Your Rights. Your Privacy. Your Freedom.

Guest Blog: “Signs” of Trafficking to Make You Wonder

by Desmond Ravenstone

Last weekend, I flew out of town to attend a conference where the annual meeting of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom was being held, having been invited to co-present on sex workers’ rights for the Coalition’s leaders. I took just a small backpack crammed with clothes, papers, and other items. The room was paid for by another NCSF activist, who was staying in a suite with their partner. As is my usual practice, I kept the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the entire time, as well as leaving the TV on, because I’m one of these folks who is more comfortable with an unmade bed than having others go through my things.

Believe it or not, I might have been tagged by a hotel employee as a possible sex trafficker.

“Huh!? What did you do wrong?” Well, according to a checklist provided to hotel employees by the Department of Homeland Security, I displayed at least three “general indicators” of human trafficking:

Few or no personal items when checking in.

The same person reserving multiple rooms.

“Do Not Disturb” sign used constantly.

Oh, and the fellow activist who paid for my hotel room? They hosted get-togethers in their suite throughout the weekend, inviting conference attendees to learn more about NCSF – another red flag: “Constant flow of men into a room at all hours.”


Now, to be fair, these are just four out of some four dozen indicators, some of which are clear warning signs of coercion or abuse. But the four I mentioned, and several more, are so vague or subjective that, when read out of context, could lead to invasions of privacy and false accusations.


Here are some others:

Individuals avoid eye contact and interaction with others – Whoever came up with this probably never knew that this is not uncommon for people on the autism spectrum, or who rank high on the introversion scale.

Individuals appear to be with a significantly older “boyfriend” or in the company of older males – How old is “significantly older”? Does this mean May-December relationships are now automatically suspect? What about a young woman accompanied by an older relative?

Evidence of pornography – Uh huh. Remember, we’re talking hotels here. Many of which have adult pay-per-view. Some have newsstands that sell Hustler and Penthouse. Or maybe the government has bought into the idea that nude photos in a magazine is some sort of “gateway drug” …

Extended stay with few or no personal possessions – Because airlines never lose people’s luggage. Right?

Provocative clothing and shoes – Excuse me, but has anyone noticed the trend in many high schools to declare virtually any female student’s attire short of a prairie dress as “provocative”?

Excessive amounts of sex paraphernalia in rooms (condoms, lubricant, lotion, etc.) – Okay, I’m sure some readers are wondering why I put this here. Set aside the vagueness of “excessive” for a moment. This particular “indicator” gives no mention of context. My recent trip was an example. The conference in question was for members of the BDSM community. So, yes, folks are going to bring all sorts of erotic accoutrements (and that’s not even touching on the various merchants and sex educators setting up booths there). And given that BDSM, swinger and polyamory conferences try to be discreet, just imagine a hotel worker not being informed of their presence and seeing a room filled with … get the picture?

Room paid for with cash or pre-loaded credit card – Because people with credit problems who are thus unable to get “real” credit cards never need to stay at a hotel, hm?

Minor taking on adult roles or behaving older than actual age (paying bills, requesting services) – Seems like a legit concern, right? Well, have you ever encountered a family where the parents are recent immigrants, and the kids have a higher proficiency in English? I have. The kids not only translate for their parents, they learn out of necessity how to deal with all sorts of situations, including how to handle money.

Room rented has fewer beds than patrons – Because college kids don’t trying to save money by cramming four people into a room with two beds. Or a family displaced by fire, or eviction. Yeah, those never happen.

Car in parking lot regularly parked backward, so the license plate is not visible – Yeah, absolutely no one has a car with a front license plate. And except for evil traffickers, everyone parks front first, right?

Patron claims to be an adult although appearance suggests he/she is a minor – Ask anyone who works at a bar if they’ve had to card an adult who looked younger than they are. Yup, it happens. Happened to me when I was thirty-five. And about half a dozen other people I know.

This is not to say that people who engage in trafficking and other nefarious activities don’t do these things. They do – and so do lots of other people. If a survey showed that a majority of traffickers spoke two or more languages, it doesn’t mean that being able to speak another language indicates that someone is a trafficker. It’s also typical of anti-trafficking rhetoric that these assumptions are rooted in biases about gender, race, class, and immigration status. Imagine a hotel employee, with superficial “trafficking awareness” training, reporting a guest – perhaps even you – on the basis of such hasty generalizations.

Human rights abuses should not be fought by the abuse of other rights. If we are to bring criminals to justice, or help victims find relief, then let’s make sure we are well-prepared to do it right, rather than run roughshod over innocent people.

One comment

  1. “Individuals appear to be with a significantly older “boyfriend” or in the company of older males – How old is “significantly older”? Does this mean May-December relationships are now automatically suspect? What about a young woman accompanied by an older relative?”

    The answer is “yes.” I often travel with a partner who is nearly twenty years younger than myself, and have dated partners with a greater age difference.

    I will say that the prejudice doesn’t stop here. In fact, to be in a relationship with a younger woman is presumed to be borderline criminal/unethical behavior in many contexts.

    I run into suggestions *weekly* that for older men to date younger women is inherently unethical. BDSM groups I am a member of discuss how to combat “poaching” behaviors, and openly extend that not just to individuals who have issues with understanding consent or soft “no” behavior, but *any* older male, making *any* attempt to instigate a relationship with a younger female.

    In a vanilla group which I am involved with, centering around Live Roleplay, a post in a major international forum cited older men approaching or attempting to engage younger women as *de facto* evidence of being a “missing stair.” Essentially, were I to have approached my current partner in their stair, I would *automatically* become a missing stair, regardless of how consent-oriented my behavior was otherwise.

    This is offensive to me, because it’s agist, and to my partner because it revokes her agency. It extends a patriarchal assumption that younger women “need protection” (whether asked for or not) from any and all older men.

    But it’s a pervasive attitude. I’ve had kink friends who knew me *and* my partner make “sick and disgusted” faces and noises about the idea of someone dating a twenty year old woman, when the interval was actually considerably less than the interval between myself and my partner without the slightest thought we might consider it judgmental and offensive.

    The fact is that agism is pervasive, and for the most part, completely socially acceptable. I’m fortunate in that my partner is early 30s, and therefore most people consider that she’s capable of making her own life choices. I’ve seen others react reflexively to interfere with consensual relationships of women who were in their twenties, in the *presumption* that they could not use their own discretion in deciding who to date.

    It’s not just in this context. Agism is an issue throughout our culture. I understand that it may be the case that older individuals may tend to have “come up” at a time when consent was a less clear concept, and may sometimes be consent violators because they simply don’t understand modern concepts of consent, however as in all other things regarding individuals, we should not presume based on a stereotype.

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