Don’t Fall For Compliments: Women’s Advocate Mary David Reveals the Secret Tactics Sex Traffickers Use to Lure Victims

“Girls, boys and trans youth are targeted by traffickers….They are increasingly recruited from social media, particularly for ‘modeling’ opportunities or jobs in the entertainment industry.”

Read the full Homegirl Talk interview with Mary David, advocate for victims of sex trafficking

You might think slavery is a thing of the past, but human trafficking is a modern reality that affects 20 to 30 million people in the world today.

What’s worse, most of these victims are sexually exploited. And sometimes it all begins with two simple words: “You’re beautiful.”

It might sound like a wonderful compliment, but it’s just one of the cunning schemes that predators use to seduce potential victims into sex trafficking.

One woman who is working tirelessly to shed light on the dark underworld of sexual slavery is Mary David. An advocate for women, girls, and victims of trauma, Mary is a former prosecutor and UN advisor who has devoted her life to empowering survivors of sexual assault, abuse, and human trafficking.

As a prosecutor in Baltimore, Maryland, she led human trafficking cases in District Court and handled almost 2,000 criminal cases. As a former United Nations Advisor on women’s and children’s issues, Mary defended the rights of underserved populations at the UN General Assembly and other key institutions. She also helped draft some of Maryland’s first laws against human trafficking.

Mary currently serves as the Director of Communications for Journey Out, a Los-Angeles based nonprofit that fights sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation.

She was named one of the “Top 99 Foreign Policy Leaders in the World Under Age 33” by the US Department of State, and received the 2014 Global Impact Award from Heal a Woman to Heal a Nation for her humanitarian service in America and abroad.

We had a chance to talk with Mary to learn more about sex trafficking, the tactics that predators use online and in real life, and how each of us can help in the fight against modern day slavery.

There is a high demand for commercial sex at big sporting events

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with Homegirl Talk. Let’s get right to it. You’ve said that the Super Bowl is one of the largest human trafficking events in the world. How do you know this is the case?

The Super Bowl is often cited as the day when the highest number of human trafficking crimes take place, but it is hard to say whether this is actually true. We don’t have concrete numbers on human trafficking in general, because victims don’t self identify they often have a cult-like mindset, idolizing their traffickers while blaming themselves  and only in recent years have we attempted to quantify the crime.

Without knowing how much trafficking there is on any given day, we cannot say for sure that the Super Bowl has greater numbers of human trafficking than any other day of the year.

What we can go by, as far as trafficking in the US, is the numbers of calls that come in to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. But these are a very small snapshot of how many victims there are in total.

More than 49,000 cases have been reported over the last 10 years to the hotline, but there are actually many more. What we can say is that around large sporting events, from the Super Bowl to the Olympics, pimps do send their victims specifically to these locations because there is a known high demand for commercial sex.

When we think of human traffickers, it often conjures up images from movies like “Taken” where sinister guys kidnap a young girl out of the blue. Is this typically what happens in real life?

I’m so glad you asked this. While there are scenarios where victims are snatched off the street or kidnapped, most often this is not the case. Girls, boys and trans youth are targeted by traffickers based on a number of factors whether they have run away from home, don’t have a lot of friends or a good support network, are living in foster care, are homeless, etc.

They are increasingly recruited from social media as well, particularly for “modeling” opportunities or jobs in the entertainment industry. Traffickers are very savvy and can spend months grooming a potential victim, cultivating a strong relationship with them that becomes incredibly difficult to break.

These traffickers are often the first people a victim has trusted in their life, and that connection is powerful, even when it gets twisted by the trafficker later.


What are the most common techniques that sex traffickers use to lure potential victims?

A common tactic that traffickers use when recruiting at the mall or a public place is to approach a girl or woman and tell her that she is beautiful. If the woman or girl responds with a lot of confidence, they move on. But if she seems uncomfortable with the compliment or shy, embarrassed or suffering from low self-esteem, the trafficker continues talking to her, trying to gauge how much of a connection they can make.

A woman or girl with low self-esteem and distorted body image is someone who a trafficker believes they can break down and brainwash over time.

They will buy their potential victims new clothes, take them to get their hair and nails done, perhaps give them a new cell phone (one that their parents and friends can’t track), and make them feel loved, valued, and appreciated like they never have before.

They may fill the role of a boyfriend or parental figure, depending on the potential victim’s circumstances.

When it comes to social media, traffickers will send private or public messages on Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook. They’ll tell potential victims how beautiful they are but also suggest they could make a lot of money working for the trafficker in the modeling/entertainment industry.

Who is most at risk for becoming a sex traffic victim? 

Those most at risk are youth and young adults with low self-esteem, a prior history of abuse (physical, sexual, or verbal abuse), domestic violence victims, homeless youth, and those in the foster care system.

