Princesses and Policemen: Discourses of Human Trafficking

Princesses and Policemen: Discourses of Human Trafficking June 19, 2024

I’m pleased to introduce Lisa Weaver Swartz, an assistant professor of sociology at Asbury University. She is the author of Stained Glass Ceilings: How Evangelical Do Gender and Practice Power. –David

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I just returned from two weeks in Thailand, the last of four research trips to Southeast Asia since 2017. In the U.S., we often hear how vast the problem of human trafficking is. In Thailand, I was reminded again how vast the antitrafficking movement has also become. As my co-author, David R. Swartz, and I interacted with some of this movement’s architects and current practitioners, I’ve also been reminded of the depth of compassion that is its core. Since 2017 we have interviewed well over two hundred people, each somehow involved in efforts to counter the injustices of human trafficking in Thailand and Cambodia. The great majority are American evangelicals compelled by the biblical injunction to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Some, to be sure, have been more helpful to the cause of justice than others, but I am convinced that this movement, fragmented and varied as it has been throughout its short history, is held together by a thin but strong thread of shared concern for the world and its most vulnerable people. Even as we apply critical analysis to the story of antitrafficking in Southeast Asia, I am humbled by the efforts and sacrifices of so many people who persist in its work.

This is the first of two posts, derived from a much larger project exploring the movement’s history and complexities. These posts draw from analysis of over ten years’ worth of web content produced by five of the most influential organizations in the region. This content replaces the missionary newsletters of yesteryear as a key donor relations tool. As such, it is an invaluable part of an organizations’ work. As one administrator told me last week, “[my organization] doesn’t exist if everybody stops giving tomorrow.”

Donors need to be compelled to give, and the learning curve for American antitrafficking NGOs has been steep. These posts will illustrate some of the lessons they have learned—and continue to learn. Examples drawn from earlier years provide an especially important baseline, illuminating the narratives that have cultivated the imaginations and passions of countless Americans, eager to contribute to the work of social justice and the elimination of human trafficking. While storytelling practices have shifted over time, many of these early patterns persist, albeit in more subtle forms, even as some are increasingly contested by movement leaders themselves.

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The video begins with the words “A True Story of Restoration” stamped in white letters against a simple background of black-and-white photography. “My name is Sariat,” begins the narrator. “My parents, they are very poor,” she explains, adding a bit of context to the story that goes on to chronicle abuse, manipulation, and fear. Eventually, viewers learn, Sariat’s struggle gave way to relief when she encountered the Organization, a well-known entity in the fight against human trafficking in Southeast Asia. The people there, she recalls, “provid(ed) everything for me: good food, a good place to stay, everything to use and after, maybe, one month, I stayed to learn a sewing skill.” She expresses interest in going to a city to learn more about sewing. “I want to learn everything. This is my dream,” she says. The final scenes of the video show a young woman, presumably the narrator herself, riding a bicycle, her face carefully concealed from the camera in each shot. “Because of [the Organization],” she says as soft instrumental music swells in the background, “my dreams come true.” The black and white imagery of the opening shots have given way to a vibrantly warm, Instagram-worthy color image. Lush green mountains tower in the background, and above the woman and her bike, the golden sun breaks through the clouds.

This True Story is the product of humanitarian storytelling. Its details belong to an individual, but its shape conforms to predictable patterns. By 2013, when the video was released, the availability of high-quality digital photography and the wide reach of social media had made videos like Sariat’s True Story both accessible and highly effective donor communication tools. The stories they tell follow a formula that has been produced, reproduced, and adapted by dozens of NGOs, each aware of the power of narrative.

Among the patterns that have emerged are gendered portrayals of the stories’ characters—particularly women. Not all of the women cast in humanitarian stories enjoy such a happy ending. Even those whose stories end on notes of restoration begin, like Sariat, as Victims. These women play important roles, particularly in the early years of the content I surveyed. Their lives have somehow gone awry, resulting in some kind of exploitation. Usually, it’s sexual exploitation. Humanitarian storytelling rarely provides detail about these victimized women’s own experiences. The audience knows primarily that they have suffered, and perhaps even continue to suffer, exploitation. Stories virtually never connect this exploitation to the women’s own choices. While seasoned humanitarians insist that the line between involuntary trafficking and voluntary prostitution is extremely thin, even at times imperceptible, humanitarian storytelling rarely gives much agency of any kind to its victimized women. Instead, it most often chronicles a set of unfortunate circumstances and exploitative forces beyond their control, leaving the details about the women’s own choices, perceptions, and will to the reader’s imagination. Whether the disarray in their lives is a result of poverty, malice, or other forces, victimized women themselves have little power over their own lives. They are, instead, depicted as vulnerable, passive, and helpless.

Some Victims suffer another imprecision: they are often conflated with children. In early web content especially, words like “kids” and “precious children” sometimes appear interchangeably with language like “women” and the ambiguous “girls,” muddling the waters between adult choices and childhood helplessness. The 2023 website from one organization, whose explicit purpose is to address the trafficking of children, illustrates. A large banner at the top orients visitors with the word “Rescue” in large letters, overlaying an image of a dimly lit night club. Carefully cropped and blurred to avoid showing full faces, the photo nevertheless includes a number of people, most of whom appear to be young adult women. The reader is left to wonder about the connection between these women and the organization’s work of rescuing children. Are the people with women’s bodies, in fact, the “children” in need of rescue? Are the images intended to display the sorts of places the organization works rather than the sorts of people whom they rescue? Whatever else it might do, this imprecision contributes to a category of child-like “helpless people” that women, at least sometimes, fall into.

