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Holding Advocacy Groups, and Ourselves, Accountable on the Human Trafficking Narrative

By Kendra Cashman, Intern

Celebrities are constantly attaching themselves to social justice issues, aligning themselves in a very public manner to what matters the most to them. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher have done just that with their organization, Thorn. The advocacy group focuses on the human trafficking crisis worldwide. Kutcher has become especially well-known for his public advocacy on the issue, with viral videos of his emotional testimony to Congress. While Kutcher should be applauded for his public advocacy, it opens a conversation about the broader narrative that is used surrounding human trafficking and where we may be making mistakes. When discussing human trafficking, it is important that inclusive language and narratives are used to better educate society and respect survivors, something we could all be better at. Wonder what types of shifts in language we could use to be better allies? Check out IJPC’s analysis of Thorn’s website to help highlight the key takeaways of holding ourselves and advocacy groups accountable. 

Human trafficking is more than just female child sex trafficking.

Thorn’s home page is labeled with the promising title “We Can Eliminate Child Sexual Abuse from the Internet.” An ambitious goal, it fails to recognize the complexity of human trafficking and sticks to a narrative that fails to represent the full scope of the problem. More problematic yet is the narrative in a video posted that contains various key employees at the organization. It argues that human trafficking is “someone’s sister, and someone’s daughter”. But what about male and transgender survivors of all ages, not just children? The issue is much more far-reaching than young women. It’s affecting every kind of person, both through sex and labor trafficking. Even though sex trafficking is talked about more, labor trafficking is impacting more individuals globally than sex trafficking. The stories that Thorn presents are not representative of the larger issue at hand, which happens often when media presents human trafficking issues.

To only draw from a narrative of trafficking through the lens of young, sex trafficked females is not only damaging to those it leaves out, but to all those who are a trafficked. For individuals in trafficking, it can be hard enough to come forward about their situation. Closing the narrative off to only one story hinders survivors who have had differing experiences from coming forward and perpetuates the feeling that their story isn’t enough. While it is okay and often necessary for advocacy organizations to specialize in order to use their capacity and resources effectively, that should be done while acknowledging the larger framework of the issue at hand. Although Thorn’s focus on child sex trafficking allows them to address that topic with more nuance, it is still important for their organization–and all others–not to perpetuate myths about the larger issue of human trafficking. This can be done by presenting a narrative about human trafficking that includes the intersectional aspects of victims’ and survivors’ stories and by acknowledging that the story being shared is just one kind of story, not the only kind of story. This extends to all media, advocacy groups, and individuals who are sharing stories about trafficking. 

Human trafficking is never the survivors fault.

What appears to be inconsequential word choices can actually have a significant impact in the perception of human trafficking. Small changes in wording, such as “vulnerabilities” instead of “risk factors” take blame away from the survivor, and shift it back to the perpetrator. Thorn is close in making their webpage more respectful with regards to the language discussed, but it falters in its consistency of using one term over another. “Risk factors” is used interchangeably with vulnerabilities, even though the terms have very different connotations. “Vulnerabilities” is a word that puts less blame on the survivor; whereas “risk factors” makes it seem as if the survivor could have controlled those factors to avoid trafficking all together. It would be more effective if the organization chose to use universal language that supported victims and survivors, not blame them. This again, is a common thread across various advocacy groups and media outlets. Risk factors and vulnerabilities imply different sources of blame, and it is crucial that when discussing human trafficking that it is done in a way that truly respects survivors. 

Despite Thorn being the primary focus of this article, many leading advocacy groups and media outlets need to make changes to their language use to better encompass the larger story of human trafficking and its implications. It is an evil often unspoken about, and when it is, it is sensationalized and haphazardly presented. Due to the complex and intersectional nature of human trafficking, using inclusive language is key to sharing the narrative in an effective manner. To truly end human trafficking, it takes advocacy groups, the media, and individuals all standing up together. When talking about the issue, make sure you are following steps to respect the survivors. When reading a media source, analyze how that source is discussing the issue and where the blame is being placed. And finally, appreciate what advocacy groups like Thorn are doing, but don’t forget to push them to be even better.

Want to learn more about how to responsibility talk about human trafficking issues? IJPC has recently published a messaging toolkit for the media and for the public. Use it to learn the Who, What, Where, Why, When and How to take action to end human trafficking.