Hidden in Plain Sight: Researcher Dr. Mehlman-Orozco Discusses the Realities of Human Trafficking

By Dr. Laura McGuire

It’s time to shed some light on a topic that is rarely discussed, but greatly in need of our attention—human trafficking. Especially in a prosperous international city like Houston, it is vital that we take the time to know where the products we are shopping for come from, and which anti-trafficking organizations we should be supporting.

Many people think of human trafficking as only happening to foreign nationals, or only to women. But the truth is much more complex than what we see in movies and on TV. In honor of January being National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, I recently talked with expert Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco about the reality of human trafficking, and what we as a community and as individuals can do to combat it.

Dr. Laura McGuire: Thank you for talking with us today about the issue of human trafficking. This is a hot topic in the media, and something that a lot of prominent political and social figures are talking about. Can you tell us a bit about your background and the work you do?

Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco: Thank you so much for taking the time to cover this important issue. As far as my background is concerned, I am an accomplished survey methodologist, research scientist, and quantitative and qualitative consultant on issues related to human trafficking. I am one of the few researchers with the background to qualify as an expert witness and subject-matter expert on human trafficking in criminal and civil courts. My work is also published in books, peer-reviewed journals, magazines, and news outlets. My anti-trafficking efforts are focused on bridging the gap between research and practice, so that we can reduce the incidence of human trafficking in the United States and worldwide.

What is an expert witness?

Basically, an expert witness is used to educate the judicial system on the human trafficking phenomenon. Given the clandestine nature of human trafficking crimes, as well as the trauma bond that often exists between victims and offenders, fewer than .01 percent of traffickers are ever convicted for their offenses. Expert-witness testimony can assist in explaining the complexity of human trafficking victimization to juries and judges alike. Prosecutorial use of expert-witness testimony in human trafficking cases can help close the credibility gap of victims, while the defense’s use of expert-witness testimony can be used to clarify the distinction between a prostitute and a sex-trafficking victim, human trafficker, and human-trafficking survivor.

Tell us more about the book you are currently working on.

My book Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium is scheduled to be published by ABC-CLIO in the fall of 2017. The book will feature heart-wrenching stories about how women, men, and children are forced, defrauded, and coerced into exploitation across the United States. Although some forms of human trafficking may only be distantly recognizable, my book will shock and terrify readers with the stark reality of just how close to home human trafficking hits. The horror is in the details.

How is real-life human trafficking different than what is portrayed on film and in the general media?

This isn’t the movie Taken. Liam Neeson isn’t going to show up in a black Audi and Versace suit to rescue his innocent-victim daughter from gun-wielding Albanian mobsters. Sex trafficking across America is a more clandestine activity, hidden within the commercial sex industry that has flourished in our country for decades, as well as in plain sight under the veneer of legitimate businesses. In real life, it is much more difficult to prosecute human traffickers, [as well as] to correctly identify and rescue the victims. Each of your readers has likely worn, touched, or consumed a product of slavery—as well as encountered a human trafficking victim—without their knowledge.

How do victims fall into trafficking?

Rather than using force to perpetually repress victims, sex traffickers more frequently gain compliance by building a trauma bond with their victims. Recruitment into a commercial sexually exploitive victimization often involves the perceived fulfillment of physiological and emotional needs, as well as strategic infusion of countercultural virtues. Human traffickers will typically manipulate prospective victims by concealing their exploitive intentions through entrapment and enmeshment schemes, portraying themselves as boyfriends/lovers or faux family. Alternatively, traffickers have been known to use ruses involving debt bondage or coerced co-offending to gain compliance. Instead of using physical chains to control a victim, traffickers fabricate a virtual tether with victims through social, emotional, financial, or psychological bonding and oversight. This type of fraud, deception, and coercion makes it easier for the trafficker to control multiple victims, without interruption and with impunity.

Which populations and demographics are likely to be targeted for human trafficking?

All people, regardless of socioeconomic status, are at risk of being trafficked, but this risk is elevated for persons at the margins of society. For example, runaway and homeless youth, as well as people living in poverty or ostracized from their community, may be at higher risk because they can have their needs more easily targeted and temporarily fulfilled by traffickers. Human traffickers will often bait victims through the false promise to fulfill basic physiological needs and provide safety, or by offering a sense of love and belonging. Once the victim is successfully recruited, only then will the trafficker begin the exploitation.

What stops a victim from leaving or seeking out organizations that can help?

There are a number of barriers to [rescuing victims and] providing services. Since victims are often controlled through threats, deception, and coercion, they may not be fully aware of their victimization, or are disinclined to seek assistance. Even if a victim is able to break the trauma bond and ask for help, social-service and law-enforcement systems may erroneously criminalize victims due to misidentification, which negatively impacts trust between victims and service providers. Finally, even if a victim is correctly identified and “rescued,” it is often difficult for them to find sustainable residential placement, employment, and trauma-informed therapy, which can increase the likelihood of revictimization.

How are these victims treated by the judicial system?

Sex-trafficking survivors continue to be erroneously criminalized and/or revictimized [even after they are identified] by the judicial system. These survivors are often viewed as less-than-credible witnesses, given their backgrounds [that may include illegal] immigration, coerced co-offending, drug use, [incarceration, and prostitution]. Nationally, there are limited resources for human trafficking survivors. Post-rescue, victims often struggle to find housing, employment, transportation, therapy, and medical/dental care. Throughout the course of their victimization and thereafter, victims often describe being treated as “throwaway” people, which is a disheartening testament to the [lack of] resources in place to help human-trafficking survivors.

How does human trafficking uniquely impact the LGBT community?

While LGBTQ youth make up only 3 to 5 percent of the population, they account for 40 percent of runaway and homeless youth. In turn, these kids are at an elevated risk of falling prey to human traffickers. In my work as a human-trafficking expert-witness and researcher, I have become acutely aware of internationally acclaimed [faith-based] organizations that [deny resources to LGBT victims]. Unfortunately, LGBT youth are at higher risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking, and are less likely to receive services.

One human-trafficking survivor I interviewed told me, “Along our journey in seeking help, I realized that many of these organizations who could help my wife simply didn’t, because we’re a lesbian couple. Many of these faith-based organizations rescue women and men, Bible in hand. When they offer help, it’s based on their religious beliefs.”

The LGBTQ community experiences discrimination in various aspects of life, which increases their likelihood of human trafficking victimization. Unfortunately, this discrimination even extends to [the services that are denied to LGBT] human-trafficking survivors; as such, LGBT survivors are at higher risk of revictimization.

What are some ways that everyday citizens can get involved in improving this situation?

Everyday citizens can become involved in the modern-day abolitionist movement by helping to fill the gap in resources for human-trafficking survivors. Surviving human trafficking is arduous, but finding ways to thrive post-rescue should not be so hard. Organizations like Soroptimist International provide scholarships for human-trafficking survivors to assist them with residential placement, vocational training, and therapy. I encourage your readers to contribute their time and resources to local anti-trafficking organizations that provide direct services for all human-trafficking survivors. Also, I have launched a scholarship campaign for LGBTQ human-trafficking survivors:

Dr. Laura McGuire is certified as a sexuality educator through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. Read her monthly queer-inclusive sex column, Ask Dr. Laura, at OutSmartMagazine.com. Learn more about her work at drlauramcguire.com.

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Laura McGuire

Dr. Laura McGuire is certified as a sexuality educator through the American Association of Sexuality Educators Counselors and Therapists.
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