Exploitation Isn’t Random: Exploring Human Trafficking and Race

By Tori Curbelo

As a human trafficking educator, I often post and respond to comments on social media as an additional way of engaging the public. I was scrolling through my feed one day when I came across a post that addressed the intersection of human trafficking and race. In agreement, I commented on the post: “Yes! Human trafficking is a race issue.” My reply generated a few likes, but one reply caught my attention: “No, it’s a human issue.” This response gave me pause. While, yes, it is true that victims of trafficking come from different backgrounds, it would be highly dismissive to ignore that women of color are disproportionately trafficked, arrested and charged with crimes.

The oppression of minority women is historically rooted. According to a snapshot from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, 40 percent of sex trafficking victims were identified as Black women. Conversely, sex buyers are disproportionately White men. Traffickers are aware of racial perceptions, with some admitting to specifically trafficking Black girls as they know they are less likely to be held accountable.1 Moreover, Black girls are more likely to experience risk factors associated with trafficking, including family instability, poverty, neglect and abuse.


Human Trafficking and Race in Prosecution and Services

The cycle of racial injustice is not limited to the trafficking experience. Survivors of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, particularly those of color, are often not acknowledged as victims of crime and are instead arrested for prostitution-related offenses. According to the FBI, Black adults represent over a third of adult prostitution arrests (42 percent) —more than any other racial group. Black children comprise 51% of all juvenile prostitution arrests (also more than any other racial group).2

The impact of systemic racism can continue even when a survivor is connected with services. Katherine McGibbon Givens, a survivor of sex trafficking, explains on the Elijah Rising podcast that when a Black or Brown girl observes that the program staff, leadership and board of directors all look different from herself, she may feel: “These people want to save me, they just don’t want to know me.”3 These sentiments may never be expressed verbally, but will certainly have an impact on how the survivor is able to benefit from the program.

LifeWay understands this reality. The survivors living in LifeWay safe houses are predominantly Black and Brown women. As a minority-led organization, one of our goals is to resist retraumatizing survivors and strive to be more culturally competent. This practice requires mindfulness in hiring practices, ongoing in-house and externally-led staff training on topics such as racial bias, cultural competence, trauma-informed care, etc., and continual evaluation of our outcomes.

Weekly community dinners at the safe houses provide a space for residents, host community and staff to build relationships and learn from one another over culturally diverse meals. LifeWay also advocates for policies that advance racial equality, such as the Equality Model.

The intersection of human trafficking and race is evident in such contexts. Awareness is the first step toward achieving better outcomes for survivors and reducing the disproportionate experience of the crime of human trafficking overall.

Take Action: Explore this topic

  1. Take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) for race: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/selectatest.html
  2. Invest in deepening your knowledge and awareness of race by reading the reports and publications referenced in this article.

1 Snapshot on the State of Black Women and Girls: Sex Trafficking in the U.S, Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, https://www.cbcfinc.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/SexTraffickingReport3.pdf
2 2019 Crime in the United States, Federal Bureau of Investigation, https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2019/crime-in-the-u.s.-2019/tables/table-43
3 A Conversation with Katherine McGibbon Givens, Elijah Rising https://www.elijahrising.org/blog/trafficking-and-racism/

Photo by Alexander Suhorucov