A lot of personal safety advice comes from a good place but can end up making you so paranoid of your world you don’t want to engage with it. Also, a lot of stories about issues having to do with personal safety can be exaggerated or even made up—think of the urban legends of yore that convinced you you were going to find a razor blade in your Halloween candy.
So, it’s not shocking that a recent series of sex-trafficking stories related to Target might be our anxieties working overtime.
According to a report by Rolling Stone, a bunch of people are sharing stories about feeling uncomfortable or being followed while in their local Target store.
On Instagram, a woman named Makenzie Jade told her story after being inspired by another woman: “OK, so I saw this TikTok that Target is the new sex trafficking hub, or very commonly known for sex trafficking, and I saw this girl posted her story so I wanted to say about mine.”
Makenzie then says that she was followed by a man while in the produce section of Target and then circled by two additional men. She called her mom and boyfriend who then contacted Target employees and asked them to walk her to her car. At her car was one of the men who was following her in the store.
In an Instagram direct message, Makenzie says she posted the video “to raise awareness to the situation.”
“It is something you only see in movies,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I saw another girl post what happened to her, not thinking it would ever happen to me at my local Target.”
Makenzie’s story about being followed in Target has been interpreted by many as an example of an attempt at sex trafficking—and other women also chimed in to share their stories on TikTok.
Allie Mellman, a 27-year-old woman from St. Paul, Minnesota, describes being approached by a woman in Target five years ago who asked her if she needed financial help and then gave her a man’s business card. The information on the car ended up not corresponding to anything.
Mellman says she thought the incident was weird, but she didn’t connect it to “trafficking” until she saw the other videos. “I was like, oh my God, that sounds exactly like what happened to me.”
Similarly, Kassidy Brown, 22, from Omaha, Nebraska says she was followed by a young woman and what appeared to be her mother at a local Target before getting security to help her.
While all of these women said they felt unsafe during these encounters, they only considered them “as a trafficking attempt after seeing other women share their own stories in TikTok videos.”
Jean Bruggerman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, a national network of anti-trafficking advocates, says, “I have never heard a case of anyone being abducted from Target in my 20 years in this field.”
When asked about the TikTok rumors, many experts say such rumors are familiar to older sex trafficking rumors and urban legends “intended to spread hysteria while simultaneously misrepresenting the realities of what trafficking actually looks like.”
The majority of human trafficking victims are folks who are marginalized—homeless teenagers and undocumented people, for example.
“Any time we teach people false information, we have to remember everyone hears these narratives over and over about what trafficking looks like,” says Kate D’Adamo, a partner at Reframe Health Justice who has studied the history of sex trafficking narratives.
“Not only does it mean that people who are vulnerable to being trafficked are made more vulnerable because they’re [made invisible], we’re also focusing on the wrong place.”
So while there might actually not be a Target-focused sex trafficking ring, women aren’t wrong to be nervous and ask for help in situations that seem strange. Violence against women is all too common, and it can originate in a place as supposedly safe as the home and with people you trust.
Featured Image: TikTok