established media alike. Videos about trafficking regularly go viral,
and high-profile human trafficking cases have seized the public’s
attention. As someone who works in the anti-trafficking field, you
might think I would be thrilled about all this public attention. I’m
not. That’s because a great deal of the existing human trafficking
content is both inaccurate and irresponsible.
Last month provided a sharp example of the problem: Catapulted to fame
in part by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his PBS
documentary “Half the Sky,” Cambodian activist Somaly Mam quickly
became the face of the campaign against sex trafficking. Last month,
her face appeared on the cover of Newsweek — for an article that
exposed inconsistencies with her personal back-story and problems with
the tactics of her organization, The Somaly Mam Foundation, including
coaching young women to fabricate stories of extreme abuse and
torture. The piece aired concerns that experts in the field have long
maintained, but which have been largely ignored by institutions that
have lauded Ms. Mam as a “hero” of anti-trafficking.
The sensationalizing or falsification (either deliberately or
negligently) of sex trafficking information is often excused because
it is “raising awareness.” The assumption is that more awareness will
lead to more anti-trafficking efforts. While this may be true, such
efforts are not always helpful. When misinformed people do make an
effort to end human trafficking, they will often support policies and
organizations that are ultimately counter-productive to the fight
against human trafficking.
Human trafficking is a complicated problem that can be difficult to
discuss appropriately and sensitively. But the discourse of human
trafficking has real impacts on anti-trafficking efforts and on
trafficking victims and survivors. What follows is a simple guide to
avoiding some of the most common misunderstandings and
1. Do not repeat ‘statistics’ without investigating
All human trafficking statistics should be regarded with some
skepticism. Human trafficking is an illicit and hidden activity and is
therefore exceedingly difficult to study. Research is further hindered
by misuse of terms, poor methodology, and lack of adequate funding.
Unfortunately, in a vacuum of reliable data, people tend to
unquestioningly cite or simply fabricate trafficking data. Statistics
used by established organizations or “experts” are not above critical
assessment. Even oft-repeated, canonical statistics have been shown to
be based on outdated or non-generalizable studies.
Misleading statistics obscure the true nature of the problem and
result in the misallocation of the very limited resources available
for anti-trafficking efforts. Further, when these statistics are
inevitably exposed as false or methodologically unsound, it undermines
the credibility of the whole anti-trafficking movement. While accurate
statistics can be difficult to come by, the International Labor
Organization is widely regarded as having the best estimates.
2. Not all prostitution is human trafficking
The term “prostitution” refers to any exchange of sex for material
benefit and exists on a spectrum of exploitation. At one end are
women, men, and transgender individuals who freely choose to engage in
sex work. At the other end of the spectrum are victims and survivors
of sex trafficking. These women, men, transgender individuals and
children are prostituted against their will through force, fraud, or
Conflation of sex work and sex trafficking often leads to policies
that criminalize prostitution, making sex workers more vulnerable to
violence and exploitation. Meanwhile, the distinct needs of
trafficking survivors are ignored in favor of “demand reduction”
programs that target purchasers of commercial sex. These programs have
not had any discernible effect on sex trafficking and, in fact, may
disproportionately harm the sex workers that the programs are
ostensibly intended to help.
3. Do not sensationalize or sexualize human trafficking victims and survivors
Reveling in graphic details does not help victims and survivors, nor
does it contribute in any meaningful way to the fight to end human
trafficking. Rather, it tokenizes the experiences of victims and can
trigger trauma for human trafficking survivors.
Before portraying a trafficking victim or survivor, ensure that it is
necessary. Does this particular portrayal contain important
information that could not otherwise be effectively conveyed? Is the
victim/survivor’s experience being used to promote an organization or
raise money for that organization by inciting feelings of shock,
horror, or disgust in the viewer?
When portraying, publishing or publicly identifying a human
trafficking survivor or her/his story, the interests and needs of the
survivor should be of primary importance. After ensuring the survivor
has given fully informed consent (confidentiality, scope, framing,
support, etc.), it is critical to question how the portrayal might
affect other survivors and whether the portrayal may create a skewed
4. Do not ignore forced labor
The International Labour Organization estimates that of the 20.9
million people in human trafficking, 14.2 million are victims of
forced labor, as compared to 4.5 million in sex trafficking. Yet sex
trafficking captures a hugely disproportionate amount of public focus.
This narrow representation of human trafficking leads to severely
imbalanced responses. Sex trafficking is an important issue that
warrants special attention, but not to the exclusion of the plight of
the estimated 14.2 million people in forced labor.
5. Human trafficking is not something that only happens ‘over there’
The United States is a significant destination and origin country for
human trafficking. As such, Americans have an obligation to confront
and be accountable for the human trafficking occurring within their
borders. The myopic focus on sex trafficking of girls in Southeast
Asia or Eastern Europe draws attention away from the fact that the
tomatoes we eat may be the product of forced labor in Florida or that
the person selling magazines at our door may be a homeless youth being
trafficked state to state.
6. Do not ignore men and boys
According to the ILO’s 2012 estimates, 60 percent of the 14.2 million
people in forced labor are male. Yet male victims of human trafficking
are rarely discussed. The lack of public attention on the trafficking
of men and boys is reflected in the absence of services for male
survivors of human trafficking.
According to a 2012 study conducted by the Polaris Project, there are
529 shelter beds available specifically for trafficking survivors in
the United States. Of those 529 shelter beds, 125 are available to
men, and a mere two are reserved for men only.
The problems identified here are not merely semantic. While
awareness-raising is critical, it should not be used to justify or
excuse misleading or inaccurate information. We will not see true
progress until the passion of the anti-trafficking movement is matched
with intellectual rigor and is freed from narrow and paternalistic
Ryan Beck Turner is associate director of advocacy for the Human
Trafficking Center at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School
of International Studies. The Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking
and Prax(us) both provided feedback to Mr. Turner on this article.