On July 4, the movie “Sound of Freedom” was released in theaters. It appears to have made many Americans wrestle with their personal role and the role of government in enabling or combatting human trafficking.
Despite having a budget of only $14.5 million and receiving mixed reviews from critics, the movie has grossed more than $110 million and has received 4.8/5 stars on Movie Insider and an 8/10 on IMDB.
Its success should not be surprising, as the film’s portrayal of child sex trafficking evokes protective instincts for our families while justifying our fears of a deeply ill society. The film, however, should call us to examine our own role in what has been aptly described as the modern slave trade.
The film is based on the true story of Tim Ballard, portrayed by Jim Caviezel. Ballard, a former federal agent, founded Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), an anti-human trafficking organization.
As a federal agent, Ballard was tasked with tracking down pedophiles involved in human trafficking and child pornography distribution. Later in the movie, he is granted permission to conduct an overseas operation, but he quits his job and goes rogue to search for a missing girl whose brother Ballard had found at the beginning of the movie.
The story was mostly faithful to the real events, although they are simplified to fit within the space of the movie. Ballard’s venture into the jungle, for example, was loosely based on a separate mission unconnected with the trafficker bust that takes up a good part of the plot.
Centering the story around Ballard’s mission to reunite one particular family helps the audience connect on a more personal level to the horror of human trafficking. It is difficult to turn away from the emotional turmoil caused by that family being ripped apart and the innocence of those children being stolen.
While in the movie, the trafficker bust led to the rescue of 54 children, in reality more than 120 victims of human trafficking were rescued on the island, most of them adults (only 29 were minors).
Most cases of human sex trafficking don’t start with kidnapping, either. Operation Underground Railroad’s website recognizes “most trafficking happens through a manipulative grooming process,” which is often harder to prosecute and sort out.
In that process, traffickers exploit and deceive vulnerable individuals who may be struggling with financial issues, substance misuse, addiction, housing issues, ostracization due to LGBTQ+ status, lack of job opportunities, or immigration status. Traffickers might “keep identification documents from them, threaten to harm them or those who they love and care about, shame them to prevent them from trying to get another job, and more,” according to The Fight to End Exploitation.
It is easy to walk away from the movie deflecting blame for human trafficking on a few terrible people, far disconnected from our communities. The remedy would simply be to impose harsher penalties for traffickers (this appeared to be former President Trump’s primary takeaway).
However, according to the 2020 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, the United States is one of the worst countries for sex trafficking and the greatest consumer of commercial sex in the world.
But who is creating that demand?
If the results of one study of college students at the University of East Carolina are right, it might be you.
Of the 305 students who took the survey, more than “90 percent (92.4%) reported ever having looked at pornography with over forty percent (43.1%) reporting doing so between one and two times a week.”
Pornography is the largest single industry of potential human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
While Pornhub, for example, may seem like a harmless business, they were subject to a lawsuit back in 2021 for this very reason, and have shown time and time again to be incapable of verifying the consent of those participating in videos.
At the end of the movie, actor Jim Caveizal speaks to the audience and mentions his hope that the film will serve to catalyze change in a similar way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did prior to the Civil War by exposing Northerners to the harsh reality of slavery, with which they preferred not to deal decisively.
However, our ability to bring about change of necessity depends on us coming to terms with our personal stake in the peculiar institution of slavery today.
Just as those not directly enslaving others prior to the Civil War benefited from institutions and goods produced by slaves, even those not directly trafficking humans today enable or benefit from sexual gratification produced by unconsenting victims.
We already have data showing that sex trafficking is less prevalent in countries where prostitution is illegal. Reducing the demand for and the accessibility of pornography, which is by all means the prostitution of the next generation, would likely have the same effect.
If that is something that you struggle with, I recommend using the app Covenant Eyes and an accountability partner to help break the cycle of shame caused by pornography usage.