Breaking Down Victim Stereotypes
Human trafficking is a topic that has been in the public spotlight for several years now, and still there are so many problematic portrayals of who becomes victimized, how and why, which leads to faulty stereotypes and faulty understanding of the problem, at least with how it operates in South East Asia. We’re going to address some of those stereotypes today.
This theme is especially popular in movies about trafficking. Audiences like morally easy distinctions of guilt versus innocence, and the victim of trafficking who is abducted is easy to see as innocent. However, it’s likely relatively rare that trafficking happens by abduction. While good data are hard to come by in this field, according to a survey of over 1,000 trafficking victims in the greater Mekong area (Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam), only 2.4% of the victims (3.6% of the female respondents and 0.7% of the male respondents) say they were abducted.
Similar to the abduction theme, people tend to emphasize “Stranger Danger,” when in the case of trafficking, only 10.3% of the respondents in the survey said a stranger was responsible for their trafficking. “It is not unusual for people to be trafficked or introduced to traffickers by someone who is known to them–including even close family members. This is one of the fundamental challenges to the prevention of trafficking, as it is logical for people seeking to improve their lives to trust friends, family members or acquaintances to provide reliable advice and assistance.”
Victims will be physically restrained
While this is also a popular trope, the prevalence of physical restraints varies a lot by sector. Labor trafficking victims like those on fishing vessels or in domestic servitude, brides/wives, and those working in factories reported severe restrictions on physical movement. Those in sex trafficking reported greater freedom of movement (though about 46% still reported that they did not feel free to do as they wanted or go where they wanted). When people who are being enslaved and exploited are not physically restricted, what keeps them there? Often times, it is threats of violence to themselves or to the people they love. In some cases, victims are trying to work to support their families or to get out of debt bondage. These latter cases encourage victims to blame themselves for their exploitation, or to hold themselves responsible for their ability—or lack thereof—to become free.
Victims will try to escape
These latter cases also help show why victims don’t try to run away. In the case of people being exploited in order to financially liberate their families, there are lots of incentives to stay.
Victims identify as victims
There are many reasons a victim might not identify as one. For one, not everyone knows what trafficking is, and may not realize there is a name for the situation in which they find themselves. Second, if an exploited person feels their “choices” led to the situation, they may blame themselves rather than see themselves as being victimized. Third, in cases like the sex trafficking of boys, there are many gender norms that contribute to the belief that boys or men cannot be victims of sexual crimes.
“Because men in our society are expected to always be ready for sex and to be the aggressors in sexual relationships, it may be difficult for a man to tell people that he has been sexually assaulted, especially if the perpetrator was a woman. Additionally, either the survivor himself or those around him may feel that a “real man” would have been able to protect himself.…If the perpetrator is a man, the survivor may may question his own sexuality, especially if he experienced an erection or ejaculation during the assault….Due to the disproportionate number of women who are survivors of sexual assault, it is often deemed solely a ‘women’s issue.’ This may be because stereotypes and patriarchy cause most people to be more comfortable with the image of a woman being deprived of her power in a sexual assault than a man. Men and people of all genders also experience this form of violence.” –University of Michigan Sexual Assault Prevention & Awareness Center
Understanding victims as actors with agency
When people “choose” to enter the sex trade—and I’m not talking about the wholly voluntary sex workers, I’m talking about people who enter it as a form of survival, or as a means to support a struggling family—it’s easy to think we can wipe our hands of the situation because it’s their choice. However, recognizing a person’s agency and recognizing they may enter an exploitative situation with their eyes wide open does not mean there wasn’t trafficking involved. This is especially true in the case of minors. We have to broaden our understanding of the systemic issues that put them there: poverty, ethnic discrimination, statelessness. We have structural policies that make it so exploitation is the only viable option—and these are every bit as responsible for trafficking as the traffickers themselves.
Dr. Jade Keller is the Research Writer and Executive Editor for The Freedom Story (formerly The SOLD Project). After receiving a PhD in Political Science from UC Santa Barbara, she moved with her family to northern Thailand in 2010 to work in child trafficking prevention, education, and helping to raise awareness. She currently writes from Berlin.