In June 2014, The Christian Science Monitor published an opinion piece by Ryan Beck Turner that is completely spot on and is without question one of the best articles I’ve read about human trafficking to date. Take a stab at it.
How Not to Talk About Human Trafficking
The sensationalizing or falsification (either deliberately or negligently) of sex trafficking information 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, such efforts are 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 a complicated problem that can be difficult to discuss appropriately and sensitively. But the discourse of human trafficking has real impacts on anti-trafficking efforts and on trafficking victims and survivors. What follows is a simple guide to avoiding some of the most common misunderstandings and misrepresentations.
1. 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 Even oft-repeated, canonical statistics have been shown to be based on outdated or non-generalizable studies.
Misleading statistics obscure the true nature of the problem and result in the misallocation of the very limited resources available for anti-trafficking efforts. Further, when these statistics are inevitably exposed as false or methodologically unsound, it undermines the credibility of the whole anti-trafficking movement. While accurate statistics can be difficult to come by, the International Labor Organization is widely regarded as having the best estimates.
2. 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. Meanwhile, the distinct needs of trafficking survivors are ignored in favor of “demand reduction” programs that target purchasers of commercial sex. These programs have not had any discernible effect on sex trafficking and, in fact, may disproportionately harm the sex workers that the programs are ostensibly intended to help.
3. Do not sensationalize or sexualize human trafficking victims and survivors
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 or raise money for that 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.
4. Do not ignore forced labor
The International Labour Organization estimates that of the 20.9 million people in human trafficking, 14.2 million are victims of forced labor, as compared to 4.5 million in sex trafficking. Yet sex trafficking captures a hugely disproportionate amount of public focus. This narrow representation of human trafficking leads to severely imbalanced responses. 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 labor.
5. Human trafficking is not something that only happens ‘over there’
The United States is a significant destination and origin 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.
6. Do not ignore men and boys
According to the ILO’s 2012 estimates, 60 percent of the 14.2 million people in forced labor 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. 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.
Ryan Beck Turner is associate director of advocacy for the Human Trafficking Center at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking and Prax(us) both provided feedback to Mr. Turner on this article.