An iEmpathize team member facilitates a prevention activity from The Empower Youth Program with middle school students in California.

6 Steps to Prioritize for Youth Trafficking Prevention

FILE UNDER: Prevention

There is a movement to prioritize human trafficking prevention in our nation's communities.

Schools, youth service programs, juvenile corrections services, group homes, faith communities, and other youth-oriented spaces are recognizing their great potential to empower youth to stay safe from exploitation, including sex trafficking. Here are six key steps to consider as you plan to select and present exploitation prevention education to youth.

1. Use non-sensationalized content.

Sex trafficking might seem like an impossible topic to discuss with youth, but it doesn't have to be. There are resources - including curricula like ours - that you can use to do this. There are also age-appropriate, empowering, and hopeful ways to broach this kind of conversation. Content that uses exploitative imagery - such as photographs of victims with duct tape over their mouths or with barcodes down bare backs - may only serve to reinforce cultural stereotypes while inadvertently titillating the viewer with sensational images. You can talk about issues of child exploitation - even sex trafficking - without exposing youth to even slightly sexually-charged imagery.

2. Go for the roots.

If you want to eradicate the weed of exploitation entirely, go for the roots. Working preventatively with youth means that we have to go beyond teaching the academic side of human trafficking. This issue can't just be taught as a series of definitions that students memorize. Instead, youth need to be empowered with practical, actionable strategies they can apply to their everyday lives. Helping youth to understand the everyday factors that can put them in a vulnerable position - often through no fault of their own - along with the strategies they can use to successfully navigate that vulnerability, is essential. When this issue is taught from a historical, legal, or sociological perspective alone, it is not prevention education. It is academic education.

3. Empower all youth, not just those ``at-risk.``

Human trafficking is an issue that impacts youth from all walks of life. Youth from every economic, racial, ethnic, and environmental background are affected. Urban and suburban and rural can be vulnerable. The straight-A student and the one who dropped out can be targeted. It is a mistake, therefore, to think that we can have these conversations with just the kids we have identified in our communities, schools, and organizations as belonging to the ``at-risk`` demographic. Traffickers target youth who have a vulnerability that can be exploited; it isn't always a vulnerability we would identify as being the most extreme or obvious.

4. Prevention should address victimizers - not just victims.

Prevention education should address the potential ``victimizers`` in the room, not just the potential ``victims.`` In addition to equipping youth with strategies to stay safe, prevention should nurture the development of the very thing that allows exploitation to thrive in our neighborhoods and communities: lack of empathy. When youth do not know how to take the perspective of another person, it is easier for them to distance themselves from that person's pain or circumstance. Exploitation can thrive in that kind of sympathetic or apathetic state because there is no one standing in its way. Youth who learn how to empathize with one another - despite their differences - will not exploit each other. Instead, they will learn to value the needs and wants of others as they would their own.

5. Survivors should inform prevention practices.

Survivors of human trafficking understand this issue in a way that no one else ever can. Their insights are essential to creating solutions to the problem of child exploitation. As you consider the resources you can use to bring prevention education to the youth you work with, it is important to ask if survivors have been among those leading the way on the content. And their stories, if included, should be told with dignity and respect.

6. Your plan to respond is the most essential piece of prevention.

When you facilitate prevention focused conversations or training with youth, you should anticipate that they will react. Some will feel a passionate drive to get involved proactively to make a difference in this issue! Some, on the other hand, will connect with the content on a personal and painful level and will seek your help immediately. Others will be triggered, but their behavior might reveal itself in something that seems disruptive or disengaged, like pencil-tapping or sleeping through class. Still others may seem unaffected, only to suddenly explode with pent-up emotion days or weeks later. All of these reactions - and others - are human, and all of them mean that your work with them has hit a nerve. The important thing is to be prepared to respond with empathy, compassion, and commitment, no matter what. This means that before facilitating prevention education with youth, you must be prepared with a response protocol that takes all possible considerations into account. After all, the whole point of working preventatively with youth is to intercept on behalf of kids who may be vulnerable or victimized, so we should absolutely be prepared to do that effectively!

The Empower Youth Program includes materials to help you establish your own response protocol. You can also contact us at to get assistance from an iE team member who can provide training and additional consultation.