Tim Swarens is the opinion editor of The Indianapolis Star, the most prominent news source in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has been in the journalism field for over thirty-four years now, heading projects that have won Sigma Delta Chi, National Headliners and Robert F. Kennedy Excellence in Journalism awards while being published by the likes of The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
He takes a stand on the frontlines of fighting Human Trafficking, dauntlessly exposing the issue in the United States and overseas. I originally discovered Mr. Swarens when I began researching articles about Human Trafficking in the Indianapolis area. His name was on nearly all of them. It is obvious by his work, and from our conversation, that he is knowledgeable and passionate about the issue.
Swarens found his calling in 2010 when a visitor came to his home church to speak on the topic of Human Trafficking. Looking back now, he says he realizes just how life changing that moment was for him. The following year, he travelled to Cambodia. According to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, Cambodia is considered a Tier 2 in human trafficking. A tier 2 label is for countries whose government does not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA) minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards. For the victims, it means that there is not much in place to protect their rights.
In August of 2016, Swarens received a grant from the Society of Professional Journalist to better understand why millions of people, including children, fall victim to sex trafficking every year. Swarens’ project has taken him to places all over the world including Thailand, Mexico, Bolivia, Kenya, Italy, and France.
During his travels, he noticed alarming trends everywhere he went.
For one, many people believe that the victims of human trafficking have a choice in the matter, assuming they chose the life for themselves. Because of this belief, the victims don’t get the help they need. Instead, they are usually met with disdain because of their position.
Second, in every country, buyers are almost never punished. He met a survivor from Illinois, a teen who was purchased for sex by more than 150 different men. Not a single one of those men were ever charged. Swarens points out that most of the buyers are the average male: the dads, the doctors, the teachers, and even pastors. You would think that the majority must be pedophiles, since it was clear she was underage. Most aren’t. Swarens calls them “opportunists”.
The last trend he found during his travels was the normalization of sexualizing children. Television shows and movies often portray children and teens in a sexual light. The average age of girls trafficked in the U.S. and Indiana is 15. The average times they are sold for sex, is 5.4 times a day. “There are reasons we don’t allow 15 year olds to drive, vote, etc. Yet that’s the average age in sex trade.” In 2014 Bolivia lowered the legal prostitution age to 12. Because of the sexualization of children, we don’t hold the buyers accountable. We don’t want to accept the reality of what’s going on. A child can’t choose this life for themselves, they never “ask for it”. They are coerced into it, one way or another.
I asked Mr. Swarens what he feels we can do to best fight human trafficking. He emphasized that we need to begin to focus on the demand side. “You can pay to sexually abuse a child and there is very little accountability for it. Why are we letting these guys get away with this?” Essentially, if the demand goes down, there will be less of a drive for “supply”.
In April 2018, there will be a conference held in Indianapolis to talk about the demand side. This conference will be open to the public.
During his travels, he met over 60 trafficking survivors who are no longer in the trade. He found that most of them are upbeat and positive about their futures. One woman in particular, is a 61 year old survivor from San Francisco. She was an alcoholic and drug addict in her 30s while also prostituting at the time. She’s now clean and sober and mentoring others who are in the same situation.
Mr. Swarens reminds us, “The survivors will carry the scars for the rest of their lives, but that doesn’t mean they are broken. There is hope.”
A series of columns and a video on Mr. Swarens’ findings was published in January 2018. Click here for links.
Hallie Schaefer is a freelance writer and web content creator from Indianapolis, Indiana. Earning her degree in Psychology from Grace College and Theological Seminary, she has combined her experience in counseling and love of writing to equip and inspire others. When she is not writing, she enjoys spending time with her husband and three small children, exploring all Indianapolis has to offer.
This article was originally published in Hallie’s Freedom on the Frontlines column in our December issue.