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A stranger-danger hoax is sweeping social media — but as one expert explains, the urban legend is “old wine in new bottles”
For this reason, human trafficking and sex trafficking in particular tend to be widely misrepresented in mainstream media. Though most coverage focuses on young white women as victims of a shadowy ring of abductors, à la
anti-trafficking experts say that most trafficking survivors — up to 90 percent, Benjamin estimates, though no hard numbers are available — are disenfranchised and vulnerable people who already have relationships with their traffickers.
People who are “in a position that they’re unable to leave where they’re being abused and exploited,” such as homelessness, substance abuse, or lack of immigration status, are most likely to be subject to trafficking, says Bruggeman. “Advocating for a stronger social safety net, expansion of affordable housing, affordable medical care — those are the tangible things we can all do to really make a difference to stop this crime from happening,” she says.
Unfortunately, due to societal misperceptions surrounding trafficking, calls for such sweeping infrastructural changes are often ignored in favor of focusing on more sensationalized stories of attempted abductions in stores or parking lots. This ultimately has the effect of diverting attention and resources away from people who are most in need, says Bruggeman: “It makes it harder for trafficking survivors to see themselves in this narrative and feel that law enforcement and service providers will recognize their experience as an experience of abuse and exploitation.
Brown, the TikToker whose videos detailing her own experience garnered millions of views, says while she is unsure her experience was “100 percent sex trafficking,” the encounter she described in her videos felt “very uncomfortable and unsafe, and I’ve been taught from a young age to remove myself from situations that felt that way.”
She says she received hundreds of comments from women who shared similar stories about being approached in a Target or another department store. “I don’t think every woman in the comments has been making up these stories. Unfortunately it’s the world we live in that women have to be on guard 24/7,” she says. “We have to be aware and super vigilant all the time.”
Indeed, while stories like Brown’s might not serve to underscore the existence of shadowy, mid-end department store trafficking rings, they do serve to highlight a crucial and very real phenomenon: in a world where nearly one in three women has experienced some form of
(albeit usually at the hands of a partner or loved one and not a stranger), women have every right to feel wary or uncomfortable when approached by people, particularly men, in public spaces. The danger, cautions Radford, arises when people “exaggerate about things like this when there are real, legitimate dangers out there.”
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