By Victoria Cameron
Speaker Yolanda Harden from the Set Me Free Project came to Concordia as part of the Looking Beyond Speaking Series to talk on “Sex Trafficking and Social Media Safety.”
Harden defined human trafficking as modern day slavery. She emphasized that all people have value, and that sometimes it may seem that someone is doing something because they want to, but they may actually be threatened into the behavior.
“I’m not comparing it to slavery as in there’s shackles and chains, and chained to a basement in that way,” Harden said. “What I’m comparing it to is that they don’t have a choice, and it may look like that to our eyes because we don’t understand what they’re going through.”
Harden explained that despite the conception that trafficking is only trafficking if force is involved, it can also be achieved without force, through fraud and coercion. A victim may be tricked or blackmailed into earning money for a trafficker.
The first thing any trafficker does, according to Harden, is gain the trust of the victim once they have chosen their target. They then fulfill a need of their victim so the victim will allow the trafficker to isolate them, which allows the trafficker to sexualize the relationship with the victim, and then maintain control.
By gaining trust, a trafficker is able to have control over a victim that does not leave evidence. Also, it appears to friends that the victim is making an independent choice that should not be interfered with. This lack of suspicious activity that can be proven to be criminal is what makes traffickers value other means over force, despite what many people assume about how trafficking works.
“If it was always white creepy vans, don’t you think police would be all over that?” Harden said. “Don’t you think that we as a society would be all over that? Does it have to be a van? Does it have to be a vehicle? Does it have to be a kidnapping?”
The talk was attended by Concordia students, faculty and godparent groups from the Seward community, including students from Seward High School. Due to the mixed group, as well as time constraints, Harden refrained from spelling out many details and instead encouraged the audience to look up additional information on their own.
“I think it is a starting point as the speaker said and she addressed enough of the important elements within the time to at least get people thinking and correct some misconceptions,” Professor of Sociology Kathy Miller said. “And she did push us to think about it.”
Harden pointed out that all groups and demographics are vulnerable to trafficking, so it is important to be talked about in all areas and age groups. She acknowledged that there is no perfect checklist to identify a trafficker, since they also come from all backgrounds and look like anyone, but advised the audience to look out for those around them.
“Look for the absence of normal,” Harden said. “Know what’s normal in your friends.”
Harden called for the audience not to hesitate to call in a possible instance of trafficking, as they would rather get the call than not. Additionally, she charged the audience to not spread false information such as stories on social media that dramatize forced trafficking, which, as she shared earlier, is not a common form of trafficking. Holding it up as the only way trafficking occurs leaves people vulnerable to more subtle forms of manipulation.
“I don’t ever want you to share any of that stuff on Facebook about the zipties, and about the Walmart parking lot stories, Target parking lot, whatever you hear,” Harden said. “Because one–I’m from Iowa by the way, from Mason City, Iowa-ish area–and my FBI contact in Iowa said that we have not had a single case open because of that in Iowa.”
Many professors of criminal justice and pre-law classes attended, and many of their students attended with them, as some were offered extra credit. The event was also marketed to the Law and Justice Club, but students from all areas, as well as community members, were present.
The talk lasted one hour, and Harden answered questions for an additional 30 minutes afterwards. While some people had to leave due to the late time, Thom Auditorium remained relatively full.
“I was glad so many stayed, because a lot of good information came out,” Miller said.
Harden could not cover everything she knew about human trafficking in her alotted time, but encourages everyone to look up more information and check out the Set Me Free Project website, which includes a quick exit link to a weather page for victims who cannot let their traffickers know they are searching for a way out.