In a women’s bathroom at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike this past Thanksgiving holiday weekend, travelers were reminded of a plague of the modern age that put down its roots at the beginning of civilization.

Tacked  inside the doors of the rest-room’s stalls was a decal that presented a series of questions to readers about the telltale signs of human trafficking. Had their passport been taken away from them? Did they know their address? Were they free to leave their home on their own?

That human trafficking is the 21st century’s version of slavery is a notion that is slowly making its way into our collective consciousness around the world. This is happening thanks to the efforts of individuals who are taking action out of a sense of obligation to those whose voices have been stifled by perpetrators seeking to profit by controlling or exploiting them via the sex trade and other forms of forced labor. The activists who work  to eradicate this crime—including countless numbers of Junior League women from New Jersey to South Dakota, and from Atlanta to Los Angeles—have placed notices in public bathrooms; secured toll-free help lines for victims or observant witnesses; educated law enforcement; and advocated for stricter penalties for offenders. Through sheer will and deliberate action, these volunteers are helping to do away this problem.

The facts* remain alarming, however:

  • Most prostitution can be classified as trafficking because it involves force, fraud or coercion
  • The U.N. estimates that 27 million people are enslaved worldwide—more than at any other time in history. Eighty percent of victims are female; 50 percent are children
  • Eighty-three percent of sex-trafficked victims between 2008 and 2010 were United States citizens
  • More than 50 percent of U.S. prostitutes, otherwise known as victims of sex trafficking, are classified as runaway youth living on the street
  • Minors enter into prostitution at an average age of between 12 and 14
  • When asked, 89 percent of women and girls used in prostitution (“sex trafficking”) wanted to get out but didn’t know where to turn for help
  • 75 percent of girls who are entangled in prostitution networks are controlled by a sex trafficker or “pimp”
  • Traffickers use modern technology—cell phones, the Internet,, Craigslist, Facebook and other means of social media—to run their businesses and to give their clients access to the women and children they are forcing to work for them

For a visceral example of what it means to be held captive against your will and compelled to do things that strip you of your dignity and your humanity, you need look no further than the marquees of today’s movie theaters.

“12 Years a Slave,” one of the fourth quarter’s biggest releases, tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man with a family and a thriving career as a musician in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Down in the Deep South he toils mightily for 12 years at the behest of a series of vicious overseers and slave-owners before being miraculously reunited with his family. He has nothing but the rags on his back, is prohibited from communicating with his family, is continually subjected to violence and often is forced to commit unspeakable acts upon fellow slaves.

It is nearly impossible to exit that film without experiencing a complexity of emotions—horror, shame, compassion, indignation and righteousness, among others. More than a century and a half later, why shouldn’t we feel at least some of that same outrage toward the crime of human trafficking? And why shouldn’t we be motivated to act out of compassion for its victims?

* Statistics gathered by The Junior League of Sioux Falls. Sources include The Polaris Project, the University of Pennsylvania, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice, The Schapiro Group and Free the Slaves.