Kansans need to know the difficult truths about human trafficking

In all parts of Kansas, sex and labor exploitation occur in apartments, private homes, upscale hotels, motels and a variety of businesses, writes Jennifer Montgomery, director of human trafficking education and outreach in the office of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt. (Submitted by Kansas Attorney General's Office)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jennifer Montgomery is the director of human trafficking education and outreach in the office of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt.

When you think of human trafficking, what do you think of? Human trafficking is without question a dark and shadowy crime, but it’s happening right in front of us. And if we don’t know what it really looks like, we won’t see it.

Because of its rendering in popular culture and multiple recent viral hoaxes on social media, people have significant misunderstandings about what trafficking looks like, where it occurs and who are the victims.

Sex trafficking does not typically involve people being kidnapped in parking lots by strangers and forced into sexual slavery. This can happen, but such cases are rare. Most sex trafficking cases originate from carefully crafted efforts to target, groom and manipulate the most vulnerable members of our communities: people who are unemployed, runaway youths, young women with developmental disabilities, and adults and youths dealing with addiction or mental health challenges.

In Kansas and across the United States, most sex trafficking does not involve shipping victims to and from international locales — it happens locally. In urban, suburban and rural parts of our state, sex and labor exploitation occur in apartments, private homes, upscale hotels, motels and a variety of businesses.

Another common depiction of sex trafficking involves imagery of bound wrists, chains or handcuffs. In actuality, most victims are held captive through psychological abuse, manipulation, threats and coercion that can be difficult to identify. In 2019, only 5.3% of federal sex trafficking cases involved physical restraint.

Most victims of human trafficking are held captive not through physical restraint but through psychological abuse, manipulation, threats and coercion that can be difficult to identify. (Submitted by Kansas Attorney General’s Office)

Simply put, human trafficking is the exploitation of a person’s vulnerabilities, most often by family members or romantic partners. In other words, we’re doing this to each other. Data collected by the attorney general’s office annual survey of victim service grantees from across Kansas consistently supports this notion.

In cases involving youths, predators are using Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and other social media platforms to target and groom our kids for sexual abuse and exploitation. Those most at-risk include children in foster care and youths who have experienced abuse, neglect and other forms of complex trauma.

Additionally, vulnerable adults are often tricked through coercive means by those who prey on another’s misfortune. The recent economic downturn due to the pandemic has only made things worse for those on the margins.

Any honest conversation about sex trafficking must include a hard look at the role of sex buying and pornography in the normalization of sexual objectification, sexual violence and self-gratification at the expense of another’s dignity. Popular pornography sites such as PornHub contribute to and encourage sexual abuse and exploitation.

Labor trafficking is an additional form of human trafficking where force, fraud or coercion is used to compel another person to work or perform services. It happens in a wide range of businesses and homes, and is difficult to spot because there is nothing inherently wrong with someone working.

According to Polaris, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Kansas’ top industries for trafficking include domestic work, traveling sales crews and transportation. Many victims don’t report their victimization out of fear of losing their job, deportation or retribution.

Let’s be clear. We don’t have to sit quietly and accept this gross moral and ethical stain on our shared humanity. As Kansans, we like to find practical solutions that best fit our local circumstances.

While responsible action includes learning the signs and how to report potential trafficking, we must first recognize human trafficking for what it is: a local issue. We need to find the courage to talk about the factors that create vulnerability to trafficking in the first place, such as childhood sexual abuse, poverty, domestic violence, racial and gender disparities, housing insecurity and addiction, among others.

We must have difficult conversations with kids about responsible and safe use of technology. We must also hold accountable powerful sex buyers in our communities who create the demand for sex trafficking. Prevention work is our best investment for a better future for all Kansans.

The next time you hear about human trafficking, you might think of those around you who are most vulnerable, such as children in the foster care system who live in your neighborhood, a family member who just left rehab or your child’s friend whose parents are absent or disengaged. It’s easy to take refuge in the false narratives about trafficking as something that happens somewhere else. It’s much harder to face the truth.

We resemble one another in what we witness together, in what we suffer together. Safe and supportive communities are the foundation for combating human trafficking. We will never have peaceful communities until we stop exploiting each other and start helping one another.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. Please visit our website for a list of the signs and how to report it.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Jennifer Montgomery
Jennifer Montgomery is the director of human trafficking education and outreach in the office of Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt and serves as the public affairs director and chair of the Kansas Human Trafficking Advisory Board. She is a humanitarian, author, speaker and impassioned advocate for children and families affected by trauma. A fourth generation Kansan, she returned to Kansas after working in Washington, D.C. as a congressional staffer for U.S. Senator Pat Roberts and holding various positions in government affairs and public relations. She was recently chosen from a pool of global candidates as a Rotary International Peace Fellow and will take part in the program at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, later this year. She is deeply committed to helping others transform conflict into avenues for peace and reconciliation in communities in Kansas and across the globe.