Imagine going to your primary care physician to seek treatment of symptoms you've been having lately. The physician takes a history and does a physical exam, intending to diagnose the root cause of the issue. But imagine that your physician prescribes you treatment to address only your symptoms and ignores the underlying cause. It would logically follow that you'd likely continue to suffer from the underlying cause, regardless of if your symptoms are temporarily alleviated. You'd likely be frustrated and upset--you want your systems that are under distress to be treated, not just the symptoms of these failing systems. 

Now imagine this same style of treatment for a larger, social epidemic, like HIV/AIDS. Absolutely, symptoms should be addressed and treated, but can you imagine if that's where treatment and research stopped? We would never see the end of HIV/AIDS. Assuredly, our society is not at the eradication point yet, but incredible amounts of time and money are being devoted towards eradicating HIV/AIDS and not just treating the symptoms. 

Ironically, this logical style of treatment often fails to transfer to the social realm. When it comes to human trafficking and specifically sex trafficking in the United States, it has become somewhat trendy to be on the "symptomatic" treatment side. We find and help survivors of trafficking and help rehabilitate them. We bring prevention programs to our youth, in hopes that we will see the amount of victims decrease. 

But how often does our society think of the larger systems at play in sex trafficking? I would venture to say: infrequently. 

The Children's Bureau reports that youth in systems like foster care and juvenile corrections are more likely to be exploited, but how often are we looking to address the brokenness in foster care or in marginalized societies? It seems that we (we = a society at large) are often more willing to donate money to an organization that is helping survivors of trafficking recover than to swim upstream and help a foster child in need. It seems that we are fast to join a 5k to bring awareness to the issue of sex trafficking but hesitant to engage with the poverty and violence around us that perpetuates trafficking. It seems that we are resistant to addressing the demand for purchased sex (the demand is largely comprised of white, middle class men), but willing to help youth who have already been purchased for sex.

Why is this?

Is it because many of the systems are hidden and the "symptom" of trafficking is more visible? Yes. Sex trafficking is a symptom of innumerable failed systems. 

Is it because it's easier to address the symptoms? I would venture to say "yes." It's easier emotionally, financially, spiritually, physically to address the symptoms than it is to do the hard work of digging into the systems and bringing change to those. 

Is it because we aren't equipped to personally address some of these issues? I believe this is a resounding "yes." We are often paralyzed in our ability to swim upstream, because we don't know what to do once we get there.

While I wish I had the final answer right now, I'm still wrestling with these questions and wondering what to do when I swim upstream. But I do know there are tangible ways we can begin addressing the systems, instead of just the symptoms:

  • Mentoring young men. When older men build relationships with younger men and communicate that purchasing sex is not ok and that men have to be the ones who change it, I believe less men will purchase sex.
  • Helping men and women say "no" to pornography, we will see the demand for purchased sex decrease. 
  • Becoming a foster family. When healthy families provide healthy foster placements for male and female youth, the family has the opportunity to change the entire trajectory of the youth's life.
  • Advocating for policies and legislation that help support and rehabilitate families and individuals in need. While many people have differing opinions on welfare and social services, factors like poverty and broken families make a person more likely to be trafficked. Social issues that affect marginalized populations must be addressed.

This list is truly not even scratching the surface. Our society is just now unveiling all of the systemic issues that lead to the symptom of trafficking, but there is still opportunity to do something

Will you consider addressing the systems and not just the symptom of sex trafficking? Will you consider getting involved in swimming upstream to address systemic problems, while also helping to abate the symptoms? Your role in bringing change is invaluable.