Voices of Survivors

In this class we’ve learned a whole lot about how people come to “see” trafficking. We have defined human trafficking, identified the importance of addressing the demand for exploitation, and the many contexts in which trafficking occurs. As we challenged ourselves to create an anti-trafficking campaign, I realized how beneficial it would have been to have had the perspective of someone who has experienced these situations.

Whether in terms of outreach or human rights advocacy, survivor led anti-trafficking efforts have the ability to reach victims or those in need in a way that most others can not. Those who have been through this lifestyle have a better understanding of the correct way to approach outreach strategies. They also provide a voice for those who are silenced when it comes to advocating for human rights. To prove I am not just pulling these conclusions from anywhere, I have provided three main sources that illustrate the importance of including the voices of survivors when thinking about human trafficking. After diving into these sources I will end with a brief explanation of the concept of secondary exploitation and why it is something to identify and avoid.

Sex Worker’s Voices in Lawmaking

Juno Mac is a sex worker and activist focused on campaigning in support of sex workers. Instead of allowing those who have never experienced sexual economies make the laws about human trafficking, Mac challenges government agencies to stop conflating sex work and trafficking. WHHHAT? Ana are you saying there are people who have sex for money on purpose? Yup. Sex work is a way that people can engage in consensual sex and make good money doing so. So we are challenged with the dilemma of creating laws against sex trafficking while still allowing sex workers to safely make their money. It starts with differentiating sex work and trafficking, conflating the two is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. And how would we know how these laws are affecting sex workers had we not heard from Ms. Mac. We can’t say necessarily that those who need to hear this are listening, but we can say that the perspective of an actual sex worker gives us that nuanced view that we require in order to tackle human rights without further marginalizing those in need. Or worse, driving them into darker corners and therefore leaving them even more vulnerable to violence in their place of work.

Okay, so we’ve established that even before making legislation for anti-human trafficking efforts, we have to remember exploitation exists within an already established economy. Abolishing the entire sexual economy because of the presence of exploitation would be like criminalizing farms because of the prevalence of labor trafficking. It would not make sense. And it certainly would not solve the problem. Okay. Thanks Juno. Next, let’s talk about the importance of hearing from victims when it comes to the courts.

From Victim to Survivor
Of course we want to change the laws, but we definitely are not there yet. Until then, the use of a legal counsel is of extreme importance. Martina Vandenberg has been an anti-trafficking advocate for years, and in her article on the importance of listening to trafficking survivors, she speaks about the vital role that victims play in telling us how the legal system is failing them.

To put it simply, just by listening to those who have been trafficked, Vandenberg recognized something that victims are in desperate need of, especially if they get picked up for soliciting in a situation where they are being forced or coerced, and need to prove it. They need lawyers. Well really, they need good lawyers. Ones who actually know about human trafficking signs. They need legal counsel that cares, people that can educate them on next steps, what their rights are, and to guide them every step of the way through the very jumbled court system. There is a lot more in Vanderberg’s article but the last thing I want to hit on for her is the idea of minimizing reliance on victim-witness testimony. Hmmm why does she want to do that? Well I don’t know, maybe let’s ask survivors why they are reluctant to stand in front of their abusers and admit that they were victims of sex trafficking. Hmmmm. In order to deter the need for survivors to go through such traumatizing events, Vanderberg suggests (and backs up the fact) that law enforcement entities cooperate more with each other when they notice suspicious activities. Providing more data and more evidence can exponentially relieve the pressure on survivors to stand in front of their abusers. Wow, thanks Shyima Hall and Rachel Llyod and the many other survivors who told their stories.

Alright, we’ve heard the perspective of sex workers on legislation and we’ve listened to what victims actually need in the court system, next we’ll talk about how vitally important survivor-led outreach programs are.

Survivor Led Outreach

Brenda Myers-Powell spent 25 years as a prostitute in Chicago, she was addicted to drugs, shot and stabbed multiple times, and faced numerous life or death situations while caught up in prostitution. Now, many years later she is the founder of The Dreamcatcher Foundation. The organization supports women in the sex work industry while also speaking to at-risk girls in schools in Chicago. Every week she is on the street, providing resources for women and offering help if they want it. She also just listens and understands these women, and they feel it to. They can tell she’s been through it before and it seems to provide these ladies with a whole lot of comfort. They open up to her, they share stories, and they actually feel comfortable letting her know what they need. Even more important, she knows what they need. Send an abolitionist focused faith based group to the streets of Chicago to help prostitutes and they might bring a Bible and prayer. Which is great! But Brenda brings condoms and coats. And more importantly, she brings understanding—something that even if we wanted to, we couldn’t provide. People just haven’t been through it, and that is why women like Brenda are so important in outreach. She also faced the same childhood abuses that many of the at-risk girls face as well. This allows her to recognize when a young woman is walking down a path that may be similar to hers. This recognition then turns into providing resources, services, and simply encouragement. It’s amazing watching her make these connections with young girls.

There are many many more reasons why silenced voices need to be heard as we fight to end human trafficking. Hearing from survivors within human rights advocacy and outreach are vital in our efforts to eliminate and prevent trafficking in our world.

As we challenge ourselves to create perspective-inclusive anti-trafficking campaigns there is one major mistake we need to be aware of and that is secondary exploitation.

Secondary Exploitation

Claudia Cojocaru, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and vocal sex trafficking survivor, defines secondary exploitation as the conflation of trafficking and sex work which has perpetuated “misleading and dehumanising stereotypes, which contribute to the stigmatisation and marginalisation of sex workers and trafficked individuals”.

Cojocaru visited an art exhibit on sex trafficking in New York City and noticed a major problem in the way women in the gallery were portrayed. The way that subjects had no heads, and lacked any kind of control of their bodies really took away their humanity with just one look. It made them easy to categorize as victims. She challenges the abolitionist movement’s assumption that everyone involved in the sex industry is a victim. This incorrect representation of sex workers can lead audiences to believe that everyone involved in this industry is a victim that needs saving. And even when it comes to victims, these images took away from their autonomy, really just perpetuating the idea that these women were just bodies to be used for other people’s gain.

A major problem that Cojocaru identified is the fact that none of the artists in this exhibit had experienced sex trafficking themselves. If you’ve been paying attention, this is a red flag. Not that artists are required to have been through something before creating art about it, but in this case, their lack of context in their gallery made it clear that they were perpetuating a representation that is damaging to sex workers and trafficking victims. This can give audiences an implicit idea that these people are not humans at all. These pictures are then just used to make people feel sad, but gives them absolutely nothing to do about it. That is why we need the voices of those who have been trafficked and those who are in the sex industry for work. Those who have been trafficked may not want to be represented in this way, and those who are not trafficked know that portraying the industry in this way does more harm than good.

I’m sure I’ve made my point clear. The voices of survivors and sex workers need to be included when it comes to any anti-trafficking efforts. Their input, perspective, and knowledge about the lifestyle is what creates policies, organizations, and campaigns that actually educate people about and prevent human trafficking.

1539 words


C. Cojocaru,”My Experience is Mine to Tell: Challenging the abolitionist victimhood framework,” Anti-Trafficking Review,issue 7, 2016, pp.12—38,www.antitraffickingreview.org
“Dreamcatcher 2015” Online video clip. Youtube. 12 Aug 2015. Web. 19 April 2018.
Mac, Juno. “The laws that sex workers really want” TED. Jan. 2016. Lecture
 Vandenberg, Martina E. “Innovations in the Fight against Human Trafficking: Listening to Trafficking Survivors,” Fighting for Justice, 60 N.Y. L. Sch. L. Rev. 631 (2015)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.