If you’ve seen the movie Taken, you’ve been presented with the mainstream narrative of what it means to be trafficked: A girl is stolen by an international criminal. She’s sold into a prostitution ring and brutalized, and then is torn from the grips of her traffickers by a heroic (tall, white) man.
But how did this end up to be the dominant narrative surrounding trafficking? And why is trafficking now wholly synonymous with “sex trafficking,” “sex slavery,” or trafficking into forced prostitution?
I’m sure you’re thinking, “because it’s a huge global problem and there are lots of organizations doing work to combat sex trafficking, and they get lots of real money to do this work and they’re helping millions of women and girls, so it’s real.”
Sorry to shoot you with a bitter truth arrow, but you’ve been duped. It’s not that simple, and never has been. Part of this has to do with the fact that the definition of human trafficking has been warped, thanks to Taken-esque sensationalizing. The result is that victims of trafficking outside of the sex industry, including in domestic work, agricultural work, textile and garment labour, construction, among others, don’t always ‘count’ in the mainstream narrative. This has constructed a taxonomy of ‘worthy trafficking victims,’ with those in the sex industry deemed worth saving at the top of global anti-trafficking efforts. But what happens to the others?
Trafficking, by the International Labour Organization definition, specifically involves “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” Notice how trafficking is a modality, a means, a process. And to “rescue” is a bandaid.
Don’t feel bad about being duped. Nick Kristof fell for it too. And it makes sense: Innocent girls (and boys) are stolen and exploited in extremely horrible circumstances. The solution: rescue them from exploitative situation. However, this approach fails to address the root causes of trafficking and undermines sex workers’ agency within the sex industry. And because today is National Trafficking Awareness Day, let’s raise some awareness, eh?
And what can we all do to help combat trafficking of all kinds — not just the kinds in movies?
- Understand the distinction between sex work and trafficking into forced prostitution. This means understanding that sex workers – adult men and women who participate in the sex industry – are rights holders who are demanding access to their basic rights. It means understanding why interventions such as making it illegal to buy sex is harmful to sex workers, and puts them at risk for violence and police brutality. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again — When we frame sex work as blanket exploitation, we take away sex workers’ agency to name true exploitation in their own terms and respond accordingly. And I think it’s safe to say that there are few feminists who would agree that taking agency and consent away from women (and men) is a good thing. It’s important to listen to what sex workers are demanding, and it isn’t to be rescued.
- Be skeptical of organizations working to end ‘sex trafficking.’ If organizations ‘rescue’ women and girls from the sex industry or have predicated their model on offering sex workers ‘alternative’ low wage skills like sewing, it’s likely that their mission is to abolish sex work rather than to truly combat trafficking. Women and girls (and boys) trafficked into domestic work experience sexual exploitation, but aren’t on the roster for ‘rescuing.’ That’s because the underlying agenda of many anti-trafficking is to abolish sex work, and that’s a problem.
- Do your homework. There’s a reason most trafficking metrics are based on estimates. Yes, we’re dealing in clandestine operations and underground exploitation, but this data is also a leveraging tool to legitimize the work of abolitionist organizations. The Human Trafficking Awareness Index is a start because it complicates the usurpation of trafficking to always mean sex trafficking, but most media attention to trafficking is of the Taken ilk, further sensationalizing the issue of trafficking without actually addressing any of the root causes.
- Consider the root causes of trafficking into forced labour. Poverty, gender inequality, and the intersecting vulnerabilities that migrant workers experience all make it difficult to ensure basic labour rights. To channel resources towards rescue efforts is to start at the wrong end of the problem.
- Question your own assumptions about what “decent work” means, and think critically about Capitalism. If you’re inclined to think that trafficking into forced prostitution means that the sex industry should be uprooted, perhaps you should think about what trafficking into other industries should mean for that industry. Should we get rid of the garment industry because people are forced to work in exploitative conditions? Should we get rid of agriculture altogether because there are workers in slave-like conditions? Or should we work to ensure that everyone everywhere has access to safe, healthy, remunerative work in the industry of his/her choice?