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What the Media Gets Wrong about Sex Trafficking
October 19, 2017

A few months ago, I began receiving several emails from students taking a university course that apparently covered topics related to sex trafficking, and they were asking questions about narrative and framing, and the potential negative repercussions associated with problematic narratives. Because we are concerned with ethical storytelling, I decided to put together a FAQs list on this topic presenting a more general use version of some of the questions and my responses.

Ethical storytelling is critical to anti-trafficking work in the extent to which it is used to bring victims and survivors the help they need, while avoiding re-traumatizing them, or worse, re-exploiting them. It calls for us to be more careful and aware about our narratives and their impact, and to be more creative in the ways we can inspire people to engage positively and bring about positive change in the world.

It is an issue that we care very deeply about. It’s also something that individuals and organizations are still trying to understand more fully, and the conversation has evolved dramatically over the past few years. We feel honored to be able to contribute to the conversation and its evolution, and our focus is generally on trying to encourage other individuals and organizations to participate in continued dialogue about best practices, and to learn from each other.

How do traditional stereotypes 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. Does that make the others less of a victim? Does the focus on “innocent” victims absolve us, as viewers, of the responsibility of dealing with more complex and nuanced realities? Does it infantilize people, and treat them as objects without agency? As viewers, when we are driven by one kind of story over another, does that then make us consumers of other people’s horror? What does it mean to consider victims as being more engaging, the grosser the abuse they have been subject to?

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 in society makes it so that traffickers can justify abusing and exploiting other human beings? What in society makes it so that traffickers and johns suffer no punishment for the abuses they inflict on others? What in society 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?

This is probably less of a problem now than five to ten years ago, before greater awareness on the topic started growing, but those new to the field should know about brothel raids and rescues, and what to watch for in how they are conducted or the way in which they’re presented in the media. There are three main concerns here: how the rescue was conducted, neocolonialist tropes, and the handling of the aftermath and rehabilitation.

On the conduct of raids and rescues

There is a spectrum of how interventions happen, ranging from a lone hero (or a band of them) getting into a brothel and buying people free or forcibly removing them to law enforcement conducting an investigation and, at an appropriate time and with due care to avoid criminalizing victims, conducting a raid after which they get victims help, care and services while prosecuting the traffickers. The lone ranger model is obviously problematic: paying traffickers to free victims is rewarding traffickers for what they do, while doing nothing to prevent them from abusing others and, without a concrete plan for the victim’s rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society, does nothing to prevent the victim from ending up back in the trafficking situation again later. Media narratives should be careful not to glorify or romanticize these kinds of “rescues.”

Neocolonialist tropes

Along the lines of the lone ranger “hero,” many media narratives on raids and rescues present the rescuer (whether NGO, individual, or law enforcement), as a hero–often of the white, Western male variety going in to rescue the innocents from the savages (often brown people)–which clearly buys into and perpetuates racist, neocolonialist tendencies. Let’s not do that.

Handling aftercare: prosecution, rescue, and rehabilitation

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. 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 involved were actual trafficking victims (following legal definitions) versus consenting sex workers, and “human trafficking” and “prostitution” are often used synonymously, though they are not the same. (Here is just one example.)

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 better reflect its reality, so that we can get to better solutions.

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Dr. Jade Keller is the Thailand Program Advisor and 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.

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