Human Trafficking Blog

American Crime Season 3: The Complexities of Human Trafficking

The third season of American Crime, a show on ABC that doesn’t shy away from dark topics that often leave people divided, tackles the complexities of human trafficking in the United States. I have to admit that, despite the shows’ critical acclaim, I was skeptical of how trafficking would be portrayed. Hollywood has let me down before. Some recent examples include:

  • Taken. I’m sure you remember this action drama where Liam Neeson saves his daughter, who was stalked, kidnapped, and forced into sex trafficking within Europe’s seedy underbelly.
  • Hawaii 5-0. Season 6, Episode 16 followed an odd case, that ends on the docks where a shipping crate filled with people who have been trafficked is tragically dropped in the ocean, and the detectives must rush to save them as the traffickers flee the scene. All the people in the shipping container were Asian, dirty, disheveled, and didn’t speak English.
  • Daredevil. Season 1 immediately began with a human trafficking plot, where young girls were kidnapped at gunpoint by older men, forced into the back of a white van, and then sold to men for sex. Even chains were involved in this capture process. This story quickly fizzled out without any resolve or true focus, which is why you probably don’t remember it if you’re a fan of this show.

A Sensationalized View

Portrayals of human trafficking in Hollywood are often sensationalized, trivial even. More importantly, they inaccurately represent the true nature of human trafficking and how it occurs in the United States. But if those representations are the entry point for people who either A.) think that trafficking only happens in Asia, or B.) didn’t know that human trafficking existed period, they do anti-movements and survivors of the crime a disservice.

Challenging Misconceptions

Imagine my surprise when American Crime Season 3 premiered on Sunday, and I didn’t want to rip it apart for its inaccuracies, or run to social media to dispel the myths the show was perpetuating in its representation. On the contrary, I wanted to watch it again. I was planning how to incorporate it into my Human Trafficking class at MSU Denver. I was looking to see if John Ridley (creator and writer of episode one) was on Twitter so I could ask him questions about his process. I was invested because I could see that American Crime Season 3 was intentionally pushing against common misconceptions about human trafficking. It was debunking myths all over the place.

Myth: Sex trafficking is the only form of human trafficking.

It would be incredibly easy for American Crime to focus solely on sex trafficking and be largely successful. It’s the kind of trafficking that everyone wants to talk about. While the show does have storylines that show individuals being trafficked for sex, a large storyline focuses on labor trafficking on a tomato farm in North Carolina. This story breaks another myth, that foreign national trafficking victims are always undocumented immigrants. While it does follow one individual, Luis Salazar (Benito Martinez), who is smuggled into the United States from Mexico and then required to perform forced labor, an additional story follows a young white man, Coy Henson (Connor Jessup), who is recruited by Isaac Castillo (Richard Cabral) to work on the same tomato farm.

Myth: There must be elements of physical restraint, physical force, or physical bondage when identifying a human trafficking situation.

What I greatly appreciate about this first episode is that not a single case of trafficking depicted in the show so far utilizes these things to meet the criteria of force. Not to say that these things don’t happen—they most certainly do—but it’s not the only way to force, fraud, or coerce someone into trafficking. In the case of Luis, his status as an undocumented worker is held over him and he cannot leave until he pays back the coyote that smuggled him over the border. He is kept in line by a senior crew member, who holds his money and is seen having a gun holstered on his hip, in plain view of all workers. In the case of Shae (Ava Mulvoy Ten), a teenage girl being sexually exploited by (what we can assume is) her boyfriend, demonstrates that love and being provided for are just as influential a form of force as physical restraint. Another teen, Ishmael, is exploited by his cousin, who utilizes the familial bond to keep Ishmael in line. I have no doubt that more of these complex dynamics will unfold as the series continues, showing us the layers of force, fraud, and coercion as they are used in various forms to control people.

In American Crime Season 3 Episode 1, the character Ishmael resists being labeled a victim.

Myth: Victims of human trafficking will immediately ask for help or assistance and will self-identify as a victim of a crime.

This one is shut down immediately in the episode, as Ishmael is first meeting with social worker Kimara (Regina King). She refers to Ishmael as a victim twice, and both times he adamantly and confidently states, “I am not a victim.” He refuses to answer her questions, even though she has told him that he is not in trouble, she is not law enforcement, and he is not going to be arrested. As Kimara moves forward to connect him with services, he ends up leaving to return to his cousin, the trafficker. This perspective is important, and not all that uncommon for service providers. If you don’t believe you are a victim, then why do you need help from someone from the system—the system you have been told to distrust, who is saying things not all that different from your trafficker? On average, those who are being exploited will return to their traffickers five to seven times before leaving for good. The intricacy and intimacy of these relationships mirror what we see in domestic violence.

Connections to Real World Trafficking

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of breaking barriers. American Crime Season 3 portrays a male victim of sex trafficking, which is virtually unheard of in media representations. It is noted, when Kimara is searching for shelter for Ishmael, that there are typically not shelters that take boys without their mothers. Although a brief plot point, is is apparent that all the shelters are full. This moment struck me personally as a hotline supervisor for CoNEHT, Colorado’s 24/7 human trafficking hotline.  It is a real world circumstance we have to deal with regularly as advocates: more people seeking shelter than there are shelters to house them. If the risk is to be homeless, or go back to your trafficker, which sounds worse to that youth? That may be how they were vulnerable to trafficking in the first place.

The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking manages Colorado’s 24/7 Human Trafficking Hotline with the support of volunteer advocates like Katherine Miller.

Persuasion and Recruitment

In American Crime Season 3, we see accurate portrayals of recruitment, where those who are being exploited are persuading others to join them. This is especially poignant with Shae, who tries to recruit another young girl who appears to be experiencing homelessness. Shae gives her food, builds rapport by talking about her dog, and says she can come hang out with her “guy” and all of her girlfriends.  Shae is young and pretty, completely non-threatening, which is why her recruitment techniques work. When Coy is recruited, Isaac asks him if he wants a ride, offers him beer, and asks him questions about his life and family. Because Coy is isolated and alone with no one to turn to, he is perceived as vulnerable to Isaac, who uses that seclusion to bring him to the farm and make it part of the crew. This, too, works incredibly well because it is part of human nature to want to belong.

We could continue pulling back layers and digging deeper, and this is only episode one. What excites me (if this momentum holds true and the story doesn’t take some serious turns) about American Crime Season 3 is that accurate representation in popular media about human trafficking helps raise public awareness and drive deeper dialogue.  Will this series get it all right?  No.  But it’s far better than anything I’ve seen on the subject that isn’t a documentary, and that’s very encouraging.

Are you watching American Crime Season 3?  You can message Katherine your thoughts, questions, and observations on Twitter @runofthekimill .

Katherine Miller is an affiliate faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver within the Institute for Women’s Studies and Services.  She currently teaches the Human Trafficking class originally launched at MSU by LCHT co-founder AnnJanette Alejano-Steele.   Katherine also serves on the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking’s Board of Diretors and provides leadership as a hotline advocate supervisor for CoNEHT.