Sex Trafficking in America

An estimated 15,000 to 50,000 women and children are sex trafficked annually in the United States. Despite the well-documented prevalence of sex trafficking in the US, there are still many prevailing misconceptions about trafficking and its victims. The idea that sex traffickers are mysterious, amorphous figures — men lurking in black hoodies in dark corners, waiting to snatch their prey — is still a widely-held notion. However, many fail to recognize that traffickers and groomers take many forms. 

What Is Sex Trafficking?

We need to answer the question. What is sex trafficking? It is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of people for the purpose of sexually exploiting them. Groomers are skilled predators who are able to easily manipulate the vulnerable. Sex traffickers may feign romantic interest, or they can come across as a trustworthy peer. Victims are frequently lured in by the promise of an exciting business opportunity. Con artists also pose as a caring confidante.

This ruse of friendship is the way to sniff out vulnerabilities, then use those against their unsuspecting target. Stereotypes are misleading. Many sex traffickers don’t appear nefarious. They aren’t lurking on street corners or in dark alleyways. These existing tropes that traffickers are easily-identifiable predators, is dangerous. Neighbors, acquaintances, or anyone who appears trustworthy may be masterfully hiding their sinister motives.

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Julia Verdin’s “Angie: Lost Girls”

In “Angie: Lost Girls,” director Julia Verdin seeks to dispel these harmful myths, and raise awareness about techniques traffickers use and to show the debilitating aftermath rescued victims face. The film’s eponymous main character, Angie (Jane Widdop), traverses the regular pressures of adolescence: restlessness, romance, the intimidation of impending adulthood. Her family is neither particularly involved nor completely absent.

At times, Angie enjoys unsupervised autonomy, which allows her to go out on her own. Among her activities is giving musical performances in a park for donations. One day in the park, she meets Mario (Dylan Sprayberry), a charming, handsome park patron. He makes a song request with lingering eye contact. Surely, his flirtation is what’s on her mind—not “What is sex trafficking?”

No Warning Signs

Nothing about Mario rings alarm bells. He’s young, soft-spoken, and shows a genuine interest in Angie’s hobbies and family life. Although Angie is wary at first, Mario seems nothing like the stereotype of a predator. He establishes her trust quickly by showing he is interested in her romantically. They spend time alone and share an innocuous kiss. When Angie receives a text from him, she picks up her phone with a smile. 

To the outside world, the two are an archetypal young couple, sharing park dates and discussing hobbies. Angie is pleased by Mario’s interest in her. She’s pleased that his focus is not solely on her looks. His interest extends to her music. Mario praises Angie’s musical talent and entices her with an exciting opportunity. Mario says his uncle has an eye for musical talent and shows he’s eager to introduce the two. Angie agrees, elated with the possibility of advancing her musical career.

She dresses up for the meeting and behaves politely. Her high hopes leave her reluctant to question the growing red flags and shady figures until it’s too late. Pawned off to the violent traffickers, Angie has no phone nor any self-defense. She becomes another statistic of sex trafficking who was betrayed by the man who manipulated her.

Exploitative Portrayals of Sex Trafficking in Film

Laden with physical violence and positioned for late-night audiences, films about sex trafficking often border on exploitative. Because of their on-screen gore, they are often less didactic than appalling, and viewers are more likely to rank them on shock value horror lists than seek to aid sex trafficking victims and raise awareness. 

We Need Social Change

Movies likeMegan is Missing” — albeit less about sex trafficking and more about explicit sexual assault and Internet predators — became material for TikTok challenges. The clips dare horror veterans to endure gratuitous content. They are not promoting core messages about child safety and social change.

Although many filmmakers of violent movies predicate their directorial choices on the idea of grit. That rawness may create a more realistic depiction of sexual exploitation by shying away from sugarcoating brutal subject matter. However, many fail to realize that the messages of their films are muddied due to gratuitous on-screen violence. 

Movies like these border on grindhouse, i.e., they’re often lower-budget, spattered with blood, and inadvertently hyper-sexual, and laden with nudity. The ham-fisted clustering of gore and sex is more likely to land these films on “most disturbing movies” listicles than incite real social change. 

“Angie: Lost Girls” Combats Gory Depictions of Sex Trafficking

In “Angie: Lost Girls,” Verdin seeks to combat gory depictions of trafficking, as well as make a movie that girls in their mid-teens can watch and learn from without being traumatized. He successfully conveys an informative answer to the question, what is sex trafficking?

“I thought a lot about what audience I was making the movie for,” Verdin says. “I didn’t want to make a movie for the late-night audience.” After reading audience reviews for existing films about sex trafficking, she noticed that many viewers deemed the movies too graphic. They claim they can’t withstand more than ten minutes of watching a film like those. Verdin was determined to make a film that wouldn’t turn audiences away, yet poignant enough to encourage awareness and support for victims. 

The noticeable Hitchcockian evasion seen throughout the film — implying the horrors of Angie’s experience rather than explicitly showing them — makes audience members more receptive. The film gets its message across without forcing viewers to turn away in disgust. There is never any nudity. And, in the only notable scenes of violence, the focus is on the twisted anguish of Angie’s face. 

“Angie: Lost Girls” is a viable dissenter in the argument that a film about sex trafficking or sexual exploitation must be gruesome in order to successfully deliver its message. Angie is not excessively lurid, however, it is realistic enough to affect its audiences without subjecting them to on-screen torture. 

Portrayals of Traffickers

Verdin worked in conjunction with a comprehensive team of experts to perfect the script and ensure its authenticity. Along with multiple non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and survivor consultants, Verdin consulted with Lieutenant Andre Dawson, former head of the LAPD’s Human Trafficking Task Force and the FBI Innocence Lost Task Force. 

During consultations, Verdin found one exigent problem that she aimed to help solve: lack of awareness. That lack of awareness is not only about what traffickers look like, but about the manifold methods they use and the unique struggles of rescued victims as they try to re-assimilate to normal life. “Angie” is not just a story about Angie being trafficked, but also a story about the effects it has on her family and the process of rehabilitation survivors face. 

Angie and another victim escape one of the locations they were held in. When Angie realizes her friend was recaptured, survivor’s guilt, combined with intimidation tactics by the traffickers, dissuade Angie from speaking to the police. Bewildered, her family is at a loss in helping Angie acclimate to her new life.

Angie finds solace in a support group for victims. She learns the methods used by her captors. Other group members were groomed in a similar way. Others were targeted through the Internet. The message is the same: awareness of the many methods used to target victims is crucial to youth and adults alike. 

“Angie: Lost Girls”: Creating Social Change Through Film

“Angie: Lost Girls” is instrumental to Julia Verdin’s ultimate goal of inspiring social change through art. As the founder of Artists For Change, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating social change through film and other mediums, Verdin seeks to uplift the voices of artists who seek to rouse audiences to make a difference, rather than consume mindlessly. 

An important part of enacting change is giving non-profit and non-governmental organizations the means to do so — there is still little government funding for rehabilitating sex-trafficked victims.

Through donating to organizations like Saving Innocence and The Association for the Recovery of Children, audience members can support sex trafficking victims and the programs that help rescue them and guide them through the tumultuous waters of readjusting to everyday life. However, at its core, “Angie: Lost Girls” asks that audience members help raise awareness and combat the perilous misconceptions that obscure the real truths about sex trafficking.

“Angie: Lost Girls” is part of the 2021 lineup for the Socially Relevant Film Festival.