How injustice is presented absolutely matters.
In anti-human trafficking work, some messaging and imagery has been historically misleading or – in some cases – harmful.
In any movement, the more we learn the more we need to change our messages to accurately reflect the issue.
When anti-human trafficking organizations, the media or even well-meaning people perpetuate harmful, misleading and/or false narratives, then the work of combatting human trafficking becomes more difficult, as victims continue to go unrecognized and needed services around prevention and restoration go unfulfilled.
It is imperative that we address how our words and actions absolutely matter when we talk about human trafficking.
It must first be said that honoring survivors should be the crux of all anti-human trafficking messages. Survivor stories are a cornerstone in providing guidance to organizations about needed services and messaging.
Survivor guidance is the only way anti-human trafficking organizations can do effective work. That is why it is paramount to honor survivors and their stories – only if they wish to tell their stories at all.
Organization leaders and others should never coerce survivors into changing their story to suit a sensationalized message. Survivors’ stories are their own, and they should tell those stories how they choose to, if they choose to tell it at all.
It is also important to note that anti-human trafficking organizations should not push survivors to tell their stories to media outlets. If a survivor is uncomfortable with speaking to the media, or speaking on their experiences at all, that should be honored.
A part of recognizing our obligation to respect survivors – not just of human trafficking but all forms of violence – is understanding that sharing or resharing of images or video clips of assaults is never justified – not even to illustrate the abusive nature of human trafficking.
Sharing an assault, even if the victim cannot be identified, is retraumatizing for survivors everywhere and does a disservice to the anti-human trafficking movement.
In the recent past, human trafficking has been called “modern day slavery.” While around the world, human trafficking may, in fact, be slavery, in the United States using the word slavery to describe this issue is misleading, confusing and racially insensitive.
According to the article, “Human Trafficking, Chattel Slavery, and Structural Racism: What Journalists Need to Know,” published by the Irina Project and written by Chris Croft and Robin Colbert of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, in the U.S., the word slavery immediately brings to mind the chattel slavery system where Black Americans were seen as actual property.
In chattel slavery, people were sold to a slave owner and their children were also enslaved. That does not reflect the nature of human trafficking.
In human trafficking, there is fear and danger around leaving the trafficker, but there isn’t a government system to keep the victim under the trafficker’s control.
Using chains or breaking chains imagery is also misleading, because it presents the false idea that all human trafficking victims are bound and confined.
In reality, human trafficking is far more insidious. Victims are groomed and oftentimes have a relationship with their trafficker – or, in some cases, their trafficker is their caregiver.
Using that imagery in human trafficking education materials could make it more difficult for victims to self-identify and for others to identify victims, since they are almost never in shackles and chains.
The most common misconception and misrepresentation of human trafficking is forcible kidnap.
Though it would be incorrect to say kidnapping never happens in human trafficking cases, it happens far less than people assume because of the proliferation of false information on social media, as well as other media – such as movies that sensationalize human trafficking for entertainment purposes.
When community members and professionals are looking for human trafficking via kidnap, they are looking in the wrong places. They will invariably miss the victims who are homeless, a runaway youth or struggling with a substance use disorder, while they only look for victims of kidnapping.
The anti-human trafficking movement has enough barriers in trying to educate the public and relevant professional sectors about the reality of human trafficking. Those within the movement must represent human trafficking with integrity and transparency.
The reality is horrific enough; there is no need to sensationalize or misrepresent it.
Community outreach coordinator at NC Stop Human Trafficking.