What does empathy have to do with solving difficult human rights issues like human trafficking?

Significant human rights issues are never just criminal problems. There is always a cultural element enabling these abuses to take place. In the case of human trafficking, this element takes many forms such as:

  • Double Standards
    Society often glorifies male sexuality and pimp culture, while simultaneously degrading female sexuality. For example, think of the words our culture often associates with sexually promiscuous individuals. Males are often referred to as players or pimps, while females often are deemed as sluts or whores. The connotations for each respective gender are vastly different!
  • Emotional Detachment
    We often keep ourselves a safe distance away from truly engaging the issue emotionally. We detach ourselves for a number of complex reasons to help us feel more secure. Some of those reasons include: prior abuse or neglect in our lives, over sensationalism of the issue, or a perceived lack of proximity to the issue.
  • Unpreparedness to Act
    Our lack of knowledge, emotional unwillingness, or self-doubt may hinder our ability to respond in situations that we instinctively know are not right. Imagine coming across a 14-year-old girl who is dressed promiscuously and is in an argument with an older man who is clearly not her father. The majority of people will think something along the lines of, “It is none of my business to interfere”, or “I don’t really know how to intervene in this situation”, or “I wish I could stop and make sure she is okay, but I really have to get to that appointment. I hope she will be okay.”

There are three responses to the suffering of others:

  • Apathy: A complete disregard for the suffering and value of others
  • Sympathy: Feeling badly for those suffering, but not acting on that emotion
  • Empathy: An active response to the suffering of others

EmpathyVidScreenshotFoxSignificant human rights violations thrive in environments where apathy, and even sympathy, prevail. When a society adopts empathy and actively responds to the cultural elements enabling abuses however, issues like human trafficking can be eradicated.

To learn more about the power of empathy, take a few minutes to view these two videos from Dr. Brene Brown and Jeremy Rifkin.

I know that child exploitation and human trafficking are big problems in other countries, but is it happening in the US?

AngieSalazarCloseYes. Since the inception of the FBI’s Innocence Lost Task Force in 2003, officials have rescued almost 3,600 kids from commercial sexual exploitation across the United States, and the true scale of the issue is much larger.Look at the cultural problem of kids running away from home. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention estimates that 1.6 million youth runaway each year. Pair this with the estimate from The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, that in 2013, 1 of every 7 runaway cases reported to them was likely a victim of child sex trafficking. These combined figures suggest that well over 200,000 kids are becoming victims of sex trafficking each year in the United States!

Angie Salazar, a veteran Special Agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) states that “…there is not one place that we could safely say, don’t worry about it (human trafficking) in this area.” Case records show that her statement is backed up by extensive evidence showing human trafficking and child exploitation are occurring in big cities and in rural areas; at major sporting events and in oil and gas boomtowns; and in low-income, middle-income, and wealthy neighborhoods. It is pervasive, and as much as we may want to believe this is not a problem here in the United States that is just not true. Child exploitation and human trafficking is happening right in our backyard.

How exactly do youth end up in exploitive situations? Are they kidnapped and forced into it?

Kidnapping accounts for a very small proportion of child exploitation cases. More regularly, a member of the victim’s family exploits a child to financially support an addiction they have, or to repay a debt. The most common method used to recruit a victim, however, is through Romeo pimping.

This is where a pimp uses psychological manipulation as the primary means of control. They come into the lives of vulnerable girls and boys online through social media, and in-person at places like school and the mall. Exploiters get to know a youth’s vulnerabilities in order to become the person that the child desires to have in their life. Once trust is gained, exploitation begins.

We have identified 5 disguises that a person looking to exploit someone may take on to gain trust.

  1. Pretender – Someone who pretends to be something s/he is not: A boyfriend, big sister, father, etc.
  2. Promiser – Someone who promises great things: An amazing job, a glamorous lifestyle, travel, etc.
  3. Protector – Someone who uses physical power or intimidation to protect (and control) an individual.
  4. Provider – Someone who offers to take care of an individual’s needs: Clothes, food, a place to live, etc.
  5. Punisher – Someone who uses violence and threats to control an individual. When the previous disguises have been exhausted, an exploitative person often becomes a Punisher to maintain control.

What makes children vulnerable to exploitation?

It is impossible to compile a single decisive list of the factors that can make a child vulnerable to exploitation. The complex and unique experiences of children – such as the communities they grow up in, the families they are born into, and the personalities they develop – can all play a role. This means that vulnerability looks different for everyone. It also means that children can be vulnerable no matter their economic status, race, ethnicity, geographic location, gender, or sexual orientation.Personal factors, such as being born into poverty or living in unstable family environments, can make a child vulnerable. Environmental factors, such as violent communities, neglectful homes, or even locations prone to natural disasters can make a child vulnerable. Personality factors can make a child vulnerable, too. For example, those with low self-esteem or those who have difficulty making friends can be vulnerable to exploitation.

Exploitation occurs when someone takes advantage of another’s vulnerability in order to achieve personal gain. Exploitative people like traffickers look for children who have a vulnerability that can be manipulated. For example, a child who feels lonely may be an easy target for someone who pretends to become that child’s very best friend.

It is true that certain demographics are more susceptible to exploitation because of the extreme nature of their vulnerability. For instance, homeless youth are particularly vulnerable to exploitation for obvious reasons: they have few options through which to procure basic necessities and shelter. Similarly, youth in foster care are especially susceptible because they tend to feel isolated and lonely after being separated from their families and communities.

