Human Trafficking in the Movies: Myth vs. Reality


True or false?

  • A lit cigarette will cause gasoline to explode.

  • You get one phone call after being arrested.

  • Vikings wore helmets with horns.

Answers: False; false; false.

Surprised? Chances are you believed every one of these statements to be true at some point. Why? Because you saw it in a movie.

Movie-makers are far more concerned with telling good stories than they are with the accuracy of their facts. The average American watches 5,000 movies in his or her lifetime, and American households watch nearly eight hours of television per day. That creates a lot of opportunities for misinformation to sneak its way into our consciousness.

The issue of human trafficking has been featured in countless movies, television programs and even music videos over the years. For many people, this is their main source of information regarding modern-day slavery.

Perhaps the most well-known movie to tackle human trafficking is 2008’s Taken, which made almost $300,000,000 and spawned two sequels. In it, a retired CIA agent rescues his daughter from a group of Albanian traffickers. More recently, Traffik dealt with the story of a journalist who was targeted by a biker gang engaged in kidnapping and selling women.

How do these fictional versions of human trafficking compare to the reality faced every day by millions of victims and survivors? Unfortunately, both movies perpetuate myths about slavery that are misleading and even dangerous.

One of the biggest misconceptions these movies promote is the idea that all human trafficking involves women who are being kidnapped by strangers and sold to overseas buyers. According to a 2018 report by the Global Slavery Index (published by the Walk Free Foundation), there were approximately 400,000 people enslaved within the U.S. on any given day in 2016. Most often, these individuals were not abducted by strangers, but were recruited through manipulation or even sold by someone they knew.

Another fallacy of these movies is the implication that all victims are women. The truth is, 29% of victims are male. Men and boys are trapped in both the sex industry and forced labor, but society tends to ignore their stories. Unfortunately, many in our culture view victims as “weak” and it can be uncomfortable for them to see men in positions of vulnerability.

Also, if the movies are to be believed, all human traffickers are engaged in the sex industry. They ignore the nearly 25 million people who are victims of labor trafficking, which involves debt bondage, child labor and forced labor. The U.S. alone consumes $144 billion worth of goods that are potentially produced by slave labor.

Then there is 2005’s Hustle and Flow, which grossed $75 million and produced the Academy Award-winning song It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp. It sanitizes the sex industry and turns a pimp into an underdog hero with a heart of gold. The film ignores the fact that pimps use manipulation, coercion, fear and physical abuse to control their “girls.” Any one of these acts makes him or her a trafficker.

According to a National Criminal Justice Reference Service report, prostitutes have a mortality rate nearly 200 times higher than other women of similar demographic profiles and 95% have experienced violence. This same report states that prostitutes who work for pimps are more likely to have started at a younger age, be less educated and do more drugs than those who do not. In addition, pimps can take as much as 70% of their earnings. They are predators who are neither glamorous nor heroic.

It’s unlikely that the film industry will change its focus anytime soon, so it’s up to us to educate the public about the realities of human trafficking. If you see misrepresentations or hear erroneous information, speak up. Use those moments to initiate conversations about modern-day slavery and how it differs from what we see in pop culture. Explain the risk factors and warning-signs so others can identify potential victims. Share the number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888). Talk about Dressember and its partner organizations, and describe how individuals can join the fight to end human trafficking.

An evening at the movies is a great way to relax after a busy day. We just need to make sure we’re vigilant in our awareness that what we see on the big screen is entertainment, not a true representation of reality. As Dressember supporters and advocates, we have the resources, the opportunity and the platform to correct mistaken myths and assumptions about modern-day slavery. The war against human trafficking needs to be fought on many fronts, and the battle against misinformation is a crucial one. Remember the words of Colin Firth in 2010’s Oscar-winner The King’s Speech?

“For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, and of the world’s order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.”

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About the Author

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Jeanette Bouchie is an adult services librarian at the Vigo County Public Library, where she has worked for 18 years. She is also a freelance writer and is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Dressember to increase awareness of human trafficking. She also enjoys reading, tap dancing, traveling, getting dressed up, and attending the occasional comic con.