By Annalise Yahne, Research Assistant
What comes to mind when you hear the words “sex trafficking”? An innocent child chained to a bed? A woman standing in the doorway of a brothel? Or perhaps you think of a bracelet, necklace, or bag that you bought, one that was made by a survivor of sex trafficking? You heard the somber story of how she was trying to start a new life and you wanted to help, you wanted to give her a job and be a part of her new beginning.
These organizations are known as social enterprise organizations. The mission statements of social enterprise organizations working with survivors all imply that they share a common goal: to rehabilitate sex trafficking survivors and to reintegrate them back into society by providing them with jobs. However, many of these organizations can be problematic and re-exploit sex trafficking survivors by using their lived experiences to execute an agenda that drives consumerism and profit for the organization.
When purchasing an item made by a survivor, the tag might read “your purchase saves her life” or “you are making a difference.” This can perpetuate a mentality in which consumers feel responsible for the act of rescuing victims from sex trafficking. This responsibility can insinuate a “savior complex” within the consumer. An example of this rhetoric is seen in the organization Nomi Network, which aims to create economic opportunities for survivors and women at risk of human trafficking. These opportunities are represented by the bags and apparel that the women are employed to make. Nomi Network is best known for the slogan “Buy Her Bag, Not Her Body.” This type of rhetoric creates an ultimatum for consumers and re-exploits the woman by insinuating that she is going to have to sell one or the other, and that her life is dependent on their purchase.
The products available through these organizations are widely represented by feminine, handmade items. The jobs championed as alternatives to sex work eradicate the opportunity for upward growth and mobility for those in low social classes. Although some survivors may choose to work in an artistic field, making a beaded necklace is not a transferable job skill and it keeps survivors from sustaining economic and social growth. Instead of saying: “Meet your quota of having sex with ‘x’ number of clients today to make me money.” These organizations are saying “Meet your quota of making ‘x’ number of bracelets today to make me money.” Although, this might be a better alternative to the reality of trafficked individuals, these organizations are keeping survivors in low-wage work represented in the free market of the United States. They are profiting from the process of rescuing victims from one low-wage system to create survivors of another low-wage system.
As a consumer you want to feel good about your purchase, and social enterprise organizations know this. These organizations are captivating consumers by using moral implications. This is accomplished through embellishing the stories and including the names of the survivors with every item that is being purchased.
Sari Bari is an organization that operates to employ women to make items such as bags, blankets, and clothing. Each purchase comes with the name and “freedom birthday” of the woman who made the item. When browsing the website, the names and stories of each artisan are available for customers to read. The items for purchase are listed categorically by the name of each artisan. This strategy is parallel to the approach engaged by traffickers when advertising victims for sex. In both scenarios, there is an option for the customer to choose a woman based on her story, qualities, personality, and what she has to offer. The customer can then select a product made by her, a piece of jewelry, or a service provided by her, a sexual act.
Social enterprise organizations have a very important role to play in the rehabilitation of sex trafficking survivors. My criticism is less about what they are doing as an organization, but rather how they are accomplishing their work. There are a few actions that I believe could be done differently:
*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC
Photo by YumShrift via Pixabay
The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.
Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.
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