When I was part-way through doctoral work that included conducting extensive field-based research in the world of human trafficking, I had a small crisis: What I was learning and discovering did not line up with what I believed going into the study.
I had a few experiences previously that initially triggered me to reconsider the trafficking narrative I began with. The first one was while riding in a taxi down the streets of Mumbai when a colleague told me she was sore from getting beat up during a rescue at a brothel the previous evening.
“Who beat you up?” I asked. “The traffickers? The police?”
She responded, “No, the woman beat me up because she didn’t want me to rescue her. At some point, she’ll thank me though.”
I still remember the tilt of my head and squint of my eyes as I realized this sounded really screwed up.
This was my first big moment of realizing something was amiss in the movement, but I had other experiences as well.
Another was when I interviewing sex workers at brothels on the outskirts of the city. Each had a complex story full of nuance, individual circumstances, and choices. As I decompressed the interviews with a colleague, I caught myself saying that I needed to find a way to redefine trafficking, since none of the current sex workers we interviewed met the legal criteria of force, fraud, or coercion, or even wanted to leave the brothel when asked what it would take for them to leave. They had complex and often sad stories, but they were not trafficking victims as I had assumed.
No two stories were the same, and hardly any of what I was learning from sex workers lined up with what I previously believed– it wasn’t a black and white situation where everyone was a trafficking victim or in desire of “rescue.” So, I began to think of ways to make their stories fit my beliefs– until I realized that going down that road would be wrong.
As for me, I knew I had only one option: I needed to abandon my confirmation bias (tendency to only believe/consider information that conforms to one’s previously held belief), and follow wherever the research/data led, so that I could publish my dissertation and post-doctoral observations with a clean conscience. That journey (spanning a few more years of research) left me with views on human trafficking that radically disagree with the traditional Evangelical narrative on human trafficking– but so be it. I followed the data honestly, and this is where I landed.
One of the key observations of my study (which relied heavily on examining trafficking organizations through social movement theory) was this: Many faith-based anti-trafficking organizations had slowly blended trafficking and sex work together to the point where many are no longer exclusively anti-trafficking organizations. Instead, many have functionally become anti-trafficking, anti-porn, and anti-prostitution organizations (which is totally their prerogative, but let’s be honest and at least name it).
Interestingly enough, this also happened in the 19th Century when Evangelicals dealt with the issue of human trafficking– it slowly morphed over time and eventually became an anti-prostitution movement. In fact, even the term they originally used to define trafficking ultimately came to mean prostitution and not trafficking at all– which is precisely what we see with the modern term “sex-trafficking.” What was once a term to identify “force, fraud, and coercion” in some places is now used to refer to trading sex in general– exactly how it all happened a hundred and fifty years ago.
The realization through social movement theory that much of the human trafficking movement is morphing and becoming more and more of an anti-sex industry movement, led me to another interesting, and more disturbing observation: the movement is quickly focusing on “helping” a group of people we don’t even know.
Later in my research I began to enter into more dialogue with the sex work community, which confirmed my hunch in India years ago: the stories of those in the sex work community are individual, varied, nuanced and complex, and do not line up with some prefabricated narrative where one size fits all. It also became evident, and attested to, that far too many in the anti-trafficking movement are not in dialogue with the sex work community. Nor have they been. Instead, I hear voices expressing feelings of being silenced, discounted, stigmatized, ignored, and even parented by strangers who think they know what’s best for them– without even knowing them or their individual stories.
They might have listened to some stories that were then generalized and applied to an entire people group, but this doesn’t make those generalizations or experiences true for everyone, no matter how sincerely one may want to believe it.
What is happening today in the anti-trafficking/anti-sex industry movement would be offensive in any other context. It’s a form of moral colonialism: “Oh, hey– I’m here, I have moral objections to how you’re living, and I know exactly how your life needs to change without even listening to your story.” The only reason why it’s tolerated in this context is because of the stigmatization associated with the sex industry– one that is often perpetuated by the very people who claim they want to help. (And it’s not just Evangelicals, BTW. Left-wing feminists are doing the same thing– silencing sex workers, reinforcing social stigmas, and treating people in the sex industry as if they are all helpless victims who lack any personal agency. These two groups make strange bedfellows, for sure.)
Here’s the bottom line: this new anti-sex industry movement is a movement aimed at “helping” people many won’t talk with, or even listen to. That strikes me as a poor way of carrying out our mission.
And what’s worse is this: if we truly want to address human trafficking, those in the sex work community should be our closest allies, because they’re the ones most in the know, and the fiercest advocates for those who are being exploited. But instead, we have alienated them at the expense of our own mission– and that harms people.
The first seats at the table ought to be reserved for those from the sex work community– and everyone else should listen.
So why do we have an entire movement dedicated to “helping” a group of people the movement isn’t even talking to? Why do anti-trafficking conferences often lack any speakers who disagree with the Evangelical or left-wing feminist position on the sex industry? Why are the voices of those in the sex industry silenced, ignored, and totally discounted?
I think the answer is complex, but at the heart of it is this: reality would really mess with our confirmation biases and savior complexes, and those biases and complexes transcend the liberal vs. conservative or secular vs. religious binaries.
It’s convenient to believe everyone’s a victim, because there’s a payout for ourselves: we get to play the role we like to play. It’s harder to enter into the messiness and complexity of life and sit and listen to people’s stories, especially when those stories don’t end with us saving them.
Anti-trafficking work is important– that’s why I spent 4 years of doctoral work on it. But the narrative we start out with is not a one-size-fits-all model; reality is always more complex. Yes, you’ll find cases that do fit the narrative– people who are trapped in fraud, force, or coercion and who are in need of help. But you’ll also find a range of experiences, such as people who enjoy their work and want to have their rights and safety protected, or even deeply moving and beautiful stories such as sex workers who specialize in helping people with severe disabilities (people one grows to see as far closer to humanitarians than helpless victims).
So in the end, why is so much of the human trafficking movement ignoring the voices of sex workers? It’s because when you listen to them, the one-size-fits all narrative of “everyone’s a victim” crumbles, and along with that, we’re forced to rethink our approach, our philosophies, the harmful laws we advocate for (such as the Nordic Model), and everything else. Basically, I fear if we listened to the voices of sex workers we might actually have to stop what we’re doing, and start all over again.
And that’s just too much trouble.
It’s far easier to keep operating under our confirmation biases– because when we do that, we never have to move outside of black and white, and into the grey that is real life.
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