Nevada is among the top 10 states with the highest rates of human trafficking, but that alarming ranking can lead to misconceptions.
“All too often, people think of human trafficking as something caused by strangers, when in reality, it is also perpetrated against intimate partners, spouses and even children,” said Amy-Marie Merrell, executive director of The Cupcake Girls, a group that provides services to women who worked in the adult entertainment industry.
“Victim-survivors are sometimes led to believe they are in a relationship with the offender who will then use and exploit them repeatedly in the sex trade. It can also be a forced marriage or making a child work or beg instead of attending school.”
Some activist groups, although often well-meaning, have perpetrated the myth that predators who are strangers to their victims are responsible for most cases of human trafficking. Social media and some websites are rife with tales of predators in vans cruising cities or special-event venues ready to kidnap children and young women.
There are cases that fit that template, but they are extremely rare, experts note.
To combat such misconceptions, the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence (formerly the Nevada Network Against Domestic Violence) is offering a series of virtual training workshops on Jan. 24, 25 and 30; and on Feb. 2. The session fee is $35, with discounts for those who want to earn continuing education units. Details are available online at www.ncedsv.org.
The coalition’s partners in the effort include The Cupcake Girls, 3Strands Global Foundation, and Xquisite, a group dedicated to bringing freedom and empowerment to sexually exploited survivors of sex trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence.
The Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence educates the community about the intersection of human trafficking and domestic and sexual violence, and debunks misinformation. For example, although some activists insist that incidents of human trafficking increase during large sporting events such as the Super Bowl and Formula 1 Racing, studies show that isn’t the case, researchers concluded.
“Human trafficking and domestic violence don’t occur in silos; both abusers and traffickers utilize their power to control victim-survivors,” said Amanda Bullard, interim executive director of the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence. “(Our) trainings will help in understanding the complex patterns of abusive behavior so we ensure that victim-survivors are identified and given the correct resources to begin their healing journey.”
Concerns about human trafficking peaked in 2020, when citizen groups took part in public demonstrations to raise awareness of the problem. But the groundswell of concern also spawned rumors and spread misinformation that originated on, and was amplified by, social media. Fringe groups including QAnon, an online conspiracy-theory movement, injected false information and wild accusations into the public conversation.
In Reno, a group of concerned residents staged weekly demonstrations on Virginia Street near the Truckee River in the summer and fall of 2020. The group, then under the umbrella of Save Our Children Reno, was among scores of similar organizations—some named “Save Our Children” and others called “Save the Children”—that popped up on social media feeds and street corners around the nation during the height of the pandemic. At the time, demonstrators told the RN&R that their goals were to raise awareness of child sex trafficking and to lobby for tougher penalties for pedophiles, human traffickers and those involved in child pornography.
Administrators of that loosely organized group, which included participants who demonstrated against mask mandates, said they had no links to QAnon or other organizations that spread conspiracy theories. But some members posted QAnon-related memes on the group’s website or posted information that had been repeatedly debunked.
Law enforcement officers and academic studies confirm that although stranger abductions occur, they are far from the norm. The truth is closer to home: Victims generally know their traffickers, who may be relatives, neighbors, acquaintances or guardians. Runaway minors may be befriended by traffickers who gain their trust and then turn on them.
Targeting vulnerable children
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children notes that traffickers usually target children with heightened vulnerabilities. They often groom and study their victims prior to luring them away. One of the highest reported types of victims are children who are missing from care and/or frequent runaways. The center received reports of 23,500 endangered runaways in 2019 alone, and it estimated that one-sixth of those (about 3,900) may have become victims of sex trafficking.
The center estimated that each year, more than 200,000 children are abducted by family members. In 2019, just 115 reported abductions represented cases in which strangers abducted and killed children, held them for ransom, or took them with the intention to keep them.
The Nevada Coalition’s training sessions offer verified information and help cut through the conspiracies and myths surrounding the issue, members said.
“It is important for advocates who fight against human trafficking to be educated on the ways we can help empower sexually exploited women and victim-survivors of human trafficking to live healthy, flourishing lives,” said Brenda Sandquist, founder and executive director of Xquisite. “The training series is a way we can make a difference.”