Are Anti-Human Trafficking Campaigns Harming Some Young Women and Girls?

As the public becomes more aware of human trafficking, various well-intentioned groups have seized the moment by creating social media campaigns designed to educate the public on domestic sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Because public awareness of these issues has largely centered on the topic as one of international importance, recent outreach campaigns have focused on sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation as issues that that affect neighborhoods across the United States. But is all publicity good publicity?

One recent campaign features women being driven through a town in the back of a truck. They were dirty and beaten and sad. The intended message was that one need not look far to see victims of human trafficking. However, by choosing to portray the women in the manner it did, the campaign was also informing the public about what a human trafficking victim looks like. A victim must be sad. A victim is likely to be dirty. A victim will be ashamed, signified by hands covering their face. A victim will be restrained, chained or locked up, because if she wasn't physically restrained, she could simply leave. A quick Google search of images that depict sex trafficking show many other dirty, beaten, and restrained women in handcuffs or chains covering their faces and asking to be rescued.

Based on these campaigns, it is our duty to be vigilant in our daily lives, to always be on the lookout for shackled women who need to be rescued. In her recent article, "Take off the cape: Why using the word "rescue" is harmful to anti-trafficking efforts", Project Director of the Denver Anti-Trafficking Alliance Becky Owens Bullard discussed why the idea of rescuing women is harmful to them for various reasons, including because it simplifies the complex issues that surround trauma and human trafficking. I would add one more reason to that list: it alienates and harms many girls and young women who are commercially sexually exploited.

By focusing on a particular characterization of trafficking victims, we fail to identify young women and girls in our own neighborhoods as such. Instead, we view these young women and girls harshly. They are "teen prostitutes" or "troubled youth". We don't want them in our neighborhoods, seducing our husbands and sons. We see them, but we do not see them as victims of human trafficking. They are not physically dirty. They are not chained. They do not cry out to us to be rescued. Instead of victims, they are representatives of social ills, criminal activity, a problem to be dealt with by the police.

The average age of entry into the commercial sex industry in this country is 12-14 years of age. For any combination of reasons, including lack of family support, socio-economic factors, peer recruitment, girls become involved in the commercial sex industry at an age when they cannot legally give consent. Even when they do reach the age of consent, years of indoctrination into the commercial sex industry, combined with pimp control and a lack of other viable options complicates the concept of consent. Yet, we see their involvement in the commercial sex industry as a choice, the consequences of which they must bear alone.

This leaves us with a group of women who are marginalized, villified, and abandoned. They are mistreated in our communities, by police, lost in the criminal court system. We fail to realize that the power and control exhibited by pimps, the normalization of the commercial sex industry, fear, hopelessness, a need to be loved and accepted, even if by a pimp, are all factors that keep young women and girls in the commercial sex industry. It is why they do not run screaming into the streets begging to to rescued and why a lack of physical restraints does not mean that girls and young women have materially consented to their involvement in the commercial sex industry. The emotional restraints can be far more powerful than chains ever could be.

An example of the public's understanding of commercial sexual exploitation is the recent murder of two teenagers in Jacksonville, Florida. The story of their death has failed to garner national attention and many local news reports have focused on their involvement in the commercial sex industry and their criminal records, as if that makes their deaths any less tragic. We lost two precious young women who are no less valuable, despite the labels we may place upon them.

While I applaud the anti-trafficking movement for its efforts to raise awareness of the issue, I challenge us all to broaden our understanding of what a human trafficking victim looks like. If we are to effectively work together to eradicate human trafficking, we cannot ostracize young women and girls who are victims of human trafficking yet do not fit within a narrow interpretation of what those victims are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to act. We cannot hope to eradicate the problem without including all young women and girls in our efforts.