Hollywood is fantastic at telling us stories. They spin sensational tails that capture our imaginations, manipulate our emotions, form our beliefs and create our values. There is power in how a story is told, therefore, there is responsibility for the story-teller.
We do this with the story of human trafficking. We encourage survivors to share their reality to manipulate emotions and open checkbooks. We use images of young girls bound by chains and ropes, mouths sealed with duct tape, to motivate the apathetic. We tell ourselves it is empowering for the survivor, it gives them a voice. Even if our motivation is a bit murky, we rationalized that the money raised from their story and the images we use will help so many more.
This practice is not only a sort of harm-reduction methodology for the NGO trying to raise funds, it’s also used by educators and researchers to justify their costly projects. Often out of a lack of exposure to survivors, academics gravitate to the most compelling stories and images to confirm their findings.
I say this not to condemn, but to enlighten. I’ve worn both of these shoes. I’ve had to make decisions as both a leader in nonprofit organizations, and as a researcher and educator of human trafficking. The challenge is significant. But if our intentions are good, what’s the harm? Let’s consider this answer in two ways, the impact it has on the issue of human trafficking in general, and the impact it has on individual survivors.
On a macro level, when we sensationalize the issue, we misrepresent the problem of human trafficking in general. Showing pictures of young girls bound and gagged creates the belief that all victims of human trafficking are young girls taken by force. The reality is that most victims of sex trafficking are coerced through psychological manipulation rather than physical force. Violence is used to force compliance once the trafficker has control of the victim, but violence is not normally used as the initial means to gain the victims compliance.
This also misrepresents the victims of human trafficking. Images of young Caucasian girls are often used to represent the victims and survivors. This gives a false impression of the gender, ethnicity, and age of victims and survivors. Clearly every image or story can not be all inclusive, nor should they be, that too would distort the reality, but when stories and images are used, consideration should be given to include victims and survivors from these other groups.
When we use sensationalized images and stories those become the narrative for human trafficking in the public consciousness. What we sensationalize becomes normative. What is normative is expected. What is expected is not challenged. Victims are not being identified because the public is looking for the wrong identifiers of human trafficking. Law enforcement are not arresting traffickers, and prosecutors are not prosecuting traffickers because they look like Jeffery Epstein, or our neighbor, instead of the scary creepy guy in the shadows.
On a micro level, when we sensationalize the issue of human trafficking we risk creating further harm to survivors. Clearly, this crime is horrific. Many survivors have lived through the unimaginable. In some ways to sensationalize their experience, cheapens it. We exchange the worst times of a persons life for a few clicks and donations. I too have struggled with this; surely, there is a better way to raise support and awareness.
To say what many survivors have experienced is horrific actually does not do justice to their stories. The reality is worse than can be imagined and impossible to exaggerate. For them it’s not the experience that is sensationalized, but rather, using the experience for gain that is sensationalized. When those of us who are truly trying to help, create new trauma, it can be triggering for survivors, creating new trauma to add to their existing trauma. Our intention is not to exploit them, but that is the effect.
Hidden in the dark recesses of trauma, agency can taken away from survivors with the encouragement to tell their story, or the use of sensationalized images. Popular belief is that it’s empowering for survivors, it gives them a voice. But rather than empowering them, a recent study by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab reported in Thomson Reuters Foundation News indicates that using sensationalized imagery could be dis-empowering for the survivor. (Millar, 2019)
Our responsibility is to speak the truth without creating more trauma, to tell the story of human trafficking without misrepresentation. This issue is too important, the stakes too high for us to be caviler with how we convey the truth about human trafficking. If we want to effectively battle this cause without creating more harm to victims and survivors, we need to stop undermining our work by sensationalizing the issue.