Today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day and, well, I have some thoughts about that. Before I begin, I want to be upfront about a few things:

  1. I believe victims
  2. I believe that sex work is work
  3. I do believe that many sex workers enthusiastically consent to their line of work; I also believe that many sex workers have been economically coerced into sex work
  4. I believe that capitalism is dependent on exploitation
  5. I am absolutely pro-union

Now, I led with that because I’m going to say something controversial: the ways in which we understand human trafficking are mostly myths. I see the phrase “modern day slavery” thrown about in discussions about human trafficking and that idea—the way awareness campaigns have sold us the idea of human trafficking—does more harm than good for those who are actually experiencing exploitation. Lawmakers, law enforcement, and—admittedly, well-meaning—NGOs have used the blanket of “human trafficking” to cover a variety of criminal or stigmatized economic activities which, ultimately, hurts many of the vulnerable people who engage in those activities to survive. Moreover, the cause of human trafficking has been used—intentionally and otherwise—to obfuscate some more sinister inspiration for public policy: moral panic, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia.


Source: Office on Trafficking in Persons

None of that is to say that there are not real cases of exploitative trafficking, whether for sex or labor, because there absolutely are. Those instances are real, as are the long-term effects on survivors of that kind of trafficking and systemic abuse. I will never deny their pain or attempt to minimize or dismiss their experiences. I want those people to receive all the resources possible to help them live the lives they want to live and I want so much for those folks to not be retraumatized time and again by having to justify their experiences and their pain.

What I am saying, though, is that, over the course of the last century or so, the concept of human trafficking has undergone what Janie Chuang calls “exploitation creep” and that has had dire consequences, often for the very people trafficking laws are aiming to protect. Human trafficking, as a concept, came about in the late 19th century, after enslaved Black folks were technically freed—if not practically—during a wave of Chinese immigration to the west coast, and as the fight for women’s suffrage was gaining momentum. In fact, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was actually a product of a moral panic about trafficking (or, more accurately, sex work and cheap labor). The 1870 Act to Prevent the Kidnapping and Importing of Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese Females for Criminal or Demoralizing Purposes was followed up by the 1875 Page Act which banned immigration to the US from East Asian countries, including specific language about “immoral” women. Those two pieces of legislation set the framework for the Chinese Exclusion Act. That pattern has continued during the last century; as Michael Hobbes relays in the “Human Trafficking” episode of You’re Wrong About, “every time we’ve had a resurgence of the trafficking panic, we’ve had a crackdown on immigration.”


Source: Unclefester

The first use of “trafficking” in policy came in 1904, in the International Agreement for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic. Yep, you read that correctly! There was a panic in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about white slavery; as Chuang put it, this panic was specifically about “the ‘export’ or ‘trafficking of “white” women from Europe and North America for the purposes of prostitution’ by foreign or immigrant men in the colonial nether regions of Africa, Asia, and South America.” So, there you go—the idea of human trafficking is rooted in racism, fear of miscegenation, and the notion of white women’s and girls’ purity. Having just witnessed white supremacists attempt to mount an insurrection at the Capitol, it’s quite clear that racist and xenophobic anxieties are still strong for many people, if having morphed over the years.

As Michael Hobbes outlined on You’re Wrong About, the definition of human trafficking changed in 1949, expanding to include all races, genders, and age ranges as potential victims and is understood to take place both transnationally and domestically. The exploitation creep doesn’t reappear until the late 1990s and early 2000s. The first expansion continued the focus on sexual exploitation, this time on the heels of the “stranger danger” moral panic and following the failed attempts to disincentivize sex work, which was seen as fundamentally exploitative and a violation of women’s civil rights. Now there are some really messy alliances of convenience that go into the resurgence of human trafficking as a growing threat in the public imagination in the ‘90s; I don’t want to go into that here but, not to be repetitive, you should definitely give that You’re Wrong About episode a listen: it’s informative and funny and helped me find a few resources for my own research.


Source: DanTD

The component I’m particularly interested in, and that Hobbes touched on a little bit, is that the timing of that resurgence coincides with a great public consciousness about forced labor and wage slavery, both in the US and abroad. I remember the Nike sweatshop scandal being one of the cultural lightbulb moments, as was the Taco Bell tomato boycott. As we became increasingly aware of the brutality consumer capitalism was/is visiting upon exploited workers, we were primed for the most recent incidence of exploitation creep which occurred under the Obama administration. Human trafficking policy expanded to include forced labor. So, now human trafficking is an umbrella covering sexual and labor exploitation, in transnational and domestic contexts—that covers a lot of things or, perhaps more usefully, it can cover a lot of activities.

There are two issues with this expansive exploitation creep that I want to address. First, deploying the term “human trafficking” actually changes who we think of as the victim and our relationship to them—anyone doing any kind of exploitative work must have been trafficked because, surely, no one would choose to come here to work that kind of job; clearly, they need to be saved. This idea is described very well in May Jeong’s Vanity Fair article about the Robert Kraft massage parlor scandal: “It was somehow easier for law enforcement officers in south Florida to believe that the women had been sold into sex slavery by a global crime syndicate than to acknowledge that immigrant women of precarious status, hemmed in by circumstance, might choose sex work.” The sheriff’s department wanted so badly to be the heroes, rescuing these poor trafficked women, that they refused to believe that sex work was perhaps these women’s best choice to survive out of a series of shitty options. There is absolutely coercion going on in these situations but it’s economic coercion: if sex work is what keeps a roof over your head and food in your belly because nothing else is available, then sex work it is.


Source: HopeNow

Secondly, our need to save the victims of trafficking often obscures the needs of exploited workers—trafficked or otherwise—for systemic changes, for avenues of reporting, for unions. This, intentionally or not, is a boon for companies who exploit their workers or contract with subcontractor who exploit their workers. Suddenly, the social awareness of where our consumer goods come from and who they’re made by that could have been used to push for corporate accountability, for fair wages, for unions, for reporting mechanisms is now focused on the menace of human trafficking. So, we’re collectively hunting the shadowy figures of human trafficking rings rather than making actionable changes to workplaces and beefing up workers’ rights. As Sarah Marshall put it, the focus on human trafficking—much like with other moral panics—makes it so that we’re protecting imaginary people at the expense of real people.

The ways in which we discuss exploitation, human rights, bonded labor, forced labor, and sex work have to be nuanced. Creating this evil behemoth called “human trafficking” that casts such a wide net over variably legal economic activities removes our ability to have those nuanced conversations. Because we do, as Sarah Marshall put it, “we’re living in a time of awareness ‘sweeps week’ perpetually,” the race to make sure that each cause gets attention means we get language like “modern day slavery.” That kind of language actively harms vulnerable people because when those exploited workers do manage to jump through the hoops to get the legal system to hold their employers accountable, they’re often dismissed because, “well, that doesn’t sound like modern day slavery to me.”

Again, I want to be clear: I believe victims. There are real and terrible cases of trafficking and I do not at all want to diminish or dismiss the experiences of the victims and survivors of those cases. I believe that by cutting through the myth we’ve built around human trafficking and reducing exploitation creep, we have a better shot of identifying those real and terrible cases and we will have a better frame work for addressing other exploitative situations. So, this National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, I want us to be aware that awareness campaigns don’t always encourage the nuanced discussions we need to have because our myopic view of and public policy around exploitation is harmful. After all, when you’re holding a hammer…

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