Today, January 11th, is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Issued in 2011, the presidential proclamation marking the occasion is full of inspiring words that push us toward action:
“As we work to dismantle trafficking networks and help survivors rebuild their lives, we must also address the underlying forces that push so many into bondage. We must develop economies that create legitimate jobs, build a global sense of justice that says no child should ever be exploited, and empower our daughters and sons with the same chances to pursue their dreams. This month, I call on every nation, every community, and every individual to fight human trafficking wherever it exists. Let us declare as one that slavery has no place in our world, and let us finally restore to all people the most basic rights of freedom, dignity, and justice.”
Here at MY SISTER, we’re passionate about raising awareness surrounding the issue of sex trafficking. With that passion comes a certain responsibility to represent the issue in the most truthful and straightforward way that we can. We’d like to take some time on this day to talk about a few of the not-so-great aspects of the anti-trafficking movement, and how we can ALL do better as advocates in the coming year.
The truth is, there’s altogether too much sensationalized language and imagery when it comes to anti sex trafficking campaigns. Think of the images you’d see on an anti-trafficking flyer (or when you google the words sex trafficking): a little girl in a white dress crying in what appears to be the corner of a parking garage. Handcuffed hands with “help me” written on them. A woman with heavy rope knotted around her neck and a barcode on her forehead. Sure, most of these images aren’t meant to be “realistic”- they’re likely meant to portray the psychological bondage of a trafficking situation or to shock us out of the normalization of buying and selling humans- but the fact remains that these images can subtly influence our perception of the reality of sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking in the United States doesn’t usually look like a van with dark windows wheeling into an alleyway and thugs dragging a screaming girl inside (as Hollywood might have us believe). More often, it looks like a “boyfriend” grooming an at-risk female with affection before using her body for financial gain, or a generational norm of commercial sexual exploitation that you’re almost “born” into.
Learning how to be the best anti-trafficking partner we can be for the organizations we love is an ongoing process for MY SISTER. We’re constantly listening; most importantly, listening to survivors of sex trafficking, as well as listening to well-informed leaders and researchers within the movement.
In addition to not using certain images that stereotype trafficking in an unhelpful way, we are also careful about the language that we use when we talk about trafficking. Here are a few of types of language that we try our best to stay away from, and why:
Language that takes away personal power
When women are coming out of a situation of abuse or exploitation, they’ve often been in a place where they’ve had very little personal power. Pimps and traffickers make it a priority to have the women within their control dependent on them for safety, food, shelter, drugs, or even a sense of “affection” or love. In a police raid on a pimp’s residence in NY, a handwritten document entitled “rules 2 da game of hoez” was seized, detailing how to keep women oppressed and obedient. A particularly telling entry, “Alwayz make them need and depend on you so you have power over them. (Power is control)” is a sobering reminder of this type of control.
Language that takes away personal power can seem innocent enough, but what are we really saying when we use words like “rescue” or “save”? Are we positioning women in difficult situations as strong and capable when given the opportunity to change their circumstances, or as perpetual damsels in distress that need a savior? Is using language that takes away power helpful or harmful to survivors who are working on regaining independence?
Language that implies choice in situations where there may not be choice
A great example of what we mean by this is the common use of the term “prostitute”. You may have heard women who are currently within a situation of commercial sexual exploitation referred to in this manner (Here are MY SISTER, we’ve even seen news articles referring to trafficked children as “child prostitutes”!).
The title “prostitute” implies that “being a prostitute” is 100% a choice made by the person in question (even though situations categorized as “prostitution” are just sex trafficking by another name, as both “businesses” are dependent on the same cycle of abuse and control.). “Prostituted person” is usually a more accurate term, indicating that the commercial sexual exploitation that person is experiencing is likely a set of circumstances that took away choice at some point.
Language that stereotypes
The truth of the matter is that sex trafficking is a crime that doesn’t discriminate: women of all races, backgrounds, ages, and socioeconomic statuses can be affected. We avoid using language that makes it sound like every person affected by sex trafficking is impoverished, addicted, or has experienced childhood abuse. We honor the stories of those who have been exploited by not assuming we know the situation without being told.
Language that sensationalizes
Language that sensationalizes the issue of sex trafficking often reads like one of those scary movie trailers, usually narrated in a deep and ominous voice: “Evil lurks around every corner- your child could be next”! Yes, sex trafficking is a horrible, scary, and unacceptable crime that should be treated with seriousness and gravity, but trying to “shock” or scare people into awareness isn’t the way that we choose to do things. We want to give you well-vetted facts and concrete action steps so that you can be the best advocate that you can be!
We hope you’ll join us in creating the kind of world we want to see though careful words and intentional actions!