By Emily Hagstrom. On July 8, Jeffrey Epstein, one of the most powerful financiers in the United States, was arrested and charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking. His alleged victims? Children—girls as young as 14 years old.
As Epstein faces these charges in federal court, media outlets across the country are breaking the story. The case’s widespread coverage highlights the gravity of the allegations Epstein faces. Yet, a scan of the news, and of social media posts like one from Arizona Child Sexual Abuse Prevention, point out that several outlets have described the case irresponsibly. Strewn with phrases like “underage women” and “sex with minors,” stories reporting on the Epstein case appear to obscure the facts.
Epstein, who pleaded not guilty, is charged with raping, sexually violating, exploiting, and facilitating the exploitation of children for money. When news outlets substitute phrases like “underage women” for girls or children, and “sex with minors” for rape, they assign a level of consent and autonomy to the victims and survivors in this case. “Sex with minors” implies that children can consent to sex for money—however, under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, there is no such thing as a “child prostitute.” And increasingly, state legislators have enacted “safe harbor” laws (PDF) to recognize trafficked youth as victims/survivors of trauma, not criminals. Journalists might also recall that, following a sustained campaign by anti-trafficking groups (#nosuchthing), the Associated Press in 2016 declared the phrase “child prostitute” has no place in news coverage. Continued use of the phrase contributes to misinformation about sex trafficking and can stigmatize and retraumatize trafficking survivors.
Beyond this, referring to children as “underage women” contributes to the hyper-sexualization of young girls. A 2007 American Psychological Association meta-analysis (PDF) shows that entertainment media and advertising often portray young girls as sex objects, shown wearing more revealing clothing than boys their age and framed to imply sexual maturity. According to UNICEF USA, sexual objectification contributes to gender-based violence—including sex trafficking of young girls. That means that by reporting on sex trafficking irresponsibly, media outlets can contribute to—instead of mitigate—the underlying societal influences that allow sex trafficking to take place.
Further, multiple news stories cite that investigators found “a vast trove” of pornographic photos featuring “young-looking” women and girls in Epstein’s New York home. In claims against Epstein, women have also stated that Epstein and his peers coerced them into taking sexually explicit photographs as children. In reporting on this evidence, media outlets have failed to point out that child pornography is sexual exploitation(PDF), and constitutes human trafficking when used for commercial gain. Failing to make this connection not only obscures federal sex trafficking law; it also downplays the severity of child pornography and mutes the allegations against Epstein. Child pornography is always evidence of sexual exploitation.
Language matters. Now more than ever, journalists must pay attention to their words. Let girls be the children they are. Call sexual exploitation what it is. Extra care and attention are crucial to accurately describing the complex world of sex trafficking. Without responsible reporting, media outlets run the risk of making the problem worse instead of better.
By Angela R. Clark. My first year in high school, I fell in love with Journalism 101. I loved the idea that there was an entire profession devoted to telling an unbiased truth. I was especially captivated by the notion of “whistle-blowing”—that journalists, working with sources, could expose bad actors and hold them accountable for their wrongdoing.
One reason for the fascination was that keeping family secrets was a way of life for me as a child. Finding the courage to blow the whistle on the violence in my family represented a significant leap in my personal development; sharing my story with journalists has been one part of that.
Through this experience, I’ve come to believe that being heard is a basic human need—as fundamental as food and shelter. And I’ve realized that journalists, entrusted with listening to others and then building news from that material, are in a unique position to assist survivors of trauma in their recovery.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting a news interview as therapy session. Rather, I’m referring to journalism’s emphasis on engaged, active listening, as it relates to survivors’ stories about trafficking and other kinds of trauma. Over the last two years I’ve been interviewed by several journalists, and each interviewer has contributed to my healing by being present—their attention and energies focused on the task of listening to and understanding my story.
It hasn’t always gone well. One reporter, for example, was typing on his keyboard while maintaining eye contact with me. However, I could see his divided attention while he tried to multi-task. And the published article had a fundamental error—it reported my name incorrectly (the reporter graciously corrected that). Another reporter insisted on sticking to a list of prepared questions, even though they didn’t make sense to ask once he had heard my story. I did my best to honor his choice, but I can’t imagine the resulting broadcast piece did much to help audiences understand the issue of trafficking. Content and context that was more valuable went unreported.
Admittedly, it’s hard for a journalist to be fully prepared for first-person accounts of trauma, which could include incidents of rape, torture, murder, war crimes, and bullying, for example. In several instances, an interviewer has teared up unexpectedly or let out an audible gasp as I’ve related my story. Your training may tell you that it’s not professional to reveal emotions during an interview. However, I understand the way trauma works, and that we don’t always get to choose our reaction—if something in my story evokes your personal experience, it’s OK for us to take a moment to honor your pain, too. I can respect journalism’s emphasis on reportorial dispassion, but, given the statistics, I recognize that my interviewer might be a survivor of trauma, too.
