5 misconceptions about human trafficking in hospitality

Human trafficking is an unfortunately common occurrence in the hospitality industry, and by design it is difficult to combat. Many of the challenges around countering human trafficking and sexual exploitation in hospitality are a result of social misconceptions of the human trafficking industry. January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and there is no time like the present to dispel illusions about human trafficking and develop strategies to save its victims.

Here are the five greatest misconceptions behind human trafficking in hospitality:

1. No Segment is Safe

To solve a problem, we first must acknowledge that one exists. In the case of human trafficking, hotel operators and travelers have a history of turning a blind eye to the issue of human trafficking, often not out of malice but because of miseducation.

According to Michelle Guelbart, director of private sector engagement at ECPAT-USA, a global network of civil society organizations dedicated to ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children, said the biggest misconception from the hospitality industry and the traveling public is that human trafficking doesn’t take place at hotels. For those who do believe it takes place in the hotel industry, however, Guelbart said there are just as many naysayers who don’t think human trafficking takes place at the hotels they frequent.

The truth is, Guelbart said, is that human trafficking takes place in all segments, in all types of locations and at any time.

“Initially, the industry suffered from a lack of training to combat human trafficking because they refused to take ownership of the issue,” Guelbart said. “Now, hoteliers and travelers have to realize it doesn’t only happen in budget and airport hotels. It may look a little different in other locations, but it’s happening.”

Guelbart said many still also don’t believe that human trafficking takes place in Western countries. The unfortunate result of this is that many operators in the U.S. are not properly trained on how to spot the signs of human trafficking, and what to do once they see it taking place.

“If [operators] should decide not to do training at all, it’s possible an employee could confront a guest just because they saw a documentary on human trafficking, or read an article online,” Guelbart said. “These employees may not know company protocol in these situations, and that can cause a lot of problems if they are wrong, or even if they are right.”

2. Prostitution is Not Victimless

Another barrier to solving the issue is the belief that prostitution is a victimless crime between two consenting adults. Mar Brettman, executive director for the Business Ending Slavery & Trafficking Alliance, a public-private partnership formed to prevent sex trafficking, said many believe that once a person turns 18 he or she ceases being a victim, and this is incorrect.

“A lot of energy in this industry is focused on children because everyone can buy into the fact that children should not be bought for sex,” Brettman said. “But an exploited child eventually becomes an exploited 23-year-old. This line of thinking is incredibly harmful. At that age, they may be free from a pimp, but the harm they face day in and day out from buyers does not go away, and the barriers to exit prostitution are high at any age.”

Brettman said this remains a challenge throughout the industry, albeit one that can be overcome through training. As a result, Brettman has seen dramatic changes in how people respond to prostitution, how they report on it and whether or not employees are able to identify activity.

“’I didn’t understand what I was seeing’ is the most common thing we hear before training, and we have to put a stop to that,” Brettman said.

3. No Single Profile Exists

Typically, Brettman said buyers of sex tend to be more educated and have access to more disposable income than the general population, but that is where generalizations end. Those taking part in the actual act of sex trafficking are infinitely diverse, and they are active in nearly any market.

“This takes place in literally every kind of property and every segment,” Brettman said. “It takes place in Aurora, Colo., and Seattle, and in downtown luxury hotels and highway motels, no matter how remote.”

According to BEST’s Inhospitable to Human Trafficking program, 63 percent of prosecuted sex crimes in Seattle involved hotels. This is why Brettman maintains training is so important to successful sex trafficking prevention.

In 2014, researchers from the University of Washington evaluated to outcomes of BEST’s program, and found an increase in participating hoteliers’ ability to identify sex trafficking, with 44 percent of participants identifying one to five cases after training, compared to just 8 percent beforehand.

4. Women Aren't the Only Victims 

Brettman also said that men and boys are also exploited in human trafficking just as women are, but the data on male human trafficking remains low.

“We do know that boys and men are exploited, and it’s hard for them to come forward and talk about it due to sociological issues,” Brettman said.

For this reason, male human trafficking can be more difficult to spot, primarily because it’s not something that the general population is looking out for. However, the signs of male human trafficking are similar to those of women, and once again training is the answer.

5. Large Events Can Be A Distraction

In recent years, the media has placed an emphasis on the impact large events have on human trafficking, often treating them as a hotbed of activity for the trade. The Super Bowl is a frequent target for many of these stories, and Guelbart said research shows these stories actually hamper prevention efforts.

“This is a 365-day-a-year crime,” Guelbart said. “If you have more people in your city, than just because of numbers you may see more cases of human trafficking. It’s a good idea to train if you have a surge of people coming in, but it should be a touchpoint, not the focus, and it shouldn’t be the only time hoteliers train.”

Brettman said it makes sense that there would be an uptick in human trafficking during major events, but agrees that the focus on these events takes away focus from survivors that battle human trafficking every day.

“Simply put, the demand is so high that it happens without events.”

This is part one in a two-part series on human trafficking in hospitality. Check back tomorrow for part two: 5 tips to spot and prevent human trafficking in your hotels.