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A quick Google News search will yield dozens of articles published in the last year across TV, online, and print journalism outlets, many of which proclaim that human trafficking is the fastest growing crime in South Carolina.  Check out these examples from Free Times, The StateCOLAToday, ABC Columbia, WLTX 19the Aiken Standard, WYFF GreenvilleFox CarolinaWCBD News 2, and Greenville News.

These headlines can be alarming–in a way, it would appear that human trafficking is suddenly becoming a more rampant crime in South Carolina communities, and perhaps one that we should all fear.

For many people who read these headlines, their perceptions and understandings of human trafficking are derived from major motion pictures like Priceless and Taken.  In this scenario, we envision that human trafficking victims are abducted by strangers, bound, drugged, and forced into sex slavery in a faraway, distant land.

In reality, this is not how most sex trafficking victims are obtained.

During a six-month period last year, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received 247 calls from South Carolina.  106 of those calls were from victims and survivors of trafficking.

In-depth interviews with victims’ advocates at Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands revealed that most trafficking victims are young (ages 14-16) and often are vulnerable in some regard–they may be a sexual or racial minority, a previous abuse victim, lacking in social supports, or runaway or throwaway children.  For most of these individuals, they are coerced and forced into sex slavery by a trusted individual, sometimes a significant other or guardian figure.  Often, this person isolates the victim from social supports and loved ones, and may introduce drugs alcohol, or criminal activity into the individual’s life.  This is referred to as “grooming.”

Eventually, a “switch” happens, where the charismatic trafficker becomes less of a savior and adored figure, and instead becomes a terrifying, ruthless abuser who forces his or her victims to perform sexual acts.  The profits are seldom shared with the victims, and victims who try to escape their situation are often threatened or blackmailed.

“So just like there are a lot of myths around sexual assault, there are also a lot of myths around trafficking,” said Kayce Singletary, MSW, Community Education Director at Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands.  “A lot of times, people think it is something that happens elsewhere…we think…that it happens in other countries, not understanding that it’s something that can happen here, that it’s happening in our schools, that it’s happening in our communities, and even that children can still be living at home and still be trafficked.”

It may be difficult for some people to believe that that forced sexual labor could be occurring in their own communities.  In a series of in-depth interviews, victims’ advocates from Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands discussed the cultural factors that allow a crime like sex trafficking to happen.

“Human trafficking represents the commercialization of sexual violence, so it’s a way that people found to make money off of rape,” explained Mary Dell Hayes, MBA, executive director of Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands.  “Any problem like this, that is this complicated, is not going to be solved with a single source, with a single factor–it’s going to take a lot of ongoing work…It’s really critical that Sexual Trauma Services partners with other nonprofit organizations in our community who are addressing this issue, that we work very closely with law enforcement, that we work very closely with our churches, that we work very closely with other businesses in identifying how these crimes continue to take hold in our community and eliminating those opportunities.”

Most trafficking victims are incapable of escaping their situation unless a missing persons investigation occurs or if their traffickers are arrested for other crimes.  Even after their first initial escape, however, many victims end up returning to their abusers in a pattern that is very similar to that of battered intimate partners.  “It’s the power and control dynamic.  There’s definitely a bond that’s formed between the trafficker and the person that’s trafficked,” explained Sexual Trauma Services’ human trafficking survivors’ advocate Maggie Malaney.  “Because of the amount of control that the trafficker places on that person, I think it can be very hard for them to kind of find a balance once they’re out of the situation.  They don’t know who to turn to…it takes awhile to find autonomy again.”

Malaney cautioned that victims of sex trafficking may continue leading otherwise normal lives, with the abuse kept secret.

“It’s easy to decide that there’s one face for a victim…it’s somebody who is shackled…There’s lots of pictures that you’ll look up where they’ve got ‘Help Me’ written on their forehead, and they’re in handcuffs.  They look like a victim,” said Malaney.  “But a lot of times in this situation, people don’t look like victims.”

For more information about sex trafficking in the Midlands, please watch this video, or visit www.stsm.org.

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