Human trafficking, a sometimes overlooked issue in society, is being brought to attention in a collaborative effort between VCU’s cinema department and the Just Ask Prevention Project.
Formerly known as Just Ask VA, the group is a public awareness campaign designed to expose the growing prevalence of human trafficking in Virginia. This fall, Just Ask will be teaming up with a group of VCU Cinema students to create a PSA that will help educate the public about this issue.
Just Ask focuses primarily on teen sex trafficking, which is defined as the act of manipulating or forcing anyone under the age of 18 to engage in a sexual act in exchange for something of value, such as money or drugs.
For most people, any kind of human trafficking is an irrelevant issue. It is something that isn’t close to us, doesn’t affect us, and therefore doesn’t interest us. Human trafficking, however, may be closer and more devastating than perceived.
According to the Just Ask website, Northern Virginia has become one of the top ten teen trafficking regions in the nation. This is just one of many startling facts about human trafficking in Virginia.
“Those numbers… are only cases that come into their hotline so they are not inclusive of cases that are initiated through other means,” said Detective Bill Woolf of Fairfax County. ”I can tell you that for our jurisdiction alone, we’ve had well over a hundred cases this year, and that’s just Fairfax County.”
Detective Woolf is the lead investigator for the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force, and a founder of the Just Ask Prevention Initiative. The detective talked about how teens and young adults are lured into this lifestyle.
“Mostly what’s happening is that traffickers are looking for vulnerable people — I qualify that by saying that all of us have some sort of vulnerability that can be taken advantage of,” Detective Woolf said. “Maybe that individual seeks love or attention. Maybe they have financial issues.”
The detective mentioned that the financial aspect of the lifestyle is especially attractive to college students. He recently had a case where a young woman lost a sport scholarship and had to turn to this lifestyle in order to afford school. At first, the trafficker simply asked her to dance at a party for some money.
“The next thing you know, he’s forcing her to engage in sexual acts with a bunch of different guys,” Detective Woolf said, “the problem is that they don’t get to keep any of the money. The money goes back to the trafficker.
There are also health issues linked to this lifestyle. According to the detective, the average life expectancy of someone involved in human trafficking is only 7 years once they begin that lifestyle.
“The human body and brain is not programmed to understand commercial sex. Our brains don’t know how to interpret sex with strangers. The body starts to shut down,” Detective Woolf said.
The core mission of the Just Ask program, according to Detective Woolf, is providing the resources and starting the conversation so that victims know where to turn to once they realize they are in this situation.
And it’s working. Just last week, a college student at George Mason University reached out to Detective Woolf because she was being recruited.
“And now, because she reported it, we were able to put a stop to it,” Detective Woolf said.
Jodi O’Hern is another founder of Just Ask.
“I wanted to partner with VCU students mainly because of the great reputation that your school has in educating film and art students,” O’Hern said.
Just Ask already has a PSA that they have been sharing regularly on social media and on their website but the organization is looking for something new and different.
“I also thought the campaign could benefit from the fresh perspective of university students, who are closer in age to our target audience,” O’Hern said.
Like O’Hern stated, the organization is trying to reach a young audience, specifically young adults. The main goal of the organization is to educate this audience on how to spot human trafficking and know who to talk to about it so that the situation can be resolved.
Briana Windhausen is a VCU cinema major and the driving force behind the upcoming PSA. She first became interested in the topic of human trafficking in high school when she helped start a human trafficking club with her close friend. This friend later gained a leadership position in Just Ask and contacted Windhausen about a possible partnership.
“She reached out to me about a month ago and she asked me if VCU cinema would be able to do a PSA for them,” Windhausen said.
Windhausen has high hopes for the upcoming PSA and talked about why VCU cinema students were the perfect fit for this project. She believes that VCU cinema students will make this new PSA even better than the one that Just Ask is sharing now.
“I think that we’ll have better visuals and just be able to get the message across in a more effective way and let it resonate more than just giving the facts,” Windhausen said.
For more information on human trafficking in Virginia and how you can spot and prevent the issue, visit the Just Ask Prevention Project website or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.
Article by: Adriel Velazquez, Contributing Writer
Sarah Butler, Graphic Designer
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