Working for an anti-trafficking organization based in Nashville, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is: “Is human trafficking a big issue in this area?”
My answer is always: “yes, unfortunately.”
Often, this surprises people. Although rapidly growing, Nashville is comparatively a small city. It is vibrant and creative and characterized by good food, great music and friendly people. All of these things about Nashville are true. But the thing about human trafficking is that it is everywhere, even in the places we call home.
End Slavery Tennessee reports that, on average, 94 minors are trafficked within the state of Tennessee each month. Further, the average age an individual enters sex trafficking in Tennessee is just 13 years old. Also, despite common misconceptions, Polaris’ statistics show that the majority of trafficked individuals are U.S. citizens, not foreign nationals. It is a harsh reality that the children and youth in our lives may be the same ones vulnerable to traffickers.
Still, a problem must first be understood before it can be solved. It is for this reason that I will outline the reasons Nashville is a hub for human trafficking, as well as what exactly trafficking looks like in the Volunteer State.
While trafficking cases have been reported in almost every county in Tennessee, a large amount of them are reported in Davidson and Williamson Counties. There are a few primary reasons for this. The first reason is related to transportation. Nashville’s three major highway systems make it a popular transit point. A large amount of trafficking in the U.S. takes place through the trucking industry, therefore these highways are accompanied by an increase in human trafficking. Furthermore, Nashville’s proximity to Atlanta — a large metropolitan area with a large amount of human trafficking — adds to the transportation of victims through the state.
The second reason that Nashville is a popular spot for human trafficking is the large tourism and sporting industries. Studies have shown that events that are characterized by large influxes of people (like the Super Bowl, for example) are typically accompanied by an increase in trafficking. The presence of both the Nashville Predators and Tennessee Titans, as well as annual events such as CMA Fest and massive 4th of July and New Year’s Eve celebrations lead to an escalation in the demand for trafficked services.
The Face of Tennessee Trafficking
These are some of the underlying factors contributing to trafficking in Nashville, but what is more important are the stories of those who have experienced its heartbreak. In every year from 2012-2017, the majority of victims reported to Polaris’ trafficking hotline in Tennessee have been victims of sex trafficking. Some of the top venues for sex trafficking in the state are online ads, hotels and motels, escort services and truck stops. Other labor trafficking industries include domestic work and agriculture, although less data is available for these cases.
Because trafficking looks different from case to case, a specific trafficker or victim profile is difficult to construct. Often, traffickers contact youth through the Internet or social media, but in the case of a 12 year old who was trafficked from Texas to Tennessee in 2016, the trafficker simply offered her a ride home. In other cases, traffickers are actually family members, close friends or ‘boyfriends.’
Additionally, victims can come from any socio-economic status, race, ethnic group or family situation. For example, trafficking still occurs in Williamson County, the wealthiest county in Tennessee. The one thing that all trafficking victims have in common, however, is vulnerability. This type of vulnerability can come from a simple need for love and acceptance, a toxic family dynamic or a history with drugs and alcohol. On both statewide and national levels, the most vulnerable populations of children and youth are those within the foster care system and those in the LGBTQ community, but it is important to remember that many victims do not fit into these categories.
Because most of the trafficking cases reported in Tennessee do involve sex trafficking, it is important to also examine those purchasing sex from trafficked individuals. A recent trafficking operation in Kingsport, Tennessee targeted individuals seeking to purchase illicit sex from minors. Nearly a dozen men are now facing felony charges and include a youth leader, coach, volunteer firefighter and an Uber driver. Demand is the reason that trafficking exists and it does not always take the form most people envision. It is important to move beyond these misconceptions to have a better informed perspective on trafficking, as well as how it occurs.
Hope in Darkness
Despite the difficult reality of trafficking within Tennessee, there is positivity amidst the darkness. Tennessee is currently one of the states leading the way in legislation and action related to fighting trafficking. Additionally, Polaris operates a national hotline that is operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is available in 200 different languages. The hotline provides a safe space for reporting tips, finding resources, and asking for help, and is listed below. Finally, Free for Life International provides emergency services to Nashville-area survivors on a case by case basis. We are also working closely with the medical community in Middle Tennessee to train medical students, doctors, nurses and caseworkers on how to properly identify and respond to trafficking situations in patients. You can learn more about this program here.
National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888
(Operated 24 hours, 7 days a week)
BeFree Textline: Text “Help” to 233733
(Operated 3:00PM – 11:00PM EST)