation. Harris described a spectrum of agency in detailing the levels of autonomy that individuals in different sectors of the sex work industry possess. At one end of the spectrum, sex workers in online work and phone work have relatively high levels of personal freedom; in contrast, sex workers who serve as either legal or illegal prostitutes suffer from a chronic lack of individual choice. 

Most of the time, these sex workers are financially, emotionally and socially controlled by a pimp who seizes an overwhelming portion of their earned wages and controls them through emotional and physical violence.  

“[Prostitution and trafficking] are inextricably linked because 97 percent of prostitution is pimp controlled, which is an absolutely enormous number. …” Harris said. “97 percent of the time when sex is bought, the sex workers keep absolutely none of the money. That’s the point of trafficking, [which] is that it’s profitable for a pimp, who is controlling and exploiting people.” 

According to Harris, the destructive patterns associated with the life — a term that references survivors of sex trafficking — disproportionately impact vulnerable and marginalized populations in the United States, including transgender individuals and people of color. However, Harris emphasized that these characteristics alone are in no way to blame for this phenomenon, and that societal bias against these groups is responsible for making them vulnerable to sex trafficking in the first place. 

“It is absolutely true that trafficking does disproportionately impact those populations,” Harris said. “But it’s really important to understand how having those characteristics create vulnerability that is then exploited. It’s nothing inherent about being a person of color, it’s nothing inherent about being trans, it’s the way society is set up to disadvantage those people that then leaves them more vulnerable to be in these positions.” 

The cyclical, harmful lifestyle that individuals in the life endure is intensified by how overwhelmingly challenging it is to break free of sex trafficking. On average, it takes individuals seven times to successfully leave as a myriad of factors — ranging from oppressive pimps to difficulty in fulfilling basic needs like shelter and employment — frequently require individuals to return to the life to survive. 

Harris also noted that sex trafficking is not a foreign problem, and that it’s far closer to the College than most students would surmise. In approaching sex trafficking, Harris urged individuals to consider how they could have ended up in the life if just a few small factors in their life had changed, and how all students at the College could be placed in a similarly vulnerable position at a moment’s notice. 

“It’s also hard to put ourselves in these situations and it takes a lot of empathy, but I think that if you really reflect, it’s kind of easy to see that if your situation had been just a little bit different growing up, how [trafficking] could really happen to any of us, ...” Harris said. “Sex trafficking happens literally everywhere, in every city, every state, every country and it’s certainly happening in Williamsburg as well.” 

“It’s also hard to put ourselves in these situations and it takes a lot of empathy, but I think that if you really reflect, it’s kind of easy to see that if your situation had been just a little bit different growing up, how [trafficking] could really happen to any of us, ...” Harris said. “Sex trafficking happens literally everywhere, in every city, every state, every country and it’s certainly happening in Williamsburg as well.” 

In addition to Harris’ Wednesday lecture, Tribe for Trafficking featured several other events including a social justice symposium, an introduction to ethical shopping practices and a documentary showing. The week culminated in a “Tie Dye Against Trafficking” event Sunday, April 21