The term “human trafficking” often conjures images of shadowy dungeons and illicit markets in faraway countries.
However, special agent for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Jamesena Walker and Natalie Ivey, who oversees education and training for the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking—a Knoxville-based non-profit committed to combating what they term “modern slavery”-- provided an overview of the immediate and frequent human trafficking occurring in northeastern Tennessee every day.
Walker has been investigating human trafficking since 2015. The TBI began investigating human trafficking in 2011, after conducting a study which uncovered juvenile human trafficking in over 72 percent of Tennessee counties.
Anita Voorhees, the founder of the UTK chapter of the International Justice Mission and current regional vice president, introduced the speakers.
In an interview, Voorhees reflected that the prevalence of human trafficking still surprised her.
“It seemed like something that could really happen to anyone … a 13-year-old on social media might be susceptible if they want a boyfriend or if they want that attention,” Voorhees said.
As a member of IJM, Voorhees also found valuable insights on how to approach the problem in the future.
“The words we use are really powerful … I thought (the presentation) raised a lot of questions about ‘what is prostitution’ and ‘who is a prostitute,' and ‘who is a victim?' I think that’s something we need to be educating people more on,” Voorhees said, referring to the stigma surrounding the word “prostitute” and its application to victims of human trafficking.
During her presentation, Walker highlighted the complex emotional dynamics at play between victims and the traffickers who pawn their bodies for as little as 40 dollars, and the difficulty this poses for law enforcement.
More often than not, the victims are young girls—as young as 12 or 14—from broken or abusive households, runaways—individuals lacking self-esteem, a healthy support structure and a reasonable standard of what a normal relationship is.
Walker described how, in many instances, victims don’t realize they’re being trafficked at all—they view their abusers as boyfriends or father-figures and can be loyal to traffickers to the point of refusing help from law enforcement officers such as Walker and her associates.
Ivey’s presentation focused on the communities surrounding the prevalent trafficking problem and offered sobering statistics.
Studies found that 62 percent of buyers of sex were men from the ages of 37 to 58, 35 percent of which had attended college or obtained a college or graduate degree, and 43 percent of these buyers were married, according to the slides on Ivey's presentation.
The issue at the root of the human trafficking epidemic, Ivey emphasized, was the preexisting economic demand for sex from young girls.
Bo Townsend, a Knoxville resident and UT alumnus, was glad that presentations such as this were in high demand.
“I really appreciate that they’re doing this; it’s disturbing on many different levels that this sort of thing (human trafficking) is happening … (but) I’m glad to hear that this sort of thing is getting the attention it deserves,” Townsend said.
Townsend said attending this lecture has helped him further understand his role as a citizen of Knoxville.
“My wife and I have … become more aware of (human trafficking since we moved to back to Knoxville) … and we’re going to start looking at ways we can … help nonprofit organizations that are doing a lot of this work,” Townsend said. “That’s the best way we can help, I think, is to support them and their mission.”
Walker and Ivey’s presentations were followed by a brief Q&A session in which they elaborated on their points, responding to questions concerning criminalization of prostitution and the changes in Tennessee law that punish traffickers rather than the victims of abuse.