The Multi-Billion Dollar Business of Human Trafficking Non-Profits

Sep 19 / Kimberly Mull, CEO
In the glitzy world of Hollywood, where fame and fortune often take the spotlight, Ashton Kutcher has stood out for his commitment to a cause beyond the red carpet. Amid numerous media campaigns and impassioned testimonies on Capitol Hill, Kutcher has boasted about his devotion to fighting child exploitation through Thorn, a foundation he co-founded in 2012 with a mission to eradicate child sexual exploitation from the internet.

As a survivor of child sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, I should wholeheartedly support such an organization. However, Kutcher's recent public support for his former "That '70s Show" co-star Danny Masterson, who was found guilty of raping two women, is a stark reminder of the challenges survivors have faced for years.
It's not only the content of Kutcher's letter itself that is concerning, although it is worth noting that abusers often have supporters in their corner. I am sure that the men that have bought and sold me throughout my life, each of the men that have raped me, have people in their lives who would write the same letter to the judge if asked. I am sure they have served as "mentors" and been "strong examples" to someone… after all, that's how abusers keep us the most scared: by being normal or even exceptional to everyone else around them. If they were monsters to everyone, getting caught would be too easy.

What's more disconcerting is unqualified individuals consistently inserting themselves into the anti-trafficking movement due to fleeting motivations, such as being moved by a movie. Worse yet are those who do so for personal gain, exploiting the cause and re-exploiting survivors in the process. Many organizations and individuals have benefited financially and professionally from campaigns against human trafficking, often overshadowing the very victims they claim to help.

Putting "human trafficking" on a grant or website has become a trendy marketing tactic, attracting attention and funding. Sometimes, organizations even change their missions or focus areas to secure grants or funding. For instance, a clean energy organization in Nevada redirected its mission to "social stability" to secure a substantial contribution from Caesars Entertainment, Inc., increasing the CEO's salary to over $100,000. Their focus is "pervasive social and economic inequality that underscores Nevada's most vulnerable populations," including human trafficking, homelessness, and immigration.

I sat across from this CEO during my first week in Las Vegas, fresh from my move from Carson City. She launched into a passionate sales pitch, regaling me with tales of the books she'd read, the research she'd delved into, and the seminars she'd attended, all of which had ignited her enthusiasm for "taking up the cause."

As she eagerly emphasized their intent to prioritize human trafficking, I couldn't help but shake my head in disagreement. I felt compelled to explain that tackling human trafficking without addressing its root causes first, like homelessness, immigration, and poverty, was akin to trying to change a flat tire on your car without first lifting it or removing the lug nuts. Yet, the CEO remained steadfast in her desire to spotlight human trafficking as the primary focus.

Drawing from my own experiences as a survivor and my background in public policy, bolstered by a Master's degree in Victim Services Management, I reiterated the importance of a holistic approach. I stressed that narrowing the focus prematurely misallocated resources and funds.

Then came a revelation: she didn't care. It wasn't about what was best for victims or the community but about what was best for her pocketbook, and human trafficking was the money maker. Our meeting ended on a candid note when I bluntly told the CEO that she lacked the qualifications and practical understanding needed for this work, relying instead on a well-rehearsed sales pitch.

In a subsequent meeting in 2019, the same CEO unveiled plans for what would eventually become the Nevada Policy Council on Human Trafficking. As a survivor with a track record of advocating for anti-trafficking policies across multiple states and national legislation, I eagerly offered suggestions on how the Council could genuinely assist trafficking victims within the state. My recommendations predominantly related to casinos, hotels, and gaming—where a substantial portion of Nevada's sex trafficking occurs.

However, my suggestions were met with sidelong glances and swift rejection. Astonishingly, I was candidly informed that they would never involve themselves in matters concerning the casinos, as that's where their funding originates. When I raised concerns about conflicts of interest, I was summarily dismissed.

Unsurprisingly, my involvement with the Council abruptly ended when I was not invited back. As is often the case with unqualified organizations, survivors who raise concerns or voice dissent are often excommunicated. Some well-known national organizations even sue survivors who speak out against them to scare us into submission. We are jeopardizing their payday, after all.

The organization, which now portrays itself as a policy expert, boasts a membership primarily composed of businesses, including four gaming companies representing dozens of casinos statewide. In stark contrast, there are fewer than three trafficking survivors from Nevada represented. Despite these imbalances, the organization continues to secure multiple anti-trafficking grants from well-meaning organizations like United Way and community sponsors who fall for their rehearsed speeches.

Similar organizations exist nationwide, ranging in size and influence. Some are well-connected, well-funded companies operating with a corporate structure and financial accountability measures in place. Others represent themselves as faith-based leaders on a mission from God, collecting millions in donations, paying their leaders hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries, and distributing minute amounts to actual victims of trafficking. Many describe themselves as church ministries, community service organizations, or divisions of domestic violence centers, although they offer no specialized or trauma-informed services for victims. Rather inept "community education" or "public awareness campaigns" that cause more harm than do actual good.

My personal villains are those who do nothing more than garner attention for themselves in their push for their eventual political runs or social expansion. They have their own 501(c)3's or insert trafficking into an issue of a nonprofit they already manage. They host 1 or 2 parties a year as a fundraiser but ensure that they themselves become the center of attention. They hug a survivor and hand them a crystal award while telling them how brave they are in front of the entire community or hire flashy entertainment rather than educating the audience about the issues. The priority is never on survivors. It's always on the elusive future tense "victims" they will one day serve, never the ones already around them. In fact, they often knock down or step over the survivors around them to ensure they remain in the spotlight.

Imagine an organization established to serve African-American women. Yet, the CEO is a white male, and the employees are all of European descent. When questioned why they don't employ African Americans, they respond, "We know the work would be triggering for them, and we don't believe in putting them in that position." When they need an African American presence for a grant, they contract one out at minimum pay for minimum hours. When questioned about not having any African Americans on the Board of Directors, they respond, "We don't know any," "There are none locally," or "It's been an issue in the past, so it's easier this way." At best, they have one token African-American man, unpaid.

Hopefully, no one would donate or award grants to such an organization in today's world. However, it continues to be the standard practice for organizations so-called "representing" sex trafficking survivors.

Survivors often struggle, sacrificing to prevent pain for the next generation. At the same time, these interlopers re-exploit our stories for personal gain, be it a six-figure payday, clout, or admiration. In Kutcher's case, he resigned as Thorn's Chairman of the Board after much backlash from survivors triggered by his allyship with a convicted rapist. The organization will likely move forward as if the problem is now solved. At the same time, survivors continue to scream into the abyss, waiting for people to quit "speaking for those in the darkness," pass us the microphone, and step aside so we can finally step into the light ourselves.

Kimberly Mull is CEO of JaneSchool, and a survivor of child sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. She is a graduate of Lubbock Christian University and Sam Houston State University. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband and three dogs.
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