With that in mind, consider that reporting on trafficking often focuses on the hard, ugly parts and stops short of recognizing (and honoring) the work survivors have done to heal and recover. Yet it’s precisely because of their ability to do more than survive that they are in a position to blow the whistle on trafficking, and to offer you information, education, and personal narrative. When a journalist’s focus shifts, to engage with a survivor’s present-day life as vital to the “whole story,” it challenges the stereotype of survivors as “forever broken” by demonstrating that we can recover and contribute wholeheartedly to our communities. That’s the kind of story that can leave us all feeling hopeful, determined to make improvements in laws, resources, and systems to eradicate trafficking and aid survivors.
Survivor-sources are an important part of journalism’s truth-telling mission to uncover abuses and bring about positive change. I’m willing to tell my story because I want to make a difference with how we interrupt abuse and violence in our families and communities. A story about change is the story worth telling.
By Kelly Twedell. Based on the many harrowing news reports about human trafficking and sexual violence, one might wonder why victims don’t just ask for help, or why they don’t come forward to give impact statements to police upon an initial arrest during a sting operation. Society’s long and shameful history of meeting claims of sexual violence with doubt and derision suggests at least one answer.
In fact, there are many barriers to seeking help. At 5 Sparrows in Cumberland County, North Carolina, we asked many of the 107 victims of sex and labor trafficking we served in 2017-2018 what were some of the obstacles to seeking and utilizing services. Following are some of the answers we have permission to share:
“He is my boyfriend, and I’d get in trouble.”
“I thought I’d get arrested with the drugs.”
“I don’t trust the police; sometimes they are the ones paying for my time.”
“He gives me some of the money, and I need it to pay bills.”
“What happens next to me?”
“I thought he would change, but it kept getting worse.”
“I lost hope.”
“He had a gun, and I was afraid.”
“He threatened to hurt my parents if I told.”
“I am part of this, and I don’t want to go to jail.”
These statements – evidencing fear, despair, and shame – are just some of the reasons that trafficking victims may not seek help. Researchers have noted the potent effects of psychological harm directed at victims by their traffickers. “This ingrained fear, lack of knowledge about alternatives, systemic isolation leading to a mistrust in others, and physical and psychological confinement is what causes many victims to be afraid to ask for help,” wrote Gonzalez, Spencer and Smith in a 2017 study of the experiences of women exiting sex trafficking.
For service providers like us, of course, a first step is to identify victims. Often, in the screening process, we realize that a person does not understand they have been exploited. Some victims mistakenly believe they were complicit in their exploitation because they were in a romantic relationship with their trafficker. Others have told us, “I agreed to do this on my own; nobody is forcing me.” The myths about trafficking and the lies of the traffickers have to be unraveled before victims come to understand they were exploited for others’ personal gain.
Another barrier to seeking help is substance addiction. A 2014 study of the healthcare consequences of trafficking found that among 102 survivors, 84.3% reported they were alcohol or drug dependent while they were being trafficked. In the many victim testimonies we have heard, women said that drugs helped them ‘zone out’ from the sex work. Others said that drugs, mainly heroin and cocaine, helped them stay awake through the night to meet the quotas set for them by their traffickers.
Some victims become caught in the perpetual cycle of drug addiction while being exploited.
Understandably, they may fear they’ll be arrested for drugs “willfully” accepted as part of their “compensation” from the trafficker, when in fact the trafficker has likely used drugs as a means of controlling the victim. Fortunately, Cumberland County judges are educated about what trafficking looks like, and as a result they might choose to defer charges or grant a continuance in a case while a victim seeks treatment.
An extended restoration program can be part of a broader effort to provide trafficking victims with lasting results (as opposed to the quick-fix of being bonded out of jail). However, fear of the unknown discourages some victims from asking for help. Knowing there will be a five- to seven-day detox period from drugs and unsure whether they are safe in the community where they were victimized exacerbates feelings of insecurity. Some worry that victims who leave a detox program prematurely will disclose the names and locations of victims still in treatment. Others fear the prospect of being separated from children temporarily when they enter treatment, or of losing custody altogether.
The fact is, a person becomes ready to ask for and accept help in her own time (I say “her” because 96 percent of the victims we served at 5 Sparrows during this time were female or identified as female). An initial meeting with organizations like ours establishes for victims where we are and what we do. Sometimes, they contact us to begin the process of restoration, only to return to trafficking – it’s not unusual for that cycle to repeat itself. In some cases, it has taken victims three to four attempts before they complete a restoration program and reintegrate with a healthier view on life and on themselves. Each person’s healing journey looks different, and we respect that.
People are mistaken if they believe that trafficking victims do not want help – on the contrary, our experience shows that they want help, but they might not be sure what that looks like. Victim service organizations are in a position to start the conversation and illuminate the range of resources available to them without cost.
Nicole Gonzalez, Chelsea Spencer and Sandra Stith, “Moving to Restoration: The Experiences of Women Exiting Sex Trafficking,” Journal of Human Trafficking (2017), advance online publication, https://doi.org/10.1080/23322705.2017.1413856
Laura J. Lederer and Christopher A. Wetzel, “The Health Consequences of Sex Trafficking and Their Implications for Identifying Victims in Healthcare Facilities,” The Annals of Health Law 23 (2014): 61-91.