Most of the limelight on human trafficking in the United States involves major cities, casting a shadow over rural regions. This leads people to believe a common narrative that human trafficking only happens in the dark, mean streets of a city. Does this mean that rural areas are safer to live in? Does the fact that people are more spread out mean it’s a safer place? Should I just move out “there”?
The truth: rural areas, like urban ones, are vulnerable to sexual exploitation. This narrative needs to be written and the victims’ stories need to be told. There are no top cities for sex trafficking, because sex trafficking exists everywhere there are people.
While providing care to survivors of child trafficking from rural areas of Connecticut, we’ve found that human trafficking in less populated areas has unique characteristics. From our experience in the field and our direct work with survivors in these types of locations, here are some patterns we have noticed:
WHY ARE THEY VULNERABLE?
Far apart doesn’t = safer.
For starters, geographical isolation can contribute to a delay in intervention and lack of opportunities to identify human trafficking. The dense population in cities allows for witnesses and anonymous onlookers to report the crime. However, rural areas allow for less intervention when the homes and those residing in the communities are spread apart due to the landscape and geographical location.
When distance gets in the way, it is hard for victims to find shelter elsewhere. If a trafficked youth decides to runaway from their trafficker or from a risky situation, it may be miles until they reach safety or the closest residency. Even with a running start, it’s likely that the trafficker will be able to locate them or have a pretty good idea of where they’re headed.
There are less jobs, which makes people vulnerable.
Due to a lack of economic opportunities, communities in rural America tend to face lower income levels than those of urban areas. In addition, with cultural beliefs that females are the caretakers of the home, women are more likely to be discouraged from entering the workforce and as a result, may be economically dependent on their male partners. Lack of financial stability means that women may be more vulnerable to trafficking, especially when they do not have the means to support themselves on their own. Less economic opportunity not only makes women more vulnerable, but the entire community—children may be expected to make money to support the family, leading them to take on riskier jobs. Such vulnerability may also be used by traffickers to victimize children.
Truck stops are common.
Rural areas are loaded with truck stops because of the long highways that stretch across these areas, which aren’t so common in cities. Truck stops, state-operated rest areas, and welcome centers are common sites where trafficking and exploitation are present. These locations are often isolated, making them convenient for transient customers to purchase sex with minimal concerns of detection. A truck stop can be an easy place for a trafficker to sell their victims night after night to a new group of customers.
WHY ARE THEY HARD TO IDENTIFY?
Victims are stigmatized.
The social norms of rural communities differ from those of urban ones in terms of social customs and lack of privacy. Usually in small towns, everyone knows (or knows of) each other and their personal business.
It’s difficult to imagine coming forward about being a victim of trafficking if the people involved were strangers to your community. But it’s even more difficult to imagine what it would be like to come forward as a victim if you’re in a small community—perhaps the perpetrator isn’t just your trafficker, but your classmate’s uncle, and the men who purchased you for sex aren’t just abusers, but also your neighbors. When the community is tight-knit and everybody knows each other, a trafficking situation can involve familiar faces.
In addition, the trafficker may be a relative, parent, or even someone with close ties to local law enforcement. These close ties among community members can lead to uncertainty of what will happen once a victim reports. It’s not that there aren’t these types of relationships within urban communities, but the sparse population of small towns can magnify victims’ sense and reality of being unsafe even if the case is reported or already underway. For example, trafficking cases can take a long time to reach prosecution; given a town’s location and the trafficker’s relationships, an offender can still reside in the community even after the case is reported.
When coming out as a victim means having to name someone as the trafficker in a community whom people have personal ties to, and when seeking justice means your neighbor’s uncle is going to face prison time, sympathy may only stretch so far. Chances are, you’re not going to be seen as a victim—you’re going to be seen as a homewrecker.
WHY ARE THEY NOT RECEIVING SERVICES?
There are fewer services.
Small towns with small populations do not have the services victims need when it comes to reporting and recovery. Many victims may have to drive large distances to receive help, and not everyone can afford the time and money to do so. In addition, many rural towns do not have public transportation so if a victim does not have their own car, they would need to borrow one or ask someone for a ride. Requests for such favors can lead to questions about why someone need to borrow a car or get a ride, and where they are going—questions that victims might not want to answer.
Along with the lack of services come the lack of resources and training for law enforcement. In a study conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, it was reported that law enforcement respondents from rural communities stressed a need for resources beyond training:
“I am a detective for a small department in a small town of about 4,000. We hear rumors of people in our jurisdiction that operate prostitution rings, but due to our small town it is hard to get information to prosecute because the ring is so small (i.e., they know who to sell to and who not to). Plus, with limited resources we focus our efforts in other areas.”
Tennessee Rural Law Enforcement Respondent
There are existing child welfare systems in these communities that are working to ensure the safety of children. (Some of the youth from rural areas that Love146 has worked with were identified as victims of trafficking after first being in contact with the child welfare system for a separate reason.) However, in many states, child welfare systems do not see the issue of human trafficking as something that falls under their mandate.
Centers we take for granted in urban areas are not so common in rural ones. In an urban or nearby suburban setting, we have facilities like the YMCA to assist individuals. The physical spread of communities in rural regions with low populations means that there are less centers available for the community. Less community centers means weak social support for victims, leaving them with few resources to turn to for help.
Specialized services are rare even in urban communities and because of this, we need to learn how to look at rural communities differently and create different services tailored for those areas. Addressing human trafficking in rural America isn’t just about waiting for services in urban areas to expand enough to cover the problem nationwide or even replicating existing solutions proven successful in a city. Rural trafficking has its own unique characteristics, and the solutions aimed at addressing it must, too.
Rural trafficking cannot continue to be ignored.
Note: These are just a few patterns we’ve noticed based on articles we’ve read (listed below), but of course, they don’t describe all rural communities in the United States.
Human Traffickers Drawn to Small Towns, Rural Communities – International City/County Management Association
The Geography of Trafficking in Tennessee 2013 – Tennessee Bureau of Investigation
Rural Domestic Violence FAQ’s – Rural Assistance Center
Rural Communities – Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Domestic Child Sex Trafficking not just an Urban Problem – Jennifer Hemmingsen