Half of all children and teenagers in the United States are victims of human trafficking, according to a newly invented statistic. The figure, down 20% from last year, is being hailed as a sign of progress by organizations that receive funding to combat human trade.
Michael Annison, the activist who envisioned the new figure, says that the number of young people involved in contemporary American slavery is both appalling and largely ignored. “Every time I think of a number of victims, it gets larger,” he told a reporter. “Fortunately, we have emancipated millions of people with our fundraising events over the last few years, so I feel we are starting to move in the right direction.”
Human trafficking, or the transfer of people for use as laborers or sex slaves, has become a hot topic among wealthy social media users in recent years. Lavish charity events hosted by celebrities like Ashton Kutcher are actively raising money to tackle the largely unseen problem. In 2011, Kutcher told Piers Morgan that there were “between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today.” The figure he spoke of originated from an article about children who were considered “at risk” of sexual exploitation, but the message had a powerful impact regardless.
The hysteria surrounding human trafficking has left elementary school teacher Pamela O’Connor fearful for the safety of her students. “It’s a bit unsettling to know that half of my students are probably sex slaves,” she told a reporter. “I figure the best way to help is to let them know they always have an ear from me if they want to talk.”
Statistics regarding human trafficking are difficult to come by, particularly considering the clandestine nature of the problem. Law enforcement records indicate that approximately 800 arrests are made each year nationwide for charges related to the sexual exploitation of a minor. In 2016, less than a thousand people were convicted of crimes related to human trafficking. The huge variation between official crime statistics and media figures may be due to underreporting, as many activist organizations suggest.
Another possibility is that the issue is hugely exaggerated, or the definition of “human trafficking” has been drastically broadened to include other forms of criminal activity like prostitution. Critics have contended that human trafficking, irrespective of scale, would be most effectively addressed through legislation to decriminalize prostitution and curb the influx of illegal border crossings. The multi-million dollar advertising campaign to end sexual slavery in the United States, however, has continued unabated.
Anne Rothschild, a retired trophy wife from Los Angeles, has devoted her Twitter account to raising awareness about human trade in her Thousand Oaks community. “It’s truly awful how little these slave owners respect the lives of other people,” she told a reporter. “That’s why I always take good care of my housekeepers. I don’t want them all dying of SARS like they did last year.”