The trouble with trafficking

“It ought to concern every person, because it is a debasement of our common humanity. It ought to concern every community, because it tears at our social fabric. It ought to concern every business, because it distorts markets. It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime. I’m talking about the injustice, the outrage, of human trafficking, which must be called by its true name — modern slavery.”

President Barack Obama

The most common response to the fact that I work with human trafficking is this: “So, slaves?” I am eager that basic knowledge about “modern day slavery” has crept into conversations; I am happy that many people have some conception of the equation between the crime of human trafficking and the oft-touted phrase “modern day slavery.”

I’m not sure where the phrase “modern day slavery” came from in the counter-trafficking effort (nor does Google) but it serves to grab attention. With slavery as one of the greatest, institutionalized forms of human degradation, it is a dramatic and justified parallel drawn to capture attention and garner activism. “Slavery isn’t over,” the campaigns proclaim. Forty-two thousand young people will gather together to chant, “Freedom” and raise invaluable funds.

Yet, a part of me has always cringed at the zealous use of “slavery” when talking about trafficking. I struggle with the term “slavery” not because “slavery” is not an apt description of what is happening but because the implications and perceptions that accompany the word.

Slavery implies not only ownership of human beings but a system within which that ownership is legitimized. In the United States from the 17th until the 19th century, slavery was sanctioned by the Federal Government and reinforced through violence, fear, and other tools of oppression. Within this system, individual white slave owners, while culpable and reprehensible, were not the only oppressors and drivers of the systematic evil. Racism also drove the system; exploitative economics drove the system. Fear, violence, and deprivation of humanity, education and opportunity were just some of the tools used within the system to secure profit and labor.

What the general public often do not critically consider when equating human trafficking to slavery is the system within which trafficking is then also (and still) made legitimate. Even activists are happy to call out sweeping parallels to slavery of the past and remark that slavery is still here without a critical eye to the factors that kept slavery in place for so long. In the United States today, unlike slavery of the past, human trafficking is illegal. Individual traffickers have taken the place of slave owners of the antebellum south, and they still use the same tools to achieve profit and labor. They still deprive human beings of education, freedom, opportunity, and subject them to violence and abuse. Then, outside of legislation banning these traffickers from doing what they do, what holds this slavery in place? I argue that the same system that legitimized slavery in the first place legitimizes it today: Racism, poverty, exploitative economics, even homophobia and sexism. That is what people do not like to think about in the counter-trafficking fight. It is tough, and it is so much of a bigger fight than just stopping traffickers. However, if you are going to use “slavery” as the way to describe human trafficking, you are going to have to think beyond a victim in chains and think about oppression, good old-fashioned oppression.

If we only make a surface level comparison of human trafficking to slavery, we sidestep around the darker, scary (yes, scarier than trafficking alone) social problems that cause trafficking. We have to worry about combatting racism in our everyday lives; we have to worry about fighting poverty and making stronger social systems to help people move out of poverty; we have to deal with the way our society talks about, marginalizes, discredits, and minimizes immigrants, people of color, LGBTQI individuals, women, and the poor.

The human trafficking fight often acts like it does not deal with larger oppressions (with one exception: Sexism. Sexism gets play in the debate whenever there’s a nod toward objectification and women being used as sex slaves and commodities). Yet, homophobia, race, and class issues are only peripheral, if that, to the discussion, especially in major sources of media. The trafficking issue—sex trafficking in particular, as labor trafficking is largely underreported, rarely in the news, and said to be misrepresented in statistics— is even so sensationalized that viewers’ ideas about trafficking immediately take off down alleyways to dark corners, chains, shadows, the edge of beds where victims (imagined in heels) and invisible perpetrators (sulking shadows with heavy fists and no fear about drawing blood) are being sold and selling. The public comes to know the issue with an imagination full of broken girls and terrifying men. They have seen Taken, and America sits there and is frightened and outraged trafficking could happen to their child. Most of all, America hears that it could be anyone; it is their next door neighbor, their daughter, their sister, and it very well could happen to anyone. It could happen to anyone. That is true. Statistically, however, it is more likely to happen to your neighbor, your daughter, son, sister or brother if you are poor, native, a foreign national, an immigrant, a person of color, a migrant, an abused child, a homeless mother, a runaway youth, an LGBTQI teenager… It could happen to anyone but it happens most to the most vulnerable and the most oppressed.

So, when people ask me, “So, slaves?” when I tell them I work with human trafficking, I know they are thinking of someone chained to a bed. From my limited sample size in the (little over) a year that I’ve been working on trafficking, it is less a person chained to a bed and more networks of people in circumstances of abuse, poverty, mental illness, substance use who look for love and find manipulation, who look for help and find a pimp, who run away and find shelter in the lies of a trafficker. I have only seen one case of someone chained to a bed and even that individual suffered the same dangerous life circumstances that make people more vulnerable to a trafficker. The worst part is that I do not see sensational trafficking. The cases are horrific in their entirety, yes. The stories and victim statements could give you nightmares, but they are not sensational. The reason I think it is not sensational is because it is happening in houses in Saint Louis that you drive by, businesses you eat at, street corners you pretend are not there. It is happening so broadly and in such un-sensational ways that we are blind. I remember going to the Covenant House to give a presentation on sex trafficking to a group of homeless youth there, and I left feeling stupid and patronizing. After I had finished “preaching” about trafficking, they turned to teach me instead. They told me about the pimps, how it is everywhere, how they watched other teenagers get trafficked, how they fell prey to or escaped the lures of pimps themselves, and what it is like on the streets, evading exploitation. It is everywhere, and as long as we are unwilling to see poverty, see racism, see all forms of oppression in full operation in our every day lives and the world around us, we will be unable to truly see or combat trafficking in its entirety.

A huge part of me wants to go on to discuss the complicated factors of globalization, supply and demand, the role of the race of pimps and traffickers, the role you play in oppression every day by using, buying, ignoring, but I know the attention span of a blog is already limited and I’m beyond that.

Instead, I’ll ask you to watch this video, called, “I’m with Lincoln.” The video calls for an end to modern day slavery and proclaims, “I’m with Lincoln,” as an anti-slavery advocate. Are you really with Lincoln, though? If you are with Lincoln, how do you go about combatting trafficking? Do you claim superficial allegiance? or do you dive into the frightening depths of social sickness, its poverty, racism, homophobia and other forms of oppression, which render people not only vulnerable to trafficking but render us all slaves to a system of fear, hopelessness, helplessness, and blindness?


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