Pediatricians + Liam Neeson + Twitter vs Sex Trafficking


In A Rush?

  • You should see the movie Taken. Came out 6 years ago but the message stands.
  • Realize that Sex Trafficking is growing each year – affecting over 1 million children globally.
  • You don’t see it because it’s hidden. Awareness is our north star.

I could watch Taken over and over again. Although it should be called, “How to Rip Paris Apart in 36 Hours.”

I actually think a fun game would be to make a spreadsheet to document how many French, Armenian, and Middle Eastern men Liam Neeson breaks as he rescues his 17 year old daughter from the sex trafficking underworld.

What’s gripping: this 2008 thriller, grossing over $200 million, was an entertaining but unfortunately a harsh glimpse of an actual horror, that nets over $30 billion annually – the global human trafficking trade.

But let’s scale back on the global epidemic and focus on the United States. Could human trafficking, more specifically, sex slavery, happen in our industrialized, first-world, ‘moral’ country?

Forced work laborers are everywhere. You’d have to be blindfolded to not see signs. Nonetheless, the sex slavery industry is a clandestine operation, covered in stereotypes and misconceptions, and for many other reasons, it remains largely hidden.  Out of the public eye, out of tabloids, and netting billions annually right in your backyard. This makes it oh so easy to ignore.

Well I’m a pediatrician and here’s a statistic that makes me simultaneously want to vomit and pull a Liam Neeson on America’s underworld:

Of the 1 million children forced into the global sex trade annually, rough estimates place 300,000 in the United States alone.

Now go look up whatever trendy public health topic you want and compare the numbers. Knock, knock America, it’s time the sex slavery becomes a mainstream crisis – it can affect anyone and is omnipresent in our land of liberty.

I live in this utopia called Seattle. It’s clean, progressive, educated, and looks like a living Bob Ross painting.

Yet in King County alone, on any given day, there are 300-500 juveniles in prostitution. Once I began learning the truth from the non-profit, Seattle against Slavery, I shared the facts with anyone that would listen. Here’s a very, very common sentiment:

Sex trafficking!? Does that even happen here?? I’ve never seen it…..

Oh you’ve never seen the victims dancing around carrying signs saying “Hi! I’m Trafficked!!!” Wake up and click on some of the links scattered in this ramble.

Barriers in Identifying Victims

Imagine if your boss, in this case, your ‘pimp’, threatened to hurt your family, would you come forward? Or what if you watched those tv documentaries that depict prostitutes being handcuffed and shoved into police cars, would you expect a 14 year old to openly run to authorities? What if you were manipulated into thinking it was YOUR fault, YOUR choice, and your traffickers were your family? It’s like a twisted version of Stockholm Syndrome.

There’s threat of violence, there’s distrust of authority (which keeps victims from coming forward), and there’s a masquerade of fake businesses to hide the act. Shady websites like backpage.com and craiglist.com can be playgrounds for traffickers.

10 Myths and Misconceptions about Human Trafficking

Alright if they don’t find us, let’s make some noise and go find them. Bring it.

Step one in being Liam Neeson in the fight against trafficking is awareness. We need to spread the word in a shocking yet authentic style.

I’ll once reference Nicholas Kristof –

public health stories need a face, an image, to be relatable

Thus I applaud groups such as the Polaris project, End Trafficking (UNICEF), and Seattle against Slavery, that paint real pictures:

A 16 year old girl who’s forced to work 20 hours a day, without food – who has her ‘pimp’s’ name tattooed on her body.

A 14 year old who met a seemingly innocent 26 year old, who promised her high paying work, and coerced her into sex slavery.

A Mother’s Story – What Parents Need to Know about Trafficking

If we get the public aware, we’ll have more eyes are on the prowl.

Ah but in addition to the public, there are another group of fighters that need to be armed.

Physicians – The First Responders

Medical folk are among the only professionals that interact with victims while they’re still enslaved. A 2011 study showed that nearly 50% of victims sought medical care while enslaved, thus a doctor’s visit is a break in the industry’s secrecy armor and we need to seize it.

The Role of Healthcare Providers in Confronting the Sexual Exploitation of Minors

But do doctors really understand the problem? Sadly there is no set curricula for teaching about sex trafficking. Sure, in pediatric residency, we learn about rare, exotic disease, but if our true roles are in pediatric public health, this belongs in our residency education. The US Human Trafficking Reporting System cites that between 2008 and 2010, 87% of sex trafficking victims were less than 25 years old. Less than 25 years old. That means pediatricians belong on the frontlines.

A Role for Human Trafficking in Medical Residency Training

Twitter to the Rescue

It’s 2014 and it seems that all social movements happen on – drumroll – social media.  Why not raise public health awareness using the same mechanism? Like a vehicle that sees 200 million users a day, aka Twitter? Brilliant idea JAMA Pediatrics.

This past September, alongside dozens of activist groups nationwide, we held a journal club* about sex trafficking for pediatric residents. The beauty of twitter is we could share articles (a guide for healthcare providers), invite experts from all over the country (one of the above article authors, Dr. Aimee Grace, even made an appearance), and land ourselves on well over 30,000 twitter feeds in one hour. Boom.

Check out this summary. The concept is simple, we pose questions, people answer them and all in all, the word spreads like wildfire.

To some, blasting twitter, seemed crazy but just like Liam Neeson driving a car onto a Sheik’s boat in Taken, ‘crazy’ may be exactly what we need to dismember the sex trafficking industry.

What’s your next move going to be?

What’s My Point?

Sex slavery and human trafficking is everywhere and the multi-billion dollar industry isn’t slowing down. It’s time we take a stand.