Those “targeted in a parking lot” stories do more harm than good — here’s why.
Every few days, a well-meaning Facebook friend shares some random post from a woman on the platform who insists that she or her children — sometimes she and her children — have been targeted by human traffickers.
The story is usually a predictable one. There’s the frazzled mother with her children in a parking lot, usually at a mall or other shopping center. She claims that some unknown person approached her and tried to lure at least one person in her family over to their car. Often, there’s a van with tinted windows involved, or at least, nearby. The mom, sensing that something is “off,” gets herself out of the situation and doesn’t comply with the sketchy stranger’s request to come closer. When it’s all over, the would-be victim tells us that she’s positive her family just dodged another tragedy in human trafficking — often claiming that local law enforcement agreed with her.
The author of the post typically finishes up her sordid tale with a warning to stay vigilant and asks everybody to share the story. And people do.
They share and then they add their own comments about how that’s “such a scary experience,” and “the danger is everywhere.” With each share, a popular urban legend gains greater ground.
Here’s one example currently circulating my newsfeed:
The comments are predictable too. Things like, “That’s terrifying — I have been more scared of this than anything else! I’m glad you are all safe. I am so worried about this stuff, Iike so so worried... it’s real.”
Or, “Omg I can’t believe this happened! This is one of my biggest fears, and the fact it’s happening in our own back yard... it makes me not want to go anywhere and just do homeschooling forever. We were at Capital Mall today as well! I’m just glad you are all ok...you can’t help people anymore it seems like. You just never know who to trust.”
Posts like these fill up with comments from — mostly white and well-off — moms all in agreement that this was a human trafficking plot, and that nobody is safe. It’s a seemingly natural reaction to a frightening story, sure. There’s just one problem.
It’s not a human trafficking story at all.
The story above may have some truth to it. Perhaps there really was a kooky lady in the parking lot bothering a frazzled mama. At this point, there’s no way to know that any of this ever happened in the first place. However, the claim that this was a failed human trafficking attempt is completely unfounded. If the story this mother described is true, she has no clue what the woman was actually after. There’s no way to be “100% sure” somebody tried to lure her and her two children into human trafficking based on this sequence of events.
We all know that crime is real and a story like this is more likely just another attempt to scam or commit theft. Kidnappings obviously do happen. Murders happen too. Assaults happen every day. However, the fact that this happened in public, presumably in the daytime, and involved a mom, a young child, and a baby, make it much less likely to have been such a nefarious plot.
In fact, without video or eyewitnesses, we not only don’t know if anything like this happened. We also don’t know if the mom who wrote the post could have read the situation wrong. She’s already admitted that she didn’t “recognize’ it as a human trafficking attempt until after it was over. That’s relevant. People (you and I included) have a tendency to recall memories the way they want to remember them. Or, the way they think they should remember them. As the mom tells this story, she’s likely going to focus on details like, “the woman kept staring at my children,” and “there was a white van with tinted windows.”
It’s possible that the strange woman was really just a strange woman. I once lived briefly with an older woman who seemed normal when we first met. But the longer I stayed in her guestroom, the more I saw just how neurotic she was. I’ve never met anybody who worried more about everything. Inconsequential or not.
While reading the alleged human trafficking post, I could totally picture my former host doing the same thing that the mom on Facebook described. Some people really do worry about everything and want constant confirmation that “they’re doing the right thing” at any given time. Some folks lack the internal validation and confidence to handle situations like these without help.
That doesn’t make them evil.
What does the mom really think was going to happen anyway? That in broad daylight, a few henchmen were going to suddenly appear and shove them all into the van? Chloroform rags, or needles in the neck to put them all to sleep?
The whole scene would make a great movie for Lifetime Television, but all it does for human trafficking is perpetuate the common myth that human traffickers are ready and waiting to kidnap women or children with no fear of being seen or caught by the police.
What’s worse, the myth completely detracts from the realities of human trafficking. While white women are nervously looking over their shoulders for “normal but dangerous” strangers, they may disregard tactics of grooming and overlook certain vulnerabilities within their family lives.
