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What Fantine Teaches Us About Modern Human Trafficking

Back in January, Programs Director Laurie Graham contributed a blog post about human trafficking in honor of Human Trafficking Awareness Month. While the official month of awareness may be over, the reality of human trafficking is not.

In February, actress Anne Hathaway won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Fantine in Les Misefantinerables. In the story, Fantine is a single mother forced by economic necessity into prostitution. In interviews promoting the film, Hathaway spoke frequently of finding inspiration for the role by researching the reality of modern-day sex slavery. As she told Word & Film’s Tony Phillips, “[…] I came to the realization that I had been thinking about Fantine as someone who lived in the past – but she doesn’t. She’s living in New York City right now. She’s probably less than a block away.” Hathaway’s words, and her portrayal of Fantine, speak not only to the reality of contemporary human trafficking, but also to its insidious presence right in all of our own backyards. In fact, North Carolina ranks among the top 8 states for human trafficking in the United States.

Human trafficking is often misunderstood as an issue that exclusively impacts foreign nationals. While international trafficking and trafficking of foreign nationals is undeniably a huge issue, it’s only one piece of the puzzle. Trafficking victims are very often U.S. citizens who are forced into sex slavery by economic necessity, abusive home situations, or any number of other circumstances. In order for a situation to be legally classified as “human trafficking,” it does not need to involve movement across borders, smuggling, or movement of any kind. Rather, human trafficking is defined as any commercial exchange of sex or labor that involves force, fraud, or coercion (though in the case of sex trafficking of minors, force, fraud, and coercion are not necessary). This definition includes pimp-controlled prostitution.

While TV and movies often portray prostitutes as glamorous, high-price call girls (think Satine in Moulin Rouge or Lana in Risky Business) or as autonomous, street-smart hookers who call their own shots (a la Pretty Woman), the sad reality is that many women and girls in prostitution are at the mercy of their pimps/boyfriends. They are often held against their will in prostitution or sex slavery either through force or the threat of force, through threats and intimidation, or through coercion.

Even more concerning is the number of children forced into the sex trade. The most frequent age of entry into the sex trade is 12-14 years old, and 70-90% of children in the sex trade have previously been victims of sexual abuse. This video by GEMS founder and trafficking survivor, Rachel Lloyd, illustrates the direct link between childhood sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation of girls and women (TRIGGER WARNING: contains graphic descriptions of sexual exploitation and sexual violence).

While the state of North Carolina is still struggling to provide adequate services and resources to trafficking survivors, the good news is that our current legislative session is considering a bill (HB 221) that would impose harsher legal penalties on those convicted of trafficking, including requiring that those convicted of sex trafficking of minors be added to the sex offender registry.

Anne Hathaway closed her Oscar acceptance speech by saying, “Here’s hoping that someday, in the not-too-distant future, the misfortunes of Fantine will only be found in stories and never more in real life.” While legislation like HB 221 is an important step in the right direction, it will ultimately take all of us to achieve the ultimate goal of a world free of slavery. To learn more about what you can do to identify and address trafficking your community, check out the resources linked below, and don’t forget to contact your state representatives today to encourage their support of HB 221.

To learn more about human trafficking and how you can help, please visit:

Joey Honeycutt is our Crisis Response Coordinator. She works with our volunteer Companions to provide support services to survivors of sexual violence in our community.

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