Human Trafficking in Silicon Valley: What Part Are You Playing?

In the much publicized case of Baptiste v. Goguen, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist has been accused of sexually abusing a woman for years. Since the case is ongoing, we express no view as to whether the allegations are true (Goguen has denied them). We are, however, very concerned with the media's inexcusable pattern of coverage of cases like this in general.

In our work in the anti-trafficking space, we have seen many cases in the United States and abroad with the same problematic media coverage: A prominent figure is discovered to be an exploiter, and he or she has power over a victim and in society. The exploiter gets caught after years of abuse - and then tries to hide it. When hiding it fails, the exploiter claims that the relationship was consensual or that the victim is really just trying to extract money. PR firms and expensive legal defense teams are called in, and the story turns away from any criminality of the exploiter. Instead, it points to the victim: her background and her supposed sexual deviances. The media now refers to her as an "exotic dancer", "prostitute", and "mistress".

Now, the stories in the news are about the harm being done to the exploiter's reputation and his family, any sensational or embarrassing parts of the victim's background, and the twisted interpretation of statements from the victim while trying to survive her situation.

Too often these cases contain statements from the victim showing desperation, dependency, intoxication, or statements minimizing her pain or eagerness to keep the exploiter satisfied. In such statements, we see a familiar pattern of a human in a subordinate position to her exploiter, a human who is dependent upon an abuser for financial and emotional support.

This is about more than one case. AnnieCannons works every day with survivors of human trafficking and we are all too familiar with the stories and commentators who claim that victims of exploitation were really "asking for it" in one way or another. We never consider it defensible for an exploiter to justify his exploitation by saying that someone they exploited "asked for it." For the press to reiterate the "she asked for it" defense is equally indefensible.

A critical piece of our mission at AnnieCannons is to amplify the voices of human trafficking survivors and help their realities come to light. Trafficking is overwhelmingly the consequence of discrimination, vulnerability, and the resulting desperation, and this type of reporting only makes those circumstances worse for all victims. It is critical to the fight against human trafficking that the press and the public at large really understand the nature of coercion and how it is used by exploiters.

We see our students living with abusive boyfriends after their "escape" from their exploiters because they cannot otherwise afford rent in San Francisco. Organizations we work with report that a person beaten nearly to death by her pimp will sometimes beam about how much he loves her because he stays near her bed after he beats her. And we doubt any victim of domestic abuse would deny that he or she tried to avoid disappointing his or her abuser most of the time. The overwhelming majority of abusive situations, particularly where trafficking is at play, include systematic, calculated physical and psychological manipulation of an individual.

To the press, we beg you: follow a case, not a spin supplied to you by the one side of the filings or PR teams. Follow information that comes to light, look for the full text of partially-quoted emails, and check sources. You must not let your headlines propagate the claim that anyone "asked for" violence or abuse.

For our part, we will strive to continue our work so that our students can one day help illuminate the buried facts of stories like these through their technological expertise.

Our work will end when the powerless humans pursued and exploited by those with more power, influence, money, and privileged become empowered at last - and when the press they get is about their success in the face of unbelievable adversity.

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