Human trafficking: what is it, what are its misconceptions, and how is it handled by the justice system?
OSU Research Matters is a bi-weekly look inside the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.
In this episode, Meghan Robinson speaks with Dr. Corinne Schwarz, an assistant professor of Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies at OSU. Her research is broadly based on how gender violence and justice operate in society. More specifically, it looks at anti-trafficking service provisions.
SCHWARZ: Legally in the United States, the shorthand definition is human trafficking is using force, fraud or coercion to induce some kind of labor out of someone else. So this can be everything from someone who is working on a construction site, and they have a visa, they're allowed to be in the United States, but their employer's holding onto their visa and says, if you don't work for this many hours this week for this limited pay, I'm going to hold on to your visa. You're going to look like you're undocumented, you're going to potentially be deported.
Two: underage folks, who've been kicked out of their house because they're potentially LGBTQ+-identified and their family says no and kicks them out, and they have to survive by whatever means necessary, and sometimes that means survival sex for a place to stay or food to eat.
ROBINSON: What are the common misconceptions about human trafficking?
SCHWARZ: One major misconception is that trafficking is something that happens involving a stranger, like a kidnapping or a random person talking to you on a street. We know that trafficking is actually a phenomenon — like many other violent crimes — that happens between people who know each other. So, this isn't necessarily a stranger picking an individual out - not saying that doesn't happen. But more commonly what it is a friend, family member, an acquaintance, someone with whom you already have a relationship, exploiting another person.
And I think another major misconception is also how we think about who the victim survivors are of human trafficking. When we think of human trafficking, we think of young white women. You don't have to be a young woman. You don't have to be a young white woman. A lot of times undocumented folks, a lot of times LGBTQ-identified folks.
With labor trafficking, a lot of times it is people who actually started off engaging in legal labor and then a visa didn't get renewed, terms of contracts weren't honored, and then they're in a more legally precarious place. And so we have this idea in our head of when we're "looking for trafficking, what [should we] be looking for?," but in some ways it could be anyone.
ROBINSON: Is there an age limit to who can be classified as a victim?
SCHWARZ: No. However, there is like an age component. In the United States, the way that the law is written, if you are under the age of 18 years old, any and all commercial sex that you exchange or are involved in is considered sex trafficking. So you don't have to have the force, fraud or coercion component — that's called domestic minor sex trafficking.
In practice, we know that because of the wiggle room that some service providers have and how they make their judgments, sometimes those folks are scrutinized and informally held to the force, fraud and coercion standard, even though legally it's not in place, which means if you're a minor, and you're engaged in selling sex, you may or may not be arrested. You may or may not be treated like a victim survivor.
And so what we see is for folks who are under the age of 18, if they are a youth of color, a queer or trans youth, an undocumented youth, a youth coming out of the foster care system, a youth with limited educational access, those folks often get labeled as "criminals" and routed through punitive mechanisms as if they were engaged in selling sex and folks who look more like how people in these positions, conceptualize "good victims" those are the folks who get routed to services and support.
ROBINSON: For OSU Research Matters, I’m Meghan Robinson.