THE PROBLEM WITH THE DISCOURSE OF ‘TRAFFICKERS’ AND ‘VICTIMS’: Heroes, Villains, and Victims
I say that trafficking prevention is about addressing social inequities, and not about targeting or demonizing traffickers, because in order to do the latter, one needs a “victim” and an “aggressor.” This irradiates the conditions that make trafficking a viable means of income for traffickers and make victims of trafficking vulnerable to coercion and exploitation. The construction of “victims” and “aggressors” in the discourse of trafficking is unhelpful, and it only neglects a fuller analysis of the social conditions and material realities that the trafficker and trafficked grapple with. This is an analog of the “good guys/Heroes” “bad guys/Anti-Heroes” “damsel in distress” narrative that characterizes the Western story-telling tradition.
Am I saying that there are no victims? No. To the contrary, I am saying that this popular narrative among anti-trafficking activists, lobbyists, feminists, and the like facilitates a re-victimizing of survivors of trafficking in synchrony with the demonizing of traffickers. The impetus to ‘save’ victims of trafficking is not an impetus to recognize the agency of survivors and traffickers. By representing traffickers as ‘exceptional’ figures- notably in the classist, racialized trope of the “pimp,” anti-trafficking discourse occludes the truth that traffickers are often those closest to the victim. In many cases, traffickers are parents, family members, intimate partners, neighbors, teachers, religious leaders, police officers, and other ‘trusted’ authority figures. The trafficker is not simply the shadowy figure in the alley who ‘snatches’ runaways or migrants.
The popular discourse trafficking tends to center on women and girls as victims, conflating sex trafficking w the sex trade while displacing the majority of
trafficking cases- domestic/forced labor/organ trafficking. This same discourse also facilitates an uneven gaze upon the gendered (and often, racialized) bodies of sex workers via inflated reports of sex trafficking. The “Rescue Industry” enacts this through the surveillance and policing of sex workers, and their subsequent arrest and entry into cycles of recidivism through ‘brothel raids.’ These ‘brothel raids’ typically traumatize and criminalize sex workers and survivors of sex trafficking, most of whom are cis-women and transwomen.
Even “End the Demand” efforts targeting ‘Johns’ unwittingly target and criminalize sex workers- particularly transwomen in the sex industry. ‘Johns’ are assumed to be heterosexual, cis-gender (or “male-bodied”)* men. These assumptions of heteronormativity are dangerous, however, as they doubly criminalize transwomen. One example is the Chicago Police Department’s practice of posting the mugshots of of ‘Johns’ who were arrested and charged with soliciting online in order to ‘shame’ them. Thing is, researchers at DePaul University found that 10 percent of the photos are of transwomen (likely sex workers) who were misgendered as men by police officers and arrested as “johns.”
The “White Savior” impetus manifests itself frequently in anti-trafficking organizations representations of themselves. For example, one organization tellingly named “Saving Innocence” offers would-be anti-trafficking activists a chance to “buy her freedom.” Yes, they propose that anti-trafficking activists fuel trafficking in order to save the ‘exceptional’ victim. Who is this ‘exceptional victim?’ She is typically a cis-gendered Eastern European girl or woman with blond hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. She is “innocence” unlike ‘presumably ‘hypersexual’ African-descended or Latina women who are trafficked into the sex industry. Orientalism rears its head in the anti-trafficking discourse when the ‘victim’ is an Asian woman or girl. A good example is Nick Kristof’s January 2004 column where he reported on ‘buying’ two Cambodian girls’ freedom for $353. He positions himself as a benevolent White Savior gracing the lives of poor trafficked Cambodian girls. He never questions that he fuels the human trafficking industry by ‘saving’ these victims that he’s deemed exceptional. He never questions the gross inequality between the himself and these girls. He never questions his complicity in trafficking. Instead, he silences the girls and tells their story in his typical self-aggrandizing manner.
- Melissa Gira Grant: The War on Sex Workers: An Unholy Alliance of Feminists, Cops, and Conservatives Hurts Women in the Name of Defending Their Rights
- Petra Östergren http://www.petraostergren.com/pages.aspx?r_id=47601
- Laura Augustin http://www.lauraagustin.com/
- Jo Deozema http://t.co/yp2Nrn7t (citation: Jo Doezema. Loose Women or Lost Women?: The re-emergence of the myth of ‘white slavery’ in contemporary discourses of ‘trafficking in women’ International Studies Convention, Washington, DC, February 16 – 20, 1999, Gender Issues, Vol. 18, no. 1, Winter 2000, pp. 23-50.)
- In terms of statistical data re:
#trafficking, the best source is the Int’l Labour Org (ILO) http://www.ilo.org/public/english/protection/migrant/areas/trafficking.htm …
- Also, the US Dept. of Justice has case studies of
#trafficking. You can search: http://www.justice.gov/archive/olp/human_trafficking.htm …
* I avoid using “male-bodied” or “female-bodied” because it is extremely problematic terminology. The terms themselves do not capture the reality that sex is assigned and ascribed, not innate.