Their identities are also obscured. In many cases, images blur victimized women’s faces. In other cases, their faces are cropped out of the frames entirely, leaving only partial bodies in view: legs, torsos, the backs of heads or, in one case, a set of hands bound with a cord. This pattern represents a subtle but important deviation from the earliest web content, when less effort was made to de-identify the subjects of images like these (who may or may not have been offered informed consent for the photographs). Attention to de-identification reflects an increasing recognition of journalistic ethics and awareness of the persistent vulnerabilities of survivors, both evidence of the antitrafficking movement’s growing sophistication through the 2010s.

Critics, however, frown at the practice. While applauding efforts to facilitate anonymity for vulnerable people, these critics—from both inside and outside the movement—point out that the resulting images also reduce women to victims. They are flatly portrayed as faceless assemblies of body parts. These provocative images, often sensationalized with dramatic lighting, effectively illustrate the need that the Organization exists to address. They do little, however, to humanize survivors themselves or to educate Western audiences about their complex lives and contexts. Veterans of antitrafficking work now widely eschew these practices, often calling them “another form of exploitation.” To counter the practice, NGOs like The Freedom Story and the Chab Dai Coalition now promote best practices of “ethical storytelling.” Headed by leaders who bring not only passions for justice but also training in social science methods, journalistic ethics, and trauma-informed care, efforts like these are increasing in their reach and sophistication. Their influence notwithstanding, victimized women still play highly visible roles in humanitarian storytelling for many organizations.

But there are other women. These women might have been Victims in the past, but humanitarian stories transform them into a new role: the Rescued. As in Sariat’s True Story video, the words and images that construct their stories subtly suggest difficulty–even horror–in these women’s pasts, but they do not allow the reader to dwell on their former tragedies. Rather, they drive the story forward, through a set of catalyst events (usually involving intervention by the Organization) to a point of tidy completion. By the end, whatever problems the Rescued woman faced before have been remedied. Her restoration provides as evidence of the value of the Organization’s work, the success stories that donor dollars make possible.

Rescued women also follow other predictable patterns. They often, for example, reflect conspicuously American assumptions of femininity. Most noticeable is the princess imagery. While, historically, the role of “princess” in both European and Thai imaginations has denoted a familial relationship within a royal household, in the American context it has taken on a Disney-esque quality that has less to do with monarchy and more to do with the sparkling tiaras and pink lip-gloss of what gender scholars call “emphasized femininity.” A very-American version of this princess culture threads a video profiling the work of another Organization on its 2023 website. The video begins with an animated visual, sketching a simple image of a young girl through a series of scenes, as the audio voiceover begins its first-person account:

“I needed to be rescued, but not just from the brothel. From the trauma, the pain, the constant tears, and the hopelessness, and through the love of Jesus that the people of [this Organization] showed me, I was. . . . I was treated like a princess and I felt the love of God for the first time. [The Organization] trained me and gave me a job in their employment center. They supported me through college and helped me pursue my dreams. . . .Without their love and support I would have had nowhere else to go. . . God used [the Organization] to set me free.”

In one of the accompanying graphics, just as the narrator tells of her salvation at the hands of the Organization, a pair of arms reach down from above the frame to gently place a crown on the girl’s head as the narrator reads, “I was treated like a princess, and I felt the love of God for the first time.” This character’s redemption is a package deal: God’s love is paired with feeling “like a princess.”

Rescued women frequently share another commonality: traditional domestic roles. Their stories often cite evidence of their continued wellbeing, including job skills, citizenship papers, and employment. Very often, this list also includes marriage. Finding a husband, in this narrative formula, is part of a woman’s restoration, a symbolic cue to the audience that her life has pivoted from disarray to order. One example, an extended story shared on one organization’s website, indicates not only that a rescued woman’s friend “asked [her] to marry him,” but that, “[t]his year, [she] gave birth to a daughter.”

Like marriage, motherhood and maternal postures indicate that all is well in a rescued woman’s life. In 2023, one large organization extensively circulated a particular image depicting a classically beautiful young woman, smiling confidently into the camera while two young children laugh as they play with a small puppy on her lap. In contrast with the dark tones of photos commonly used to illustrate stories of victimized women, this photo is set outdoors at midday, warm sunlight illuminating the entire scene and contributing to the sense that all is well. In another image, a woman named “Grace” snuggles a young child in a beautifully embroidered blanket on her lap. This image is taken indoors, making it slightly darker than the last, but a ray of sunlight streams in a window, illuminating the smiling face of the child. Grace’s head is lowered and partially shadowed as she gently smiles down at him. Rather than highlighting Grace herself, the composition of the image focuses on her relationship to the child, an emphasis reinforced by the accompanying caption: “Protected. Defended. Home.” In the patterns of humanitarian storytelling, women like these are not only rescued from exploitation. They are very often rescued to the familial, domestic roles of marriage and motherhood.

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While women play the leading roles in humanitarian stories, men are also key to their narrative construction. My next post will explore their scripts of masculinity and manhood and consider the importance of storytelling practices for the future of the antitrafficking movement—both in the U.S. and across the globe in Southeast Asia.

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