Working for an anti-trafficking organization based in Nashville, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is: “Is human trafficking a big issue in this area?” My answer is always: “yes, unfortunately.”
Often, this surprises people. Although rapidly growing, Nashville is comparatively a small city. It is vibrant and creative and characterized by good food, great music and friendly people. All of these things about Nashville are true. But the thing about human trafficking is that it is everywhere, even in the places we call home.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation recently reported that human trafficking is the second-highest rising crime in the state. This type of exploitation can begin in childhood or adolescence when youth are especially vulnerable. Despite common misconceptions, statistics from the Polaris Project show that the majority of trafficked individuals in the country are U.S. citizens, not foreign nationals. It is a harsh reality that young people in our lives may be the same ones vulnerable to traffickers. Additionally, human trafficking often does not align with over-dramatized media portrayals. Manipulation is more common than abduction, and most often, a trafficker is a family member, friend or individual a victim already knows.
It is a harsh reality that young people in our lives may be the same ones vulnerable to traffickers.
A problem of this magnitude must first be understood before it can be solved. It is for this reason that I will outline the reasons Nashville is a hub for human trafficking, as well as what exactly trafficking looks like in the Volunteer State.
While trafficking cases have been reported in almost every county in Tennessee, a large amount of them are reported in Davidson County. There are a few primary reasons for this. The first reason is related to transportation and location. Nashville is of only six U.S. cities where 3 major interstates converge. Additionally, you can reach 75% of the U.S. market within a 2-hour flight time from Nashville, making it a strategic point for movement around the country. Nashville is also in close proximity to Atlanta – a large metropolitan area known for high amounts of human trafficking – and this adds to the transportation of victims throughout the state.
The second reason Nashville is a hotspot for human trafficking is its tourism industry and popularity. Large crowds and popular events are known to increase the demand for sexual exploitation. Additionally, major influxes of people, during the NFL Draft, CMA Fest or Bonnaroo Music & Arts for example, make it harder for traffickers to be identified or caught.
[A] reason Nashville is a hotspot for human trafficking is its tourism industry and popularity. Large crowds and popular events are known to increase the demand for sexual exploitation.
The face of Tennessee trafficking
These are some of the underlying factors contributing to trafficking in Nashville, but what is more important are the stories of those who have experienced its heartbreak. Each year since 2012, the majority of victims reported to Polaris’ Human Trafficking Hotline in Tennessee have been victims of sex trafficking. Some of the top venues for sex trafficking in the state are online ads, hotels and motels, escort services and truck stops. Other labor trafficking industries include domestic work and agriculture, although less data is available for these cases.
Because trafficking looks different from case to case, a specific trafficker or victim profile is difficult to construct. Often, traffickers contact youth through the Internet or social media, but in the case of a 12-year-old who was trafficked from Texas to Tennessee in 2016, the trafficker simply offered her a ride home. In other cases, traffickers are actually family members, close friends or ‘boyfriends.’
Additionally, victims can come from any socio-economic status, race, ethnic group or family situation. For example, trafficking still occurs in Williamson County, the wealthiest county in Tennessee. The one thing that all trafficking victims have in common, however, is vulnerability. The vulnerability can be defined as a simply need for love and acceptance, a toxic family dynamic or history of abuse. On both state-wide and national levels, the most vulnerable populations are foster, runaway and homeless youth and those in the LGBTQI+ community. It is important to remember, however, that many victims do not fit into these categories. The one thing each trafficking case has in common is a relationship where trust is gained and then later exploited.
Because most of the trafficking cases reported in Tennessee do involve sex trafficking, it is important to also examine those purchasing sex from trafficked individuals. A trafficking operation in Kingsport, Tennessee targeted individuals seeking to purchase illicit sex from minors. Nearly a dozen men faced felony charges following the investigation, and those arrested included a youth leader, coach, volunteer firefighter and an Uber driver. Demand is the reason that trafficking persists, and it does not always take the form most people envision. It is important to move beyond these misconceptions to have a better-informed perspective on trafficking, as well as how it occurs.
Hope in darkness
Despite the difficult reality of trafficking within Tennessee, there is positivity amidst the darkness. Tennessee is ranked at the top in the nation for our legislation and anti-trafficking efforts, according to Shared Hope International. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation operates a state-wide hotline for citizens to call with information or if they need assistance. Additionally, Polaris operates a national hotline that is operated 24 hours a day and is available in 200 different languages. Both of these resources provide a safe space for reporting tips and asking for help. Finally, Free for Life International provides emergency services to Nashville-area survivors on a case by case basis. The organization is also equipping the local community to be informed and active citizens in the fight for freedom. Common red flags of human trafficking to be on the lookout for include:
– Individuals who appear to be a runaway or homeless youth
– Possible sex work scenarios
– Individuals who have little control over their money or movement
– Individuals who display signs of trauma or abuse
– Individuals who display distinct branding marks or tattoos (these typically include a pimp’s name and/or money signs and are commonly located on a victim’s neck, chest, abdomen or forearms).
By staying aware, you can transform a life. Each informed citizen can truly be the difference between freedom and slavery for a person in need. To learn more, visit our website at freeforlifeintl.org.
Tennessee Human trafficking hotline: 1-855-55-TNHTH
NATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE: 1-888-373-7888 (Operated 24 hours, 7 days a week)
BEFREE TEXTLINE: TEXT “HELP” TO 233733 (Operated 3:00PM – 11:00PM EST)
Katie Thompson is the Operations Supervisor at Free for Life International.