UNC student starts group to address local sex trafficking

UNC student starts group to address local sex trafficking

Read in The Daily Tar Heel 2/18/20

It started with a policy brief. 

A policy professor gave UNC first-year Caitlin Davis a homework assignment to examine legislation and employment outcomes for survivors of sex trafficking. But the reality of the issue was far more alarming — and local — than she expected. 

“A common misconception about sex trafficking is that it always involves covert crossing of state or national borders, or that it exclusively affects minor females and foreign people being trafficked into the United States,” Davis said. “While all of that can be true, more often than not, domestic sex trafficking — meaning people being trafficked in their own hometowns — is the way in which trafficking manifests itself.”

Davis launched UNC-CH Students Against Sex Trafficking (SAST) in January and serves as the group’s president. The goal of the group is to address the complexities of sex trafficking in North Carolina, educate college students on warning signs and support local recovery resources for survivors. The group plans to meet for the first time March 3. 

SAST Treasurer Katie Flanagan said it is important to bring awareness that dangerous sex work practices are happening in nearby areas all the time. 

Flanagan, a political science and public policy major, is a transfer student from UNC-Wilmington — a city she said is a major port for sex trafficking. 

Nationally, North Carolina has the eighth-highest rate of reported human trafficking cases, according to the North Carolina Department of Administration. 

She said she wants to promote a dialogue about the impact of sex trafficking in Chapel Hill and the larger community of North Carolina. Her interest in the issue, she said, might be something she wants to pursue in the future. 

Davis said she was surprised to find there wasn’t a student group on campus already dedicated to the issue.

“There are like 800 student organizations,” she said. “I feel like that’s a niche that should have already been filled.”

The risk demographics for sex trafficking are people living in poverty or abuse situations, Davis said. 

“It’s important to know that domestic sex trafficking doesn’t exclusively impact females,” she said. “It can be people of any gender identity.”

Dean Duncan, a professor in the School of Social Work, said not every case of human or sex trafficking is reported to a hotline and that much of the data on this issue is likely underreported. 

“Individuals being trafficked look like ordinary people,” he said. “They can look like the person in front of you in line at Weaver Street.”

Duncan is partnered with Project No Rest, a North Carolina program that provides survivor resources, trafficker recognition training and child welfare information across the state. The project is funded by the U.S. Children’s Bureau. 

“At its core, trafficking is a human rights issue,” he said.  

Students can play a key role, Davis said, in mitigating the impact of sex trafficking in Orange County and beyond. 

“Our generation at large has the ability to influence narratives toward something that is more thoughtful and compassionate,” she said. “On campus, I feel like we can shift perceptions about what sex trafficking is, what it looks like — to be a narrative that fully encompasses the experiences of people that are being trafficked.”

Flanagan said the issue of sex trafficking connects to the overall exploitation of vulnerable populations, similar to the opioid epidemic. 

Going forward, Davis said SAST hopes to work in two spaces: raising awareness for campus-wide discussion on the dangers of sex trafficking and fundraising for nonprofits that offer services and employment to survivors of sex trafficking. 

She said she plans to invite expert speakers, organize educational panels and host film screenings for students involved in the organization. Davis also would like to introduce her peers to policy evaluation and recommendation. 

Duncan said he has seen major advancements in the effectiveness of trafficking response and survivor resources throughout his work with Project No Rest. 

But Davis said there is still work to be done — work she hopes to accomplish with her club. 

Sex trafficking is not exclusively an abstract global issue, she said, but something that deserves tangible community attention. 

“It can happen in your hometown,” she said.  

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