Picture this: a 14-year-old girl is walking to catch up with her friends at the outlet malls. It’s dark outside, but the streetlights are on. The girl is on her phone, and doesn’t see the white van with the blacked-out windows pull up until she is being grabbed and shoved in.
That’s what we imagine when we think about human trafficking in America. But according to statistics, snatch-and-grab attacks only represent about one percent of all trafficking situations.
“I think the great delusion is just that,” said Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson at a Family Connection Community Collaborative Meeting on Jan. 7, where human trafficking was the topic. “We often think of trafficking as grabbing people and throwing them into vans and stuff, and don’t get me wrong, the community is aware of that. . . . It’s the back doors. It’s the internet. It’s the social media. . . . And it seems like we’re totally ignoring that aspect of it. We’re more concerned with the white van than we are all these other things.”
Not that it doesn’t happen. In late 2019, there were two stories here in Dawson County of girls being attacked or stalked in or near the outlets.
But that only accounts for a tiny portion of the human trafficking that does occur here in Dawson County and in north Georgia as a region.
What is human trafficking?
The Georgia Attorney General’s Office defines human trafficking as crimes that “focus on the act of compelling or coercing a person's labor, services, or commercial sex acts; or using children under the age of 18 for commercial sex acts. The coercion can be subtle or overt, physical or psychological, but it must be used to coerce a victim into performing labor, services, or commercial sex acts.”
Human trafficking is big business in Georgia. With the world’s busiest airport located in Atlanta, all of Georgia has become a consistent hub for trafficking. In 2007, sex trafficking was estimated to be a $290 million industry in Atlanta. That was up 22% over the 2003 numbers four years earlier. Now, 13 years later, if growth has continued at the same rate, human trafficking could be bringing in nearly $500 million a year. And those numbers don’t account for the
In Georgia alone, there were 375 cases of human trafficking reported in 2018. And as with all crime, the reported number is just the tip of the iceberg.
Sex trafficking, which uses victims of human trafficking for commercial sex acts, is the most common type of human trafficking. The most common age a person enters sex trafficking is between 14 and 16 years old.
These girls are then forced to work in pornography, street walking, strip clubs, truck stops, escort services, Craigslist and internet chatrooms, or illicit massage parlors.
But that’s not the only type of sex trafficking common in Georgia. Others revolve around abusive relationships — boyfriends or husbands who force their girlfriends or wives to have sex with friends or strangers for money is a common example.
Sex trafficking in Dawsonville
So-called ‘happy ending’ massage parlors are more prevalent than you might think. According to an internet site that rates and reviews such parlors, there are nine functioning in Cumming, four in Gainesville, and one in Dawsonville.
These massage parlors are incredibly difficult to prosecute, as clients are often asked to leave anything electronic outside the massage rooms. These items are then covered in blankets and towels, making recording impossible.
And thanks to the rise of technology, predators and sex traffickers can start finding potential victims anywhere.
The most common way sex traffickers find their victims is through social media. These victims, often teenage girls, are approached with offers of modeling or music video opportunities. Others may be groomed by a mentor or romantic partner.
“What we have witnessed is that it’s more of a Romeo scenario,” said Jennifer Robson, Director of Beautiful Feet, a faith-based, long-term residential treatment center for women who have been victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking. “That’s where they build relationships, either daddy-daughter figure or a relational thing. And this happens all over the place. We see the grooming process happening in malls. We see it happening in schools too.”
How to get involved
January is Human Trafficking Month. Trafficking is a serious issue that requires a community to solve. It is wrapped up in domestic violence, abuse and neglect, and other social issues.
If you’re a parent, it’s important to stay vigilant. Robson suggests monitoring social media messages your children are sending and receiving.
“For healthy boundary reasons, open communication. And in terms of social media, having access. If you pay for it, it’s yours. Having access to all their social media passwords. If they’re not doing anything, then they have nothing to hide.”
For others, organizations like Beautiful Feet are always looking for volunteers.
The most important thing, according to Robson, is education.
“I know that not everyone is called to work with this demographic,” said Robson. “But once you’re educated, share that education with others. Even if it’s doing a parents’ night educating them about social media and the dangers of it. Even older people have social media, so sharing it on their pages. And there are other ways to help organizations like us. Just share that organization or host an awareness or training in your community or church.”