The important thing to remember is that any child who has not been equipped with strategies to navigate his or her vulnerability – whatever form that might take – can be targeted.

If you are interested in learning how to equip youth with strategies to stay safe and successful you can learn more by visiting our Empower Youth Program.

Is sexual exploitation only an issue with girls and women?

NAS_FirstSelects-009No. Boys and men are also exploited through sex trafficking. This issue is a difficult one to quantify precisely; it is almost impossible to express a comparison of what percentage of victims are female and what percentage are male. However, we can say that, in general, girls and women are more often targeted for this form of victimization.

Conversely, however, boys and men are often groomed to become victimizers. This is why it is so important to empower our youth – both boys and girls – with effective strategies to navigate their vulnerability safely. Youth need positive alternatives to the deceptive and coercive options that exploitative people may otherwise offer them.

Similarly, boys and girls need to be empowered with the choice of empathy. The more our culture’s young men and women value and understand one another, despite their differences, the more they will stand up to and change cycles of exploitation.

What can I do to prevent exploitation, and how can I intervene on behalf of exploited youth?

Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 4.15.43 PMFirst, understand why exploitation happens. Click here to view our info-graphic, which describes the process of Negative Pushes and Pulls that can impact the life of a child. You can also click here to watch an iEmpathize film explaining how youth can be pushed into exploitation through human trafficking.

Once you understand the issue, evaluate the resources, connections, talents, and platforms you already have in your life which may help you empathize and engage as a Positive Pull for a child. By identifying your intersection in this way, you may discover that you have a natural intersection because of your work space (such as being a nurse, social worker, or educator). Or perhaps you can choose to put yourself in an intersection by intentionally leveraging your social or home spaces.

To help you brainstorm, here are some suggestions of how to prevent exploitation among youth, or intervene on behalf of youth experiencing exploitation:


  • Use the Empower Youth Program with your own kids at home, in your classroom, or at your faith community.
  • Volunteer your time at a youth service organization to be a mentor to a youth.
  • Host a home event or film screening to spread the knowledge you have to other members of your community, so that they too can act empathetically.


  • Learn the signs of exploitation
  • If you work in a field where there is a high likelihood of intersecting with an exploited youth (such as education, trucking, oil and gas, hospitality, law enforcement, victims services, medical, etc.), be vigilant. Learn about the resources that you can use to know how to help exploited youth. iEmpathize provides such resources for educators, truckers, and boom industries, and our catalogue of such programs is always growing.
  • Click here to request an iEmpathize team member to speak at your event, or to provide training in your workforce.
  • If you see something, say something. Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline if you even suspect human trafficking: 1-888-3737-888. The operator of this hotline will help you to assess what you are seeing, and will enter the information into a database used by the FBI when they plan stings to intervene for victims and arrest perpetrators. The hotline is available 24/7 every day of the year, and you can choose to make your call anonymous. 

Why can't we just let law enforcement take care of this problem?

To eradicate child exploitation, a comprehensive strategy must be enacted across a spectrum of areas. These areas include education, prevention, intervention, and aftercare, and each of these contain a number of subcategories. If we were to rely solely on law enforcement to address exploitation, they would only be operating in the area of intervention. This is a reactive effort that does nothing to truly address the root cause of the issue, or to provide proper care to survivors. Lets look at the significance of each area a little closer.

  • Education: Exploitation happens everywhere, but many people are unaware of its prevalence and its proximity to them. When a person understands the issue, they can determine how they can become involved in ending the problem.
  • Prevention: The only effective way to end exploitation is through prevention. Prevention efforts are proactive, and go upstream to empower individuals and communities to implement effective measures to keep kids safe. Prevention efforts also look to diminish demand and enact legislation that can serve as a deterrent.
  • Intervention: Exploitation is happening, and because of that there needs to be effective intervention efforts in place to pull victims out of exploitive situations. Law enforcement is the most prevalent entity in this area, but many non-profits have come alongside of law enforcement in an effort to increase their reach.
  • Aftercare: As long as exploitation is happening, there must be proper care for survivors. This often comes from non-profits, but with a lack of facilities, many state systems are forced to fill the gap. Beyond housing, medical and psychological care is needed, as well as educational and career opportunities for the long-term success of a survivor.

As you can see, this is a complex issue that law enforcement cannot handle alone. They are an integral part in the continuum or response, but non-profits, businesses, communities, governments, and individuals must all be involved to truly end child exploitation.

What does iEmpathize do to help survivors of human trafficking?

Survivors need access to a wide range of services. They also need to be heard. As an organization specializing in prevention and intervention solutions, iEmpathize partners with survivors to amplify their perspective, values, and input. Survivors guide our methodology, helping us to authenticate this issue as we educate key audiences about how to prevent this from happening to others, and how to effectively intervene in situations of child exploitation. Through the original media we generate, we work to bring the voices of survivors to an ever-widening audience.

It is important to note that as we work with survivors, their health and well-being are always our top priority. We are committed to prioritizing the safety, dignity, and comfort of survivors as we produce media. Learn more about our media practices.

Visit the links below to view some of our original media featuring the powerful perspectives of survivors of human trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation:

Shari – Truckers Against Trafficking 

Norma Bastidas – Be Relentless

Avery – The Five Disguises

Anya, Sasha, Sveta and the other orphans in Orphan’s Journey – The Trafficking of Russian Orphans