Nobody’s property: Shedding light on victims of human trafficking
Those who meet Asia Graves today are typically struck by her self-assuredness and strength. Nothing in her demeanor or speech hints at the darkness and trauma of her past. The only noticeable clue is the deep scar on her cheek, one that was gouged into her face with a potato peeler by her human trafficker.
When Asia was 16, she was lured into the dark underworld of human trafficking. Her traffickers beat her, branded her and forced her to have sex with countless strangers for money. What shocked Asia though wasn’t necessarily the greed and violence of her traffickers, but the seemingly endless number of buyers who would willingly pay to abuse and degrade her.
When most of us imagine who would purchase underage girls for sex, we envision loners and societal outliers. Research actually shows the opposite.
Studies conducted on buyers have found that most of them are employed and otherwise well-adjusted citizens. Researchers found that a majority were either married or in long-term relationships. While the ages and demographics vary widely, they almost all shared one characteristic: the desire to exert power and control over other human beings.
The act of purchasing a human trafficking victim boils down to power. As slaves, the victims are helpless against the whims and abuses of their purchaser. The lure of this power imbalance is unfortunately irresistible to these depraved individuals. But as many victims like Asia have found, when they stand up against their abusers and speak out, the power imbalance can be reversed.
Asia was rescued from her traffickers, but she was left traumatized and terrified. After two and a half years of being beaten, degraded and de-humanized, she had lost her sense of self. When prosecutors offered her a chance to testify against her abusers, she knew it could be her way back.
In that act of defiance, Asia not only condemned her traffickers to 25 years in federal prison, she also realized the power she had held all along. Human traffickers and buyers rely upon fear and silence to operate their trade. Buyers crave the hopelessness and helplessness of their victims. The tables turn when those victims stand up against them. When victims speak out, buyers of trafficking victims might begin to fear the voice inside the person they are abusing. They might begin to fear that one day, that victim will stand up and point at them in a court of law, calling them out directly. They fear that the silence they depend on to commit their evil crimes will be broken and their true nature will be exposed to the world. They should be fearful. Their day of reckoning will come.
Empowered by her newfound voice, Asia continued to speak out. She founded an advocacy group to help other victims of trafficking and spread her message. We as a society owe a duty to those brave victims, like Asia, to amplify their voices, provide platforms for their stories, and seek out and punish those that thought they could take away their free will. Congress can also do its part by passing legislation, like the Abolish Human Trafficking Act that we sponsored, to provide more resources to trafficking survivors, implement strategies to encourage more witness testimony and enhance penalties against traffickers and buyers.
This month is human trafficking awareness month, and we must remember that if we empower victims and support them in finding the power of their speech, we can help end this modern day slavery.
Their words can condemn those that inflicted such unimaginable suffering upon them and strike fear in the hearts of future potential buyers and traffickers. Everyday people tell Asia that she does not look or sound like a victim. That is because she is nobody’s victim; she is a survivor with the power of a voice.
Congressmen Ted Poe and Jim Costa are co-founders and co-chairmen of the Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus.