What Hollywood doesn't tell you about human trafficking
At the beginning of my journey towards discovering more about and fighting human trafficking I visited a museum of modern day slavery housed in an old brothel in Houston, Texas, a huge sex trafficking hub in the United States. There were displays of slavery, both in a historical context and in the present day, with real artifacts that had been gathered over the years. What shocked me the most were two features from the old brothel that the organization purposefully did not renovate. The first was a room at the entrance of the building in plain sight of entering customers. The entrance foyer had a window into another room where women would line up so the customer could choose who they wanted. The second was a room where customers would have sex with the women. It was a small concrete cell-like room with one stained, filthy mattress on the floor. It might not sound like much, but seeing it caused my stomach to drop.
For the next couple of years, the way I spoke about human trafficking was fueled by that experience, and one more thing: what I had seen in Hollywood’s depiction of sex trafficking.
I’ve seen several movies depicting sex trafficking in different ways, but the common factor is that they all depict it in a manner that causes shock and intrigue, yet still remains distant from the reality of the issue. Whether it’s depicting a woman who has to work on the streets and approach customers to make money for her pimp, or a dark portrayal of women being auctioned off to wealthy men, it all depicts sex-trafficking in somewhat of a glamorous manner.
I never realized this was a problem until I heard a woman who works with survivors of sex trafficking say that she tries to avoid talking about the issue or the people in a “sexy” manner. Sexy. I thought about it for a moment and then it completely made sense. It’s easy to talk about human trafficking in this thrilling, shock-and-awe manner.
But why is this a problem? It’s taken me a few years to recognize, but the manner in which I would talk about human trafficking was shaped by these experiences that were not complete representations. I would use appalling language to describe the conditions these women work in and the horrors they endure, but I never spoke in a manner that was respectful to the women themselves.
Here’s the root issue: I was not thinking about the humanity of the people who are actually involved in human trafficking.
Recently, I volunteered for an organization that employs women who used to be in the sex-trade. As I sat in a candle workshop with two women, one younger and one older than me, I couldn’t ignore this overwhelming connection to them because we had more similarities than differences. When we were together, nobody was a victim and nobody was an advocate. We laughed about typical girl problems and sympathized with each other over our recent struggles. I cried on the drive home as I replayed our interactions in my head. It was as if our souls had mirrored each other, nodding in acknowledgement that we had all experienced hardship in our lives that connected us more than it separated us.
People involved in human trafficking are just like you and me. They have families, hopes, fears, and dreams, just like you and me. Their story of becoming trafficked is not simple, and they are going about their day to day life to the best of their ability under many different circumstances, just like you and me. They have inherent worth, just like you and me. I came to realize that when I was depicting these people as thrilling characters that need some secret middle-of-the-night rescue mission, I was keeping them at a distance.
So, over the years, I’ve started to switch up the way I talk about human trafficking from something along the lines of: “These victims, locked away in dark rooms, drugged up, and covered in scars, are in desperate need of our rescue!” to “This issue is worldwide, is happening closer than we think, and is affecting people just like you and me. But there is hope. We can equip ourselves with knowledge and resources in order to aid the fight against human trafficking in our own way.”
It’s easy to let our mindsets become shaped by what we see in the movies, and it’s completely understandable to assume that they depict reality when we are learning about such a complicated, sensitive topic. The good news is that as we learn more about human trafficking, we can develop ways to inform others that are knowledgeable, trustworthy, and honor the dignity of the humans we are fighting for.
About the Author
Anna Stephens is a native Texan pursuing her Master's of Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science at Lund University in Sweden. She has participated in Dressember for 3 years, and plans to continue using fashion as a platform for awareness and eradication of human trafficking. In her spare time, you can find her drinking iced coffee, looking for dogs to pet, or exploring Swedish nature with her friends.