You see, every leading expert, agency, and non-profit on fighting human trafficking will tell you that it’s incredibly rare for Americans to be brought into trafficking through a kidnapping.
As much as we moviegoers love Liam Neeson in the Taken film franchise, Hollywood employs plenty of mythology to weave an entertaining tale. Sadly, it’s also impacted the way we think about human trafficking in the real world.
To understand how human trafficking actually works, it’s important to recognize that it’s all about money. It’s not exactly profitable for traffickers to target individuals who would fight back, not know how to perform their “job,” or frankly, who would be missed if they went missing.
Human traffickers benefit from operating under the radar and avoiding anything that might draw attention to their operations. Also, they see their victims as not just money makers, but investments. It pays for human traffickers to target individuals who have already been abused, and those who have a vulnerable need that could be met by the trafficker. That need might be a home, food, an illusion of safety, or an illusion of family, etc.
And that’s why experts say that human trafficking is a kind of psychological abuse. Most traffickers will groom their victims by first developing a relationship with them.
Not by kidnapping them from shopping mall parking lots.
Through my past involvement with different ministries and pregnancy resource centers, I’ve met several survivors of sex trafficking, and in every case, regardless of gender, the victim believed they were in some sort of relationship with their trafficker. Often, the culprit played the role of a boyfriend, or they were some sort of parental or guardian figure. That’s the level of manipulation involved with most human trafficking crimes.
A victim might feel obligated to “help” earn money, they may feel they’ve got nowhere else to go, and in a twisted, complicated way, they might believe their trafficker genuinely cares about them. It’s difficult for most of us to wrap our minds around such deep psychological trauma.
The truth about human trafficking rarely fits the narrative we’ve adopted from the media and through a plethora of urban legends. Since I was born in the early 80s, I still recall a handful of different myths that impacted the way people perceived various potential threats from the transmission of AIDS to “stranger danger.”
This is to say, “fake news” has always existed and it’s always been harmful, but much of it used to be confined to word of mouth. Real-life conversations and the telephone. Today, our modern interconnectedness through the internet and social media has allowed urban legends to grow and spread like wildfire. Myths and so-called cautionary tales are far more dangerous now than they were 40 years ago. These days, anyone can share a fake story online and watch it go viral across the globe.
Even so, what’s wrong with sharing stories from women who think they were targeted by human traffickers in a parking lot? You might think sharing these sorts of posts is innocuous whether or not the story is true. After all, it all raises awareness about human trafficking, right?
All you’re doing is adding noise to an issue that thrives in a culture without clarity. Human trafficking is real and shockingly misunderstood. It wasn’t even made illegal in the US until 2000. Without a doubt, it is in the best interest of traffickers that we don’t understand what human trafficking is, how it works, or who’s at risk.
Every time you share one of these unlikely posts about women and children being targeted in parking lots by strangers and call that human trafficking, you’re doing an enormous disservice to the actual victims of forced labor. And you’re furthering the narrative that there’s virtually nothing we can do about it.
Nobody’s saying we shouldn’t “be vigilant,” or “pay attention to our surroundings.” That’s basic common sense. However, these aren’t tactics to help curb human trafficking. They are merely diversions from the real thing. And diversions benefit the abusers first and foremost.
If you really want to help fight human trafficking, you’ve got to arm yourself with the facts. For one thing, it’s not all about sex. According to The Polaris Project, “Human trafficking is the use of force, fraud or coercion to get another person to provide labor or commercial sex. Worldwide, experts believe there are more situations of labor trafficking than of sex trafficking, but there is much wider awareness of sex trafficking in the U.S. than of labor trafficking.”
Worse yet, sharing these parking lot stories from white, cisgender mothers with agency (and their own vehicles) suppresses the reality of who’s actually at risk.
“It can happen to anyone,” and “it’s happening in your backyard,” are common in the anti-human trafficking field. Technically, they are true: Anyone can be trafficked, in any community, just as anyone can be the victim of any kind of crime. But the real story is that while it can happen to anyone available evidence suggests that people of color and LGBTQ+ people are more likely to be trafficked than other demographic groups. That’s not a coincidence. Generational trauma, historic oppression, discrimination and other societal factors and inequities create community-wide vulnerabilities. Traffickers recognize and take advantage of people who are vulnerable in certain ways.
