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Selling the Issue and Not the Person

July 26, 2011


  By Writer, Film Producer, Blogger Erica Fletcher

Hands tightly wrapped around prison bars, a downcast girl sitting on a bare mattress, barcodes on skin, children looking longingly out of windows, naked women plastic wrapped in meat trays- these symbols of bondage and commodification have been exhausted in portraying human trafficking. In 2010, this rhetorical symbolism was further exemplified by an enacted auction of two young girls at Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition’s press conference on human trafficking (as seen in the trailer above). While the girls played convincing “sex slaves,” the spectacle gave me an uneasy feeling that the dramatization did more harm than good. While graphic imagery has proven to be very effective in drawing public attention to the issue of human trafficking, it can also threaten the individuality of those actually trafficked and forms a limited (and often inaccurate) archetype of the crime itself.

In today’s sound-bite culture of rampant advertising, media endorsed by social service agencies can all- too-quickly peg trafficking survivors in very stereotypical (and often helpless) roles. However, when I interviewed a survivor of trafficking, I found that her incredible ingenuity and strength ran counter to the one-dimensional characteristic of a “proper” victim that I had heard about in many of the conferences and training sessions that I attended while researching this topic. While her several attempts to enter the U.S. were largely motivated by threats against her family (as with many cases of human trafficking), Ana’s ability to secretly marry a U.S. citizen and leverage his citizenship status to negotiate her trafficking situation, necessitates a more complex view of “autonomy” than is commonly portrayed in the media.

While moralistic campaigns may pull on the heartstrings of potential donors, volunteers, or trafficking ring whistleblowers, they also indicate that commodification of those trafficked occurs at the level of raising public awareness. By using the same techniques as mainstream thriller movies, docudramas, and print advertisements, many nonprofit organizations also open their PSAs up to similar criticisms against American media for the voyeuristic oversexualization of women. Although their dramatic imagery may be a telling commentary on what is now “necessary” to shock American culture, the ironic cycle of social services paying for advertisements that portray helpless women and objectify the sexual crimes committed against them is quite unsettling- especially when one of the primary goals from this endeavor is to gain both social and monetary capital for their organization. In addition, this method may create an artificial distance between human trafficking and more controversial (yet related) debates on illegal immigration, the War on Drugs, and fair trade. By selling simple stories and visceral images, however, nonprofit organizations may unwittingly further stigmatized survivors of trafficking as commodities to be sold to the public and used to carve out portions of federal and private funding streams.

How then can nonprofit organizations and coalitions effectively raise public awareness without further commodifying the very people they are trying to serve? Can the ends of doing good ever justify the means of objectifying people? Deciding that they did not, I resisted using reenactments of trafficking situations and other imagery of bondage in my film. However, I still wondered if I were guilty of the same crime I just denounced when I included the “auction” within the opening scenes of my film? The first step I took to answering this question was some serious self-evaluation and contemplation of my project’s purpose. In my final cut of Pack and Deliver, I ultimately decided to include the scene of the “auction” to more thoroughly portray how Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition portrays human trafficking. While I understand that they felt this was an appropriate, sobering method to draw attention at a press conference and garner support, I couldn’t help but think that there must be better alternatives to promote anti-trafficking initiatives.

With better practices in mind, the following list provides some practical steps to prevent the objectification of trafficking survivors:

–          When using images to explain your organization’s role in anti-trafficking initiatives, avoid uncommon yet iconic depictions of human trafficking. For example, those trafficked are more commonly psychologically bound to their traffickers (rather than physically). Therefore, images of bars, handcuffs, and chains should be used more sparingly. In addition, labor trafficking is much more prevalent than sex trafficking, yet it usually receives far less attention in the media.

–          Whenever possible, try to use vignettes written (or stated) by survivors of trafficking themselves. Provide them the opportunity to tell their story in their own words by creating a speaker’s bureau for them, putting a couple paragraphs about them on the organization’s website, showcasing their artwork, etc.

–          Try to use the term “trafficking survivor” instead of “trafficking victim” whenever appropriate. However slight, the positive connotation of “survivor” highlights the potential resilience and strength of previously trafficked people.

–          Go beyond simplistic, moralistic terms when describing human trafficking. In particular, discuss international human trafficking in a more global manner including demographic push factors, immigration policies, drug trafficking, psychological factors, and free trade policies.

–          Focus on the people you are trying to help. Ask survivors of trafficking for their opinions and incorporate their suggestions into your marketing campaign.

–          Reevaluate current campaigns to raise awareness about human trafficking and set marketing standards that match your organization’s mission and goals.

With the establishment of many coalitions and task forces within recent years, I wonder how large of a role grotesque imagery has played in funding anti-trafficking initiatives. Without titillating spectacles, can a film,PSA, or awareness campaign remain poignant, accurate, and relevant? While the success of my own film remains to be seen, I firmly believe that demanding public action should not come at the cost of the further commodification and objectification of trafficking survivors.

Edited excerpts from Beneath the Surface, an exploratory study on sex trafficking in Houston.

Erica Fletcher is a recent graduate of the University of Houston. While earning a degree in anthropology and sociology and a degree in psychology, she completed an undergraduate thesis and film exploring Houston’s social service system for survivors of trafficking. To learn more about her research, please visit her website at www.ericafletcher.weebly.com, or contact her at ethnographicfilm@gmail.com.

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2 Comments
  1. Beverly McPhail permalink

    Really thoughtful well-written piece. I totally agree. Another organization that sexually objectifies women for their good cause is Peta. They often use imagery of naked women to shock and titillate. I appreciate the reasoned approach you are bringing to this important cause.

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