Portrayals of Trafficking in the Media – More Harm Than Good?
February 13, 2020

The media rely heavily on victim-perpetrator tropes in narratives about trafficking, but this fails to capture how nuanced and layered the story can really be – and may end up doing victims and survivors of trafficking a real harm.

How do traditional stereotypes in the media about sex trafficking harm victims?

There are two often used stereotypes of how sex trafficking happens: the first is the innocent girl who is abducted and then sold into horrific conditions and forced to perform sexual acts; the second is of a family who sells their children into sex labor and exploitation. Both of these things happen, and yet both narratives are problematic for understanding the nature of trafficking and how it can occur.

In the first example, the “innocence” of the victims makes it easy to drive empathy, but it totally eclipses the reality for so many other victims who were manipulated, coerced, or otherwise pushed into the sex industry (or are women, or boys, or men), with varying degrees of awareness of what they were getting into. The focus on the “innocence” of victims, if not treated carefully, can end up making the people in other cases seem less of a victim–and it’s already a huge problem that many people trapped in a trafficking situation do no see themselves that way, and thus don’t seek help.

In the second example, the focus is often on the depravity of the families and how they could possibly subject their children to such abuse, which is entirely the wrong question. The question should be: what in a society makes it so that families are in such a position? What structural processes make it so families are subject to such extreme poverty they would resort to such extreme measures? What makes it so that traffickers can justify abusing and exploiting other human beings? What makes it so that johns want and are willing to pay for the opportunity to sexually use and abuse other human beings? The onus should not be solely on families and individuals to escape sex trafficking. The onus should be on the larger society to make trafficking impossible and unacceptable to begin with.

What’s wrong with “rescues” in media narratives?

Media narratives often focus on rescues, and sometimes on prosecution, as the climax of the story. In reality, the work has only just begun. Trauma from trafficking is often multiple and complex, and it’s often perpetrated upon people who are already traumatized from other previous forms of abuse. Recovery is not easy. It requires time and care for the victims to heal and to find a new place for themselves in society. And sometimes, retreating back into the trafficking situation seems like the “safer” option because life after rescue can be incredibly hard and isolating. Our job in society doesn’t end with “rescue.” Our responsibility begins long before trafficking starts and continues long after it ends.

Carelessness in use of terms

After so many years of sex trafficking’s presence in the news, on policymaker’s agendas, and in law enforcement’s purview, it is dismaying to see how little care journalists use in employing proper terms and definitions. Every month, articles are published about law enforcement finding victims of sex trafficking, and journalists are quick to point out how many potential victims there were and how many traffickers were arrested.

Unfortunately, nothing in their writing inspires confidence about the real number of victims. There is a total lack of clarity about how many people are actual trafficking victims (following legal definitions).

Unfortunately, this lack of care contributes to the difficulty in assessing the scale of the human trafficking problem, which is already challenging enough as it is.

On Doing Better

Sex trafficking is a complex and challenging problem. It requires that we raise the bar for ourselves–to better understand and reflect its reality, so that we can get to better solutions.

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This piece is a re-post and update of an earlier version.

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