What does that mean? White cis women and their young children are not the most vulnerable here. Transgender men, women, or youths, non-binary folks, and people of color tend to be most vulnerable to traffickers for a variety of socioeconomic and cultural reasons. Unfortunately, men are largely overlooked when we talk about the victims of human trafficking. Men are victims too.
Risk factors and vulnerabilities behind human trafficking include:
- Homelessness or an unstable living situation
- A history of domestic violence
- Caregivers or family members with substance abuse issues
- Involvement with the juvenile justice or foster care system
- Running away from home
- Living in the US as an undocumented immigrant
- Facing poverty or economic need
- A history of sexual abuse
- Addiction to drugs or alcohol
Remember, human trafficking relies upon abusive relationships and psychological manipulation. These criminals typically build connections to their targets and victims.
Furthermore, experts warn that labor and sex trafficking aren’t as obvious as people might think. The Polaris Project encourages the public to listen to people’s stories for subtle red flags of manipulation and abuse rather than looking for any obvious signs.
But we really can’t do that when we’re fixated on urban legends and conspiracy theories. We can’t look for the subtleties of real human trafficking in our communities when we’re constantly looking over our own shoulders, waiting for some bogeyman in a van with tinted windows to come and snatch us away.
And if we really want to help, we’ve got to stop being complicit.
As Americans, we are complicit every time we share a social media post that adds noise to the issue rather than clarity. Instead of fighting for justice, we end up giving abusive criminals the cover they seek.
But it doesn’t stop there.
We are complicit when we do nothing to save the more vulnerable people within our communities. When we turn a blind eye to the homeless or to addicts, when we do so little to protect LGBTQ+ youth and those impacted by domestic violence, and when we demonize the downtrodden, we make it easier for human traffickers to thrive.
We’re even complicit in our demand for cheap goods and services. “Fairtrade is expensive,” people complain. We go around hunting for bargains without ever stopping to think that we might wind up purchasing goods or services from a human trafficking ring. Don’t think that happens here? Then you should consider the source of your upcoming purchases. Labor trafficking, which is believed to be much more prevalent than sex trafficking, occurs widely in many industries across the US, including door-to-door sales, domestic work like childcare and housekeeping, along with agriculture and foodservice. The sad truth is that labor trafficking happens… anywhere:
“It’s happening in far away countries, in developing nations, in some cases at the behest of corrupt governments. And it is happening throughout the United States, in farms and fields, factories and restaurants, private homes, hotels, you name it. As long as it is lucrative to defraud, coerce, manipulate, threaten, or otherwise force a person to work in exploitative conditions it will continue. That’s where all of us come in. Don’t give human traffickers your money.”
When we politicize child abuse, or simply refuse to care about issues like affordable housing and healthcare or a livable wage, and when we deny the realities of racism — all we’re doing is supporting a culture designed to churn vulnerable people into the hands of human traffickers.
Maybe you think that’s harsh. Plenty of people find it much easier to share a scary Facebook post about a white woman and her two children who were “surely” targeted. It makes us feel good, like we’re doing something right. Like we care for a minute. And it also makes us feel “humble” because we think we understand what it means to say that human trafficking is happening in our own back yards.
But in the real world, our insistence upon sharing these stories does no good. So, do us all a favor. The next time you come across a social media post about human trafficking, stop before you click on the share button. Please don’t share another myth that only adds noise to the conversation or cover for the actual perpetrators. Make sure the posts you share about human trafficking are factual, corroborated by the experts, and that they focus on bringing clarity to the issue by dispelling myths and rumors.
While you’re at it, take a minute to recognize that social justice issues are all interconnected. As Paul Wellstone said, “We all do better when we all do better.” So, let’s focus on creating kinder, honest, and more socially aware communities where the vulnerabilities which traffickers love to manipulate cannot thrive. We can all help remove the demand for human trafficking by meeting human needs.