Why I Ride

The Misconceptions of Sex Trafficking

Hey there! My name is Sophia Harnew-Spradley. I like big dogs, outdoor adventures, dried mangos and playing Tyler Childers very loudly in the car.  I am a senior neuroscience major at Sewanee & a music minor. So I’ve spent a lot of time studying biology, psychology, and various parts of music history. However, sad to say,  I did not really know what sex trafficking was before I knew Pedal the Pacific. Like many Americans, I thought being trafficked was some sort of dramatic and obvious event. Like a young girl going for a run in the evening and being abruptly snatched off the streets. Many people think of conspiracies like Pizzagate and Wayfair, of underground criminals plotting intricate ways to exploit children. In reality, less than 10% of trafficking victims are kidnapped, and victims often know their traffickers before they are trafficked (polarisproject.org). Often they are even being trafficked by a family member or boyfriend. I first found Pedal the Pacific via Instagram, attracted by fun photos of gals biking the west coast.

I remember reading these facts and being confused – if this type of thing was going on in the U.S., then why didn’t I hear people talking about it more often?  

Last summer, as I was deciding if I wanted to apply to Pedal, I dove into survivor story podcasts and picked up on some themes. I started to understand why so few people recognize what sex trafficking looks like in the U.S. –  it’s really subtle. Survivors often talk about how they were a child running away from an abusive family, a woman living in poverty, someone living with a disability, a minority being pushed to the edge of society and taught that they were not worthy of love. Traffickers target individuals who are not receiving acceptance and support, who are not recognized in society. For example, for a runaway child, traffickers might offer shelter, stability, and even the semblance of family life. For a woman coming out of an abusive relationship, a trafficker might buy her nice dinners, get her nails done, “take care of her” like he is her boyfriend. In our meetings, our team talks about these tactics a lot. It is called grooming: traffickers fill whatever need they see in their targeted individuals, gain their trust, and manipulate them into dependence. They take care of their victim in a way that keeps them from leaving, while slowly working toward getting the victim to do favors to make the trafficker money. Essentially, traffickers prey on the human need to feel loved. 

Seeing how prevalent and subtle sex trafficking was motivated me to apply to Pedal this summer. When I first started Pedal I remember feeling intimidated by the fact that I didn’t know a lot about sex trafficking. Luckily, I quickly learned that talking about the cause and piquing other people’s curiosity is more important than being any sort of expert. 

Because fighting sex trafficking requires community awareness, it is important that we talk about it in the right context. Conspiracies like Wayfair are based on truth; websites like Craigslist and Backpage can be used for selling sex trafficking victims, and sneaky techniques are used by sex traffickers to mask the fact that they are profiting off of selling another person’s body or selling underaged individuals. However, while the media gives plenty of attention to conspiracies like Wayfair and Pizzagate, not enough attention is being given to this fact: sex trafficking really is quite prevalent in the U.S., but most people aren’t trained to notice it. Many survivor stories I have heard talk about how the individuals being trafficked were going to doctors appointments, flying on airplanes, attending schools, but no one stopped to check that they were alright, even though they were showing signs of being trafficked. That is why I feel motivated to help people to understand what the signs of sex trafficking are.

Victims of sex trafficking can be reluctant to speak and respond with scripted verbiage, show signs of abuse, make less eye contact, avoid authority figures, and can show a whole host of other signs. It is not hard to become more educated on what sex trafficking is or what a victim might look like, so I’d encourage anyone reading this to do a little research. There are short training modules offered by programs like On Watch which I found very helpful. 

Even as I write this I find it kind of wild how little I knew about this cause a year ago today, and how much I have learned since then. If everyone in the U.S. took a little more time to understand what sex trafficking looked like we could make a big dent in the industry – it only takes one person noticing a trafficking victim and getting them help to make a difference, so it is our responsibility to be educated. The opportunity to foster dialogue and make this topic accessible to the public makes me excited to keep learning about this cause with the 10 passionate women that I will be biking down the coast with and the rest of the Pedal family.


August 7, 2022
by 
Rachel Johnson

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