When I was 13, my mom would release my best friend and me into the poorly lit halls of the mall, and together we would giggle self-consciously through Victoria’s Secret, drench ourselves in free body spray from Bath and Body Works, get bean burritos at the food court, scope out the guys working at Hollister, and usually leave the mall having purchased nothing. Often, during these long afternoons, we would see boys around our age, often traveling in packs. As they were also spending their day prowling pointlessly around the mall, when we bumped into them in one store after another, my friend and I would turn, our expressions full of faux indignation and shriek in stage whispers, “Oh my gosh! Those guys are totally following us!”
As an adult, I recognize a couple of important details: they were, like us, just a couple of teens whiling away their hours with free kiosk samples. And also, deep down we already knew this. Like many teenage girls before and since, we just pretended to think they were following us because it was exciting and made us feel wanted.
However, another realization I’ve had as an adult is that not everyone grew out of this grim fantasy. Just as my friend and I would turn our heads, laughing hysterically, asking each other, “Oh my gosh, did we lose them yet? Why are they following us? Like, what is even happening?” Many grown-up women now share Facebook posts with a more adult version of a similar story.
You’ve read them. They always open with a version of “I never thought it would happen to me, but last night as I was shopping in Target with my 2-year-old, I noticed a man kept showing up in every aisle we went down.” The stories go onto recount the harrowing details of shopping in the general proximity of another person. And they always have the same conclusion: the young, paranoid mother recognizes that the person of interest was a member of a human trafficking ring, she has a hushed, dramatic exchange with the cashier, and together they wait for the individual or individuals to exit the store, and nothing actually happens. They typically close their posts with a warning for parents everywhere to “Be aware of your surroundings, these people exist. We have to be vigilant!”
I would agree with their admonition of vigilance, but other than that, in the famous words of an E-surance commercial, “That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!”
Unfortunately, human trafficking is very real, but to understand how to guard against this societal danger in practical ways, I had a conversation with Dr. David Finkelhor, the Director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center to understand what it looks like in the United States.
Abduction of young children by strangers is also very rare. Most stranger abductors target teens.
First off, he wanted to clarify, that a term more accurate for the kind of danger we are referring to when we speak of human trafficking in relation to abduction or the sexual enslavement of minors is “the commercial, sexual exploitation of children.”
When I asked Dr. Finkelhor if a child getting abducted from the store by human trafficking ring had ever occurred in the United States, his answer was simple: “No.”
Finkelhor elaborated, “This is not how sex trafficking works. Almost all victims are teens, more often than not runaways, abused youth and youth in conflict with their families. When small children are trafficked it is mostly at the hands of their own family members.” He went onto say, “Abduction of young children by strangers is also very rare. Most stranger abductors target teens, as well, and abduction is usually for short-term sexual assault.”
One might imagine that these stories of mothers and children being stalked by human traffickers through their local big box store, while sensational, are ultimately harmless. After all, is there anything wrong with being on guard and aware of one’s surroundings?
We cannot allow ourselves to be controlled by our imaginations and fear in the belief that no one is getting hurt and it’s better to be safe than sorry.
However, as a mother in West Virginia recently demonstrated, this suburban legend has real-life consequences. An Egyptian man was arrested and held based on her report that the man followed her and her daughter through Old Navy, eventually attempting to kidnap her daughter, an attempt she was able to thwart with a gun. In the end, she was the one charged with filing a false police report when the store’s security video failed to confirm her story, or even resemble it.
It is easy to shrug off her theatrics with an amateur mental health diagnosis, but her story led to the arrest and temporary imprisonment of an innocent bystander.
One cannot ignore the xenophobic element to the formula of these “I was followed, and nothing happened. Be careful!” stories. The “sketchy” guy’s skin is usually a shade of brown, the woman accompanying them to allegedly make them seem less threatening often has an accent.
Which begs the question, when is trusting our instincts and playing mama bear to our young, turn us into bullies akin to Barbeque Becky or Permit Patty? We cannot allow ourselves to be controlled by our imaginations and fear in the belief that no one is getting hurt and it’s better to be safe than sorry, because people are hurt by these ignorance-fueled stereotypes. Beyond the people who have the misfortune of shopping too close to us on our Target runs, other potential victims of a misunderstood concept of sex trafficking could be our own children.
There are measures we can and should put into place to be truly vigilant about protecting our children, and they have nothing to do maintaining an attitude of suspicion towards our fellow shoppers. In fact, a solid understanding of how the commercial, sexual exploitation of children works is imperative to keep it from happening to our babies.
First, as Dr. Finkelhor explains, it is important to realize your middle school and teenagers are at the highest risk. While we may look at our cherubic toddlers and see how vulnerable they are in the world, we have to remember that they are still emotionally vulnerable at 15. Human Traffickers target homeless teens and runaways. According to Dr. Finkelhor, “The recruitment of victims usually occurs through “grooming, flattering them, acting like they want to be their boyfriend, offering them drugs, et cetera.”
One of the most important things a parent can do, is support and accept a child when they come out as LBGTQ. A large portion of trafficking victims are youth who have been rejected from their families for their sexual or gender identity.
I sat down with the Assistant Program Manager for Synergy Services and former victim's advocate with Synergy’s Children's Advocacy Center, Emilia Caby, to discuss how one can mitigate these risk factors in their own homes. Statistically, Caby tells me, “one of the most important things a parent can do, is support and accept a child when they come out as LBGTQ. A large portion of trafficking victims are youth who have been rejected from their families for their sexual or gender identity and engage in survival sex out of desperation and a lack of support.”
Caby explains other important safeguards include protecting your child from sexual abuse at home. This means “recognizing that risks are not limited to stranger danger but are much more likely to happen at the hands of a friend, family member, or caregiver who has consistent access to your child.”
Both Caby and Dr. Finkelhor agree that one of the best safeguards a parent can implement is having conversations with their child about safe touch, tricky people, and explaining and modeling to their child what healthy relationships look like.
Dr. Finkelhor advises parents to “talk to children, be responsive to their needs, and don’t alienate them through physical and emotional abuse. Get counseling about parent-child conflicts that become persistent before youth get alienated and get into drugs, criminal behavior and a pursuit of premature independence.”
This advice isn’t nearly as dramatic as watching out for creepy strangers at the grocery store, but it is grounded in the kind of grueling consistency and emotional intelligence that defines good parenting.