Reframing How We Approach Human Trafficking



Above are the image results I got when I simply searched the phrase: “human trafficking.” As I kept scrolling I was inundated with photos very similar to these. They were dark and disturbing, largely depicting young women or girls, the majority featuring physical bondage, and all evoking a sense of fear and helplessness.  

If I were to base my understanding of human trafficking on these photos, I would likely conclude: 1. human trafficking is synonymous with sex trafficking; 2. only women and young girls are trafficked; 3. only men are the perpetrators; and 4. that victims are forcibly bound by ropes and chains.

These images are not representative of the complex issue of human trafficking and rather illustrate a number of faults in how we approach and talk about human trafficking.

Leanne McCallum, with the Greater New Orleans Human Trafficking Task Force, recently shed some light on some of the common threads found in how we represent and talk about human trafficking, and how we can redirect our approaches to more positive alternatives.


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One of the most common myths surrounding the issue of human trafficking is that victims are always helpless and needing to be rescued. The driving forces behind human trafficking are much more diverse. When we fail to recognize different influencing factors, we risk discrediting the experiences of those who don’t fit the helpless, child-like, victim mold we’ve created.

One of Dressember’s grant partners for 2018, Restore NYC, exemplifies the trauma-informed and empowering approach that juxtaposes the “sexualizing, infantilizing, and dehumanizing elements” often seen. It focuses on the unique strengths of the women it works with, such as their community focus, resiliency, faith, and fierce desire to provide for their families. As part of Restore NYC’s economic empowerment program, it has an innovative social enterprise cooperative, wholly owned by the survivors, that serves to restore a sense of autonomy and dignity. The success of Restore NYC is just one example of how important it is to redirect to more survivor and trauma-informed approaches.

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Anyone, of any race, at any age, of any gender, with any socioeconomic status, in any country, from any walk of life can fall victim to human trafficking. When we stereotype those affected by human trafficking we dangerously misrepresent the impact and scope of this issue. For example, our flyers and awareness videos on trafficking frequently show adolescent, white females as the victims, when, in reality, 40% of victims are African American. Diverse representation depicting the various forms human trafficking can take and who it can affect is crucial to having a more complete understanding of the issue.

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Over half of the images from my “human trafficking” search included chains or ropes, and almost every single image implied some sort of physical bondage. One of the biggest myths perpetuated by these kinds of images is that human trafficking always involves some sort of physical restraint or abuse. When we are flooded with images that overemphasize symbols of oppression and harm, we can easily lose sight of all of the other means traffickers can use to gain power over their victims. Beyond that, it is important to use images that move beyond exploitation and abuse and instead depict at-risk environments without sexualizing them or showing the abuse and highlight empowerment and freedom.

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As if the exploitation experienced through trafficking wasn’t enough, it’s common to see survivor’s stories being exploited. Back in August the BBC took a more survivor-informed approach when they published an article entitled: “I was kidnapped in London and trafficked for sex.” Not only was the title of the article a quote from the survivor herself, but the entire article drew heavily from her own words. There were also direct audio recordings available throughout the article allowing you to hear her story first-hand. It is also common for survivors only to be seen for the trauma they have experienced. However, the author of this article gave voice not only to her trauma but to the expertise she now had on the issue. The article specifically highlighted her advocacy and the role she played in getting human trafficking legislation passed. Stories of survivors are powerful. They are even more powerful when the survivors drive the narrative and can ensure their story is accurately represented.

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We’ve all heard the phrase “sex sells.” While this is heartbreakingly true when it comes to sex trafficking, unfortunately, it’s also true when it comes to how human trafficking is represented in the media and even by organizations fighting against it. We are constantly flooded by visual content, and there is definitely pressure on media outlets and organizations to stand out and grab our short-lived attention. When it comes to human trafficking, this often takes the form of “trauma porn.” “Trauma porn” involves sharing the most jarring and grotesque details of a story specifically for the shock value. While this can potentially serve to engage non-survivors, it also has dangerous consequences. This “sensationalism” desensitizes us to the myriad of forms trafficking can take and dampers our empathy towards those who experience less violent kinds of exploitation. This is why embracing authenticity and honoring the unique value of every individual’s story is imperative. We need to recognize that all forms of human trafficking are bad, and not fixate on or seek out the shocking and horrific aspects of what a victim or survivor may have experienced.

In order to effectively fight against human trafficking, we need to have a clear picture of what it is and who it affects. Generalizations, stereotypes, dehumanizing elements, excessive emphasis on oppression and physical bondage, and sensationalism cloud that picture. It’s time we reframe it.

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About the Author

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Jacquelyn Chauviere Buss is a Diet Dr. Pepper addict with a deep love for people, especially babies. She recently graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in Business Honors and a minor in Psychology. She is passionately hopeful to see slavery eradicated in her lifetime.