By Ryan Beck Turner, Associate Director of Advocacy
*Please be aware that some of the links within this post may cause triggers*
Human trafficking is the cause célèbre for sensationalist media. Celebrities Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore have started a campaign against the sex trafficking of minors. Videos about trafficking regularly go viral. High-profile human trafficking cases have seized the public’s attention. As someone who works in the anti-trafficking field, you might think I would be thrilled about all this public attention. I’m not. A great deal of the existing human trafficking content is both inaccurate and irresponsible. This tripe is often excused because it is “raising awareness.” The assumption is that more awareness will lead to more anti-trafficking efforts. While this may be true, it is not always helpful. When misinformed people do make an effort to end human trafficking, they will often support policies and organizations that are ultimately counter-productive to the fight against human trafficking.
Human trafficking is an emerging and complicated problem that can be difficult to discuss appropriately and sensitively. What follows is a simple guide to avoiding some of the most common misunderstandings and misrepresentations:
Do not repeat “statistics” without investigating
All human trafficking statistics should be regarded with some skepticism. Human trafficking is an illicit and hidden activity and is therefore exceedingly difficult to study. Research is further hindered by misuse of terms, poor methodology and lack of adequate funding. Unfortunately, in a vacuum of reliable data, people tend to unquestioningly cite or simply fabricate trafficking data. Statistics used by established organizations or “experts” are not above critical assessment. Even oft-repeated, canonical statistics have been shown to be based on outdated or nongeneralizable studies.
Not all prostitution is human trafficking.
The term “prostitution” refers to any exchange of sex for material benefit and exists on a spectrum of exploitation. At one end are women, men and transgender individuals who freely choose to engage in sex work. At the other end of the spectrum are victims and survivors of sex trafficking. These women, men, transgender individuals and children are prostituted against their will through force, fraud or coercion. Conflation of sex work and sex trafficking often leads to policies that criminalize prostitution, making sex workers more vulnerable to violence and exploitation and denying their basic human capacity to freely choose how they use their bodies. Meanwhile, the distinct needs of trafficking survivors are ignored in favor of “demand reduction” programs that have not had any discernible effect on sex trafficking.
Reveling in graphic details does not help victims and survivors, nor does it contribute in any meaningful way to the fight to end human trafficking. Rather, it tokenizes the experiences of victims and can trigger trauma for human trafficking survivors.
Before portraying a trafficking victim or survivor, ensure that it is necessary. Does this particular portrayal contain important information that could not otherwise be effectively conveyed? Is the victim/survivor’s experience being used to promote an organization by inciting feelings of shock, horror or disgust in the viewer?
When portraying, publishing or publicly identifying a human trafficking survivor or her/his story, the interests and needs of the survivor should be of primary importance. After ensuring the survivor has given fully informed consent (confidentiality, scope, framing, support, etc.), it is critical to question how the portrayal might affect other survivors and whether the portrayal may create a skewed public perception.
Do not ignore forced labour.
The International Labour Organization estimates that of the 20.9 million people in human trafficking, 14.2 million are victims of forced labour, as compared to 4.5 million in sex trafficking. Yet sex trafficking captures a hugely disproportionate amount of public focus. This skewed representation of human trafficking leads to imbalanced responses to human trafficking. Sex trafficking is an important issue that warrants special attention, but not to the exclusion of the plight of the estimated 14.2 million people in forced labour.
Human trafficking is not something that only happens “over there.”
The United States is a significant destination, origin and transit country for human trafficking. As such, Americans have an obligation to confront and be accountable for the human trafficking occurring within their borders. The myopic focus on sex trafficking of girls in Southeast Asia or Eastern Europe draws attention away from the fact that the tomatoes we eat may be the product of forced labor in Florida or that the person selling magazines at our door may be a homeless youth being trafficked state to state.
Do not ignore men and boys.
According to the ILO’s 2012 estimates, 60 percent of the 14.2 million people in forced labour are male. Yet male victims of human trafficking are rarely discussed. The lack of public attention on the trafficking of men and boys is reflected in the absence of services for male survivors of human trafficking. According to a 2012 study conducted by the Polaris Project, there are 529 shelter beds available specifically for trafficking survivors in the United States. Of those 529 shelter beds, 125 are available to men, and a mere two are reserved for men only.
The problems identified here are not merely semantic. The discourse of human trafficking has real impacts on anti-trafficking efforts and on trafficking victims and survivors. While awareness-raising is critical, it should not be used to justify or excuse misleading or inaccurate information. We will not see true progress until the passion of the anti-trafficking movement is matched with intellectual rigor and is freed from narrow and paternalistic tendencies.
*We’ve been notified that this link in this article with the iEmpathize logo was not a photo distributed by the actual organization. We obtained it from sexandthestate.com.