More Empathy, Less Sensationalism

Journalism and Anti-Trafficking — It’s Complicated.

For weeks, I have been introducing myself to people connected to human trafficking. I made some progress speaking to nonprofits devoted to anti-trafficking and spoke to researchers and policy makers, however I wasn’t sure how I’d connect with survivors. Then it happened in the most unexpected way.

Late Friday afternoon, I had scheduled an interview with an anthropologist at a NYC University. He wrote an intriguing paper on commercially sexually exploited children. I noticed that in his paper he makes a distinction between these children and trafficked children. Does this then raise the question as to whether some children are choosing sex work for a lifestyle? Can a child really consent to this career? Even if our communities are not the same, I believed I could learn a lot from his research and explore the shared background social issues that can lead a child to make this “choice” and children that are trafficked.

Within a minute after meeting, my interviewee said something’s come up. Unfortunately, he can’t meet with me, but that he knows someone more directly connected to human trafficking so he will drop me off in her class to talk. He then revealed that Claire is an expert in human trafficking and that she is also a trafficking survivor. Next came the warning that she can be pretty abrasive.

In my mind I’m thinking, “I’m totally unprepared for this. God help me,” but trying to outwardly appear composed and nonchalant about the switch up. We reached the classroom and it was dark. The class was watching a movie, but that didn’t stop him from walking in and telling me to have a seat. He whispered something to the professor and left. A clearly annoyed woman is glaring back at me and all I could say was, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know he was going to do that.”

When the class ended and the students left, she looks at me and says, “I don’t talk to journalists.”

Oh boy. I try to alleviate the awkwardness by explaining that I am not a traditional journalist. I reassure her that I am hoping to have a positive impact on human trafficking and anything she might share with me would be helpful because she is the first survivor I’ve had an opportunity to meet. Yet, I can see she is reluctant, so I suggest maybe it’s not a good idea, but she agrees to talk to me. Two hours later, she had shared more than I ever expected. (Out of respect for the uncomfortable situation she was put it, I will not use her real name and refer to her as Claire.)

Claire was clear about her resentment of the media and even anti-trafficking organizations that compel survivors to share the details of their abuse. “I realized I was a freak show to them.” She found herself being exploited again and reliving her trauma. She asks, “do we really have to convince the world that human trafficking exists and that it’s scattered across the globe? That it’s in your backyard too? Haven’t we already done that? How is awareness of the brutal violence and disgusting details going to change anything?”

Instead Claire suggests, why don’t journalists and organizations focus on restoration, legislation, and addressing the systemic issues that uphold human trafficking?

Demis Glasford, a social psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was a guest speaker for my Community Engagement class at CUNY J-School. He talked to us about how people are often not motivated to action unless a problem violates their morality in such a way that it ignites their anger. So perhaps that’s partly why sensationalism is so often used in journalism. The story about famine has the picture of the starved, helpless child. The story of refugees’ survival includes a picture of the lifeless child washed up on the beach. It’s the same with human trafficking — the stories we read paint a picture of a child that was coerced, exploited, exposed to extreme violence and rape. However, where does that lead?

As a social journalist, I don’t want to use disturbing imagery to raise awareness of modern day slavery without some path to influence it. I hope to engage my readers’ empathy and achieve relevancy not through sensationalism, but because my audience is the community I serve. It is their needs I am addressing and therefore relevancy is already established. I will strive to create something useful that might elevate their lives, even if just in some small way.

I hope to also raise awareness of how sometimes our empathy for trafficked children is too often hinged on being convinced of coercion, their exploitation, and the inescapability of their prison. If you spend some time listening to people discuss child trafficking you will eventually come across an attitude that sounds something like this:

“If you didn’t runaway the moment you knew you were going to be involved in prostitution, well, then it must have been your choice to stay there.”

Not only can compassion for a victimized child be precarious, but it can easily turn towards judgement and even punishment. In New York, a child can be arrested for prostitution, but Safe Harbor laws will protect them from prosecution if they can prove they were coerced. The onus is on the victim, a child, to prove they did not consent to participate in sex with adults. This kind of legislation mirrors our society’s moral panic around prostitution. Any hint of choice or willingness and regardless of how you got there, the victim needing rescuing can morph into a criminal.

The reality is these victims often don’t have jury appeal. They might have formed an attachment to their trafficker, they might even believe they are in a romantic relationship. It is also not unheard of for the victims of trafficking to be witnesses for the Defense.

If it ever seems like a teen didn’t take every opportunity to free themselves from enslavement, there needs to be a better understanding and empathy as to why that might be. Children who are trafficked have most likely experienced a concoction of extreme poverty, unstable or inadequate shelter and the majority have been abused either through neglect, parental abuse or sexual abuse. They are susceptible to manipulation and traffickers are masterful at using it to keep their victims from escaping, even when their prison door is left open.

A child trafficking survivor in Tricked struggles to have what she most wants — a normal life, “You’re in this whole different world and then you’re asked to come back. I just can’t get comfortable.”

Having a conversation with a survivor and the accounts of survivors in Tricked, I learned from listening to their needs that the media’s focus needs to be shifted. It is now my goal to create awareness of the complexities around child trafficking, the systemic factors that lead to children being susceptible to entrusting dangerous people with their well-being and helping survivors learn how to restore their lives.