Sarah Virgil is a guest author on our blog and President and Founder of Rollerskate to Liberate. Her organization, Rollerskate to Liberate is changing the world one skate at a time. We roll to gather activists, empower survivors, and take preventative action against human trafficking and exploitation. Rollerskate to Liberate (RS2L) is building the next generation of activists to fight against human trafficking and exploitation. The RS2L Learning Hub, created by activists, educational experts, and survivors of human trafficking, hosts digestible, engaging, and easy to understand curriculum made for kids, teens, and adults. By providing awareness and preventive education in addition to actionable steps, users will feel empowered to make changes that lead to a better world without exploitation. Including promoting healthy relationships and speaking out against a culture that permits exploitation to happen. RS2L is also assisting survivors in long-term programs by partnering with other nonprofit organizations through fundraising efforts, such a roll-a-thons, and more. To learn more about Rollerskate to Liberate’s approach to ending trafficking and to donate visit rollerskatetoliberate.org, and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
When I first tell others that I work to prevent human trafficking, I hear mixed responses. A few are given with excitement and eagerness to learn and do more. Others whisper in soft voices, “What a worthy cause” with genuineness in their eyes. Some have preconceived notions of what human trafficking is, and might comment on “saving the children,” “oh like the girl in Taken?,” or another form of trafficking stereotypes, which is another problem in itself, but I digress. Of all the replies I receive, the ones that trouble me the most are the ones that put me on a pedestal—as if I am doing something only a few extraordinary people in the United States, or entire world, can do. But I am here to tell you that is not true. Anyone can help prevent human trafficking.
First, let’s start with the concept of exploitation. Exploitation happens when one person uses another person for their own benefit and gain. Exploitation is at the root cause of every human trafficking case. In fact, it is in the definition of human trafficking. Human trafficking happens in which a trafficker uses force, fraud, or coercion to exploit another being for labor, services, or commercial sex.
Exploitation is using and abusing one another person for one’s own personal gain. We see it clearly when a pimp (aka trafficker) uses a woman’s body to make money for himself. Or when a factory owner sets unfair working conditions with little to no pay for the workers.
But do we still see exploitation when a man makes a joke about a woman’s body to his friends for a laugh? The man is exploiting that woman. That woman’s own personal body has now been belittled at the expense of a “harmless” joke, just for a few boys to get a laugh.
How about when someone shares a survivor’s story to get attention and boost their own platform, without consent from the survivor? That’s exploiting the survivor. Their story is theirs to tell. It is not meant to be used as a tool to gain traction, awareness, or anything else. Survivors are meant to tell their own stories, in their own time, in their preferred way.
Now, what about when a boyfriend grooms his girlfriend? Grooming happens when a person who believes they have some sort of power or authority, manipulates and deceives another person, usually someone vulnerable or quick to trust others, to get something in return. That boyfriend may be manipulating the girlfriend into believing that she needs to show her love for him in sexual favors. That boyfriend is exploiting the girlfriend.
So, why should you care? Well, exploitation is everywhere. If we can end exploitation, we can end human trafficking. The thing many people often forget when looking at statistics and quick examples is the fact that each of these examples, every single data point, is a real person. Real suffering, real trauma, real abuse, and most importantly—a need for real healing.
So how can you help? Surely, not everyone is qualified to provide services survivors need and deserve, or qualified to teach a class on human trafficking. But everyone is qualified to promote and practice healthy relationships. Everyone is qualified to speak out against exploitation when you see it. Everyone is qualified and can speak up when their friend makes a joke about rape. Or explain why “being a stripper” wouldn’t really make someone’s life easier than getting an education. You can put a stop to glamorizing the sex trade and rape culture. As humans, we owe it to our fellow human beings to put an end to these habits and work towards an exploitation-free world.
If we look at the root of human trafficking, and how individuals may be forced into trafficking situations, it often comes from a need. A need for food, a need for a safe place to sleep, a need for a job, a need for a loving, healthy relationship. Imagine, you’re a young single mother of two who is kicked out of your apartment for not paying rent. A man approaches you on the street and says, “I will give you a place to stay and a warm meal for you and your kids. All you have to do is a little something for me.” What other choice does the single mother have? Stay overnight in the streets? Or provide shelter for your babies, promising yourself you will get out of that situation as soon as you can. In another instance, what if you were a refugee and needed a job to provide for your family—especially when you may not have legal documents yet? A man offers you what seems like a great opportunity. Only to find yourself months later working 100+ hours a week still not making a livable wage, if any at all.
We need to provide proper services that people, like that young mother and refugee, can access when they need help. In addition, we need to implement structural exit strategies and safe spaces for those who want to leave their exploitative situation. This, however, doesn’t mean it’s up to you to provide shelter or food for everyone you meet, but it does mean you can support organizations and policies that are helping those in poverty, helping those who may never have seen a loving relationship, and those who have been victimized. Survivor-led organizations like Sisters of the Streets, GEMS, LIFT, and My Life My Choice are all supporting survivors of trafficking. No one understands how to support a survivor, better than a fellow survivor. It’s important that we turn to survivors and listen to them about what they need and support them as an ally, not a savior.
To put it simply, promoting healthy relationships is step one to ending human trafficking. Speaking out against exploitation and our culture that not only protects but promotes it, is step two. Supporting and empowering survivors through survivor-led long-term programs, is step three.
As individuals, it can seem like a daunting task at first, but as a society, we can work together to end exploitation and human trafficking. All of us. One step at a time.
Written by Sarah Virgil, President and Founder of Rollerskate to Liberate
Edited by Riss Myung