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Human Trafficking Center

Saving Human Trafficking Survivors from their “Saviors”



Apr 2016



By Kristy Kumar, Research Assistant

U.S. Federal and international law concerning human trafficking make clear distinctions between sex trafficking and sex work. Many service providers and advocacy groups do not. In promoting a narrative that conflates sex work and sex trafficking, these groups often silence the very ones they claim to try and help. Sustainable solutions to trafficking must engage people at the local level and give survivors space to create their own paths to freedom.

The Savior Complex

“Save us from our saviors!” This is the mantra of non-profit sex workers’ union, SANGRAM-VAMP (SV), located in Maharashtra, India. By utilizing the term “save” pejoratively, founder Meena Seshu and her team calls attention to the global crusade anti-trafficking/ anti-prostitution activists are pursuing on behalf of others. Yet, in this march towards justice and equality, survivors and sex work activists have been continually denied voice and rights along the way.

Trafficking isn’t Simply a “Women’s Issue”

Through problematic and gendered rhetoric, policy makers and human rights organizations have aided in creating a narrative that purports female victims as requiring saving and male exploiters as intrinsically malicious. Ultimately, the campaign relies on sexist stereotypes: our women are in need of culturing and our men are in need of jailing. This cultural narrative reinforces dangerous gender norms and excludes gender nonconforming people, men, and boys as unworthy of protection and as negligible survivors of violence.

Trafficking to Prison Pipeline

The politics of this narrative have served as a rallying point for anti-human trafficking discourses that rely on increased penalties to  “save” communities. This recent socio-political shift on “women’s issues” however, has driven a coalition of activists who rely on sensationalized rhetoric to perpetuate exploiter-victim binaries. Such a simplistic conceptualization has led to the growth of incarceration-based solutions for both survivors and traffickers that further criminalizes marginalized populations with the possibility of being put into state-sponsored forced labor.

Shelters or Cells?

The reliance on incarceration for individual’s purported benefit has severely limited how organizations and governments understand the causes and solutions to human trafficking.  Organizations such as the International Justice Mission (IJM) began its early work with a moral crusade ideology that has hindered local HIV-outreach efforts, exacerbated the potential for police brutality, and placed both trafficking victims and adult sex workers vulnerable to deportation and involuntary “shelter” residence. While IJM has since claimed to change its policies to be more locally driven, ultimately such rescue-and-restore methods fail to address many root factors that create systems for trafficking to thrive. Yet, organizations such as IJM set the global standard for anti-trafficking efforts. It is helpful to view IJM in contrast with the sex workers’ union SV, which utilizes collective organizing as a tool for anti-oppression work. SV serves as a crucial contrast to the policies and methods pursued by IJM because their collective is intimately organized around the principle of choice and dignity.

A member of SV, Meenakshi Kamble, remarks that before working with the collective, “We didn’t know about our rights, so we would take the abuse and the beatings. We didn’t even know that when the police raided our premises, a woman cop had to be present. They’d just come and pull us by our hair. Then, we started using the rights language with them. Earlier, the police, criminals, and even our clients would ask for free sex, and we didn’t have the power to negotiate. Now, we speak about the money we are owed for our work.” SV highlights the power of viewing emancipation as best emanating through collective community recourse rather than from a single, outside authority.

The Sustainability of Liberation

What’s evident in Kamble’s narrative is sustainability. In pondering the limits of emancipatory logic, a fundamental question is often overlooked: “If the ‘trafficked woman’ is physically and psychically incapable of freeing herself without the intervention of a liberator, how can she magically metamorphose into a free individual who has no need of the liberator after the moment of rescue?” Indian scholar, Padma Govindan’s question critically exposes the emptiness of a rescue delivered on the behalf of another. It’s unsustainable on an individual and societal level.

Moving Towards Community-Driven Solutions

In seeking the pursuit of supporting access to genuine emancipation on behalf of survivors, advocates should move from macro to micro policy practices and community-identified solutions to see success. In this pursuit, advocates must place their personal hopes for survivors aside. By removing personal biases, advocates can be open to engaging in authentic dialogue with survivors and serve as support for a route to freedom that is constructed within survivors’ own languages and visions.

Photo via Kristy Kumar

About the Human Trafficking Center

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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