Building Awareness of Human Trafficking Beyond the Stereotypes

silhouette of man standingOn a recent trip through one of America’s busiest airports, I noticed a series of arresting posters. They were hard not to notice. Among the standard signage directing passengers to gates and terminals hung imposing scenes of women in various positions of restraint with copy that urged travelers to be vigilant about survivors of human trafficking. A young, white woman behind bars, an unseen person physically covering the mouth of another woman, a set of bound hands. The images certainly capture attention, but they tell an incomplete story and promote dangerous stereotypes about human trafficking (some of which I mentioned in a previous blog).

The complexities of human rights violations and their solutions are often lost in awareness campaigns (see Kony 2012). Any good marketing professional will tell you that an effective message is simple, easily understood, and shareable. Obviously, this creates a tension in building a full and composite understanding of an issue. As this Saturday, January 11, is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, I fully expect to see stereotypical depictions of trafficking survivors make the rounds on social. Before you re-share, consider avoiding images that:

  • Reduce the complex dynamics of force, fraud, or coercion that define human trafficking to images of literal restrain like chains or bars. While extreme physical isolation and restraint is certainly a feature of some human trafficking cases, it is not inclusive of all survivors’ experiences.
  • Only include women or female presenting persons as potential survivors of human trafficking. Trafficking survivors are of all genders, gender identities or gender expressions, and sexual orientation and the solutions to trafficking need to include everyone.
  • Suggest that sex trafficking is the only kind of human trafficking. Labor trafficking is a prevalent and under-recognized problem that affects thousands of people across the country.

Our awareness building must be more informed and robust if we want the general public to truly learn about the realities of human trafficking. The dynamics of human trafficking are complex. Many individuals who meet the legal definition of human trafficking victims do not identify as such. A study on labor trafficking found approximately 94 percent of victims understood they were being victimized but were not aware that what they experienced was human trafficking and that there were laws and protections in place for them. They often blamed themselves for what they described as having been ‘tricked,’ further inhibiting their ability to come forward (Owens et al, 2016) In addition, the vulnerabilities that put many survivors at risk for exploitation can make them appear less stable, leading people to question their credibility.

We do a disservice to our audience, and to survivors, by relying on stereotypical images or language. These tropes are both counterproductive to awareness-building and lead to potential misunderstanding of and failure to identify survivors who do not match them.

If you are looking to raise awareness about human trafficking this month and beyond, turn to reputable sources such as Urban Institute, Freedom Network USA or Polaris Project. The Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign has some great awareness building resources to share as well.

If you are a court practitioner interested in how you and your court team can better identify and respond to survivors of human trafficking, please visit the MOSAICS webpage or contact us at