Broadening the Lens on Human Trafficking

Graphic stories of young girls being forced into prostitution and branded by pimps attract reader sympathy, but they also create a sense of invisibility for other forms of trafficking.
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Written by Alicia Peters

The typical image of trafficking is of a young girl, forced into prostitution at the hands of a ruthless pimp. She has been beaten or branded and is held in the most extreme conditions imaginable. Indeed, when I ask students in my undergraduate classes if they know what human trafficking is, I am greeted by a sea of nodding heads followed by some form of the question, "Isn't that, like, sexual slavery?" While this response, and the media portrayals that reinforce it, is not wholly inaccurate, it reflects only a partial understanding of the issue.

U.S. and international law define human trafficking as the process of forced, coerced, or deceptive movement or recruitment of individuals into exploitative conditions of labor, whether for picking tomatoes, cleaning houses, painting nails, or selling commercial sex. Yet, the dominant discourse of trafficking is skewed toward sensationalized stories of "sex trafficking," and it is this framing that shapes most of the American public's perceptions of trafficking.

Graphic stories of young girls being forced into prostitution and branded by pimps attract reader sympathy, but they also create a sense of invisibility for other forms of trafficking. Forcing teenagers into commercial sex is a despicable crime, but human trafficking is more than just sex trafficking, as I learned while conducting ethnographic research on the phenomenon. The most recent Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report , compiled on a yearly basis by the U.S. State Department, acknowledges this complexity and highlights that human trafficking involves women and men, children and adults, international and domestic victims, and compelled commercial sex and forced labor. Evidence suggests that 50 percent or more of individuals trafficked in the U.S. have been forced into sectors other than commercial sex and a good number of them are in fact men.

Yet, the skewed perception of trafficking as "sex trafficking" that dominates the media also permeates the U.S.'s response to the issue, particularly in the realm of law enforcement. In its assessment of efforts to combat trafficking in the United States, the 2012 TIP Report notes that:

"Federal and state human trafficking data indicate more investigations and prosecutions have taken place for sex trafficking than labor trafficking; however, victim service providers reported assisting significantly higher numbers of foreign national victims in cases of labor trafficking than in cases of sex trafficking,"

My own research supports this conclusion. How do we explain this contradiction? What became clear to me over the course of my research was that many law enforcement agents were basing investigations on their own cultural beliefs about sex and victimization as opposed to the actual reality of trafficking. Several law enforcement agents acknowledged that they viewed trafficking into forced prostitution as a more heinous crime than other forms of forced labor and that this perception influenced their work. One federal agent told me, "I don't see it [trafficking] so much as forced labor. The cases I believe are more important are women coming and working as prostitutes."

In addition to being inaccurate, framing trafficking solely as an issue of forced prostitution has real repercussions for real people. While most media representations of trafficking misinform the public through incompleteness, when these misinterpretations infiltrate the criminal justice system the consequences are much more dire. When law enforcement agents direct their attention to identifying cases of trafficking solely involving forced prostitution or signing off on paperwork for those victims in particular, so they can quickly access benefits and protections, it means that other victims are being overlooked. Despite the equal protections granted under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act to all victims of trafficking, the moral outrage over "sex trafficking" has resulted in a stratified response.

Over the course of my fieldwork, I encountered numerous instances of law enforcement overlooking trafficking cases when they did not meet the criteria of an individual agent's moral barometer of harm. However, I found that the experiences of trafficked persons challenged the ways in which trafficking is most commonly imagined in that trafficked individuals themselves attributed their suffering to an entirely different set of circumstances (e.g. fear, isolation, deceit, threats to their families) than those emphasized by the media, the general public, and even many law enforcement officials. In particular, the notion that trafficking can be bifurcated into "sex trafficking" and "labor trafficking" makes little sense in that one victim of forced prostitution may have more in common with a victim of labor trafficking than with another victim of forced prostitution, depending on the circumstances of the case. While the categories of "sex" and "labor" describe the type of work or services a person is performing, they stop there. In either scenario the conditions of trafficking can take a plethora of forms.

Bridget, a case manager who I interviewed, told me about one client who law enforcement showed a lack of interest in, emphasizing that the kind of trafficking was not as important as the conditions under which the person was held.

"The client that I have that has the hardest time in life is a domestic worker. She was trafficked when she was under 10 years old. She was in [the trafficking situation] until she was 23 or 24, never went to school, was totally isolated, and when she finally got out of the trafficking situation ... she got agoraphobia. She was illiterate; she had panic attacks, major depression, eating disorders. I mean the amount of obstacles that this girl had were just amazing, but her case was never, like nobody [law enforcement] went after them. Nothing happened. It was just ... brutal."

It's time to address the reality of trafficking, not just the oversimplified caricature of it. Men, women, and children living under deplorable conditions are being overlooked everyday and made invisible by the cultural myth that trafficking equals sex trafficking. No one deserves to be trafficked, but everyone who is deserves the rights and protections they are entitled to under the law.

Alicia Peters earned her MA and PhD from Columbia University and is currently Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of New England. She conducted two and half years of ethnographic fieldwork on the implementation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act from the perspective of government personnel, law enforcement officials, NGO service providers, and survivors of trafficking. She is currently completing a book based on this research, Trafficking in Meaning: Sex, Gender, and the US Human Trafficking Response.

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