When did you first become involved in the fight against human trafficking?

My advocacy started almost fifteen years ago. Wow, I can’t believe it’s been that long! I was in a study abroad program in Cyprus and met human trafficking survivors from Sri Lanka and the Philippines. It wrecked me, but changed my life in the best way possible.


Why do you think so many sex trafficking victims are afraid to come forward? How do we change this?

There are so many obstacles for victims. For many of them, life on the streets and sexual exploitation is literally all they know. So many of them have been sexually abused since they were four, five or six years old and they haven’t grown up with a sense of protection or healthy norms.

They don’t know their worth and value. They don’t believe that anyone really cares if they live or die. They stop having hope that life could be better, and that is one of the most devastating parts of the cycle of exploitation.

To change this, we need to recognize that no matter a person’s age, anyone can be a victim of sex trafficking. Just because someone is 20 years old, it doesn’t mean that they chose to live a life of commercial sexual exploitation.

We also need to do a better job of supporting victims with rehabilitation programming. Many of them haven’t had consistent education or experienced social norms of peers in their age group. They have been regulated in every area of their life, from when to come home to when to eat to when to sleep. To expect that they will suddenly know what they want to do for a career as soon as they are in a safe environment away from their pimp ignores the very real yet invisible shackles that survivors wear.

More transitional homes created specifically for sex trafficking survivors are a necessity. So are job training programs and life skills courses from culinary skills to budgeting to putting together a résumé. Survivors need to have a support network around them from community members in all walks of life who can help them realize they are not alone and that they do have worth.

Women's advocate, activist, and performance artist Mary David
Women’s advocate, activist, and performance artist Mary David

Looking at your website, I was amazed and surprised to see that along with being an attorney and advocate for women, you are also a performance artist! Tell us about how you merge dance and spoken word in your advocacy. 

Thanks so much for checking out my website! The arts are a huge part of my advocacy because sex trafficking won’t be solved just by passing laws and putting perpetrators in jail, although those things are important.

Ending a culture of slavery and sexual exploitation is a movement that requires rattling people’s hearts, challenging their norms, and emboldening them to action. This is why I love spoken word so much. It’s art, a performance, and it invites people to feel and think critically about things without making it seem like a lecture or homework assignment.

Our country’s history of slavery and discrimination would not have progressed nearly as far without writers like Langston Hughes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Toni Morrison. I feel like I get to be a part of that every time I create a new performance piece, whether it be spoken word, dance, or acting.

Through dance, I tell stories about self-worth, triumphing over judgment, and overcoming guilt and shame. My goal is to reach not only those who have not come across human trafficking before, but also to empower survivors of trauma and in some small way breathe hope and life into their space. I will often combine a monologue or spoken word piece with a dance performance at the end.

What’s the best way to reach and engage people who are not aware of human trafficking or maybe think it only exists in third-world countries?

There are so many ways! I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer. It could be through a documentary or a novel. It could be through a spoken word piece from the perspective of a survivor. A photo exhibit can be really powerful. I have seen survivors create the most breathtaking paintings and jewelry to tell their stories. Honestly, the sky’s the limit!

No matter a person's age, anyone can be a victim of sex trafficking
No matter a person’s age, anyone can be a victim of sex trafficking

The phrase “follow the money” is one that applies to sex traffickers. Someone is paying them otherwise there’s no incentive. Who is behind traffickers? Is it corporations, mafia, drug cartels, independent pimps?

Organized crime is definitely involved. The links between drug dealers and human traffickers are growing at a rapid rate. Drug traffickers are realizing that while a drug that can only be sold once, a person can be sold over and over again. It makes human trafficking much more lucrative. Gangs and independent pimps are also very much at the center of this.

What’s the best thing each of us can do to help fight against sex trafficking?

Start by reading as much as you can about the issue. Like, follow, and post any links to human trafficking events, news articles, or stats. Word of mouth is a powerful thing. You would be surprised how many people commit to action such as volunteering with an organization, collecting items for a human trafficking shelter or went to school to become a social worker that assists survivors just because someone took the time to educate them.

Donate your birthday to an anti-trafficking organization. We are always looking for funding I work for Journey Out, and there are many others and this is a huge help for us. Donate clothes. Teach a fitness class at a drop-in center. Or invite a speaker on human trafficking to your community event. The possibilities are endless. They are really only limited by your imagination to dream up possibilities.

Need help? Call 1-888-373-7888. To learn more and see how you can get involved, please visit the official Mary David website and Journey Out website.

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Written by Mar Yvette

Mar Yvette is an on-air host, lifestyle expert, writer and editor with 10+ years of experience working with some of the world’s most recognized media companies.