Visual Stereotypes for Human Trafficking

October 22, 2015 Mariah Long Opinion 
Awareness, Sex Trafficking, Forced Labor

Google Image Search "Human Trafficking"

This is a screenshot I took of a Google image search on the phrase "human trafficking". To be honest, seeing these images ignites frustration and anger in my soul. With a background in design, so much of what's irksome about these images relates to aesthetics, but more worrisome are the myths perpetuated by these pictures that then harm anti-trafficking work.

Stop using images like the ones above to portray the entire human trafficking industry.

Why? Because they are inaccurate and highly stylized. The worst offenders are the images that have women and girls trapped in jars or vacuum sealed in meat packing trays. There are also hyper sexualized images exposing naked women wrapped in barbed wire with the words "help me" scrawled on their backs. Those photos and the ones in the screenshot above are only showing young girls being trafficked by force for sexual exploitation.

Let's start out with the legal definition of human trafficking, according to the United Nations:

"Trafficking in Persons is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs."

If you looked at the images above and were asked to give a definition of human trafficking today, what would you say? Would it reflect all the types of exploitation mentioned in the definition? Probably not, and that's a problem. We are trying to fight a problem that is much more diverse than we are giving it credit for, and by putting ourselves in this box of only displaying one type of trafficked person, we limit the ways that people can get involved in the fight against human trafficking.

The Myths

By looking through this Google search, I would conclude that only men are kidnapping little girls, restraining them and selling them for sex. This generalization is problematic not because it doesn't ever happen but because it tells the story of a small percentage of those enslaved and doesn't account for most of the other instances of human trafficking. So, let's take a look at the main issues with this portrayal and why it's incorrect.

1. Women and Girls Are Trafficked, and Men Are Traffickers
According to the ILO, an estimated 21 million people are enslaved today. Of those, 55% are women and only 26% are children. These images tell us a very skewed version about who victims are don't they? By only showing girls, this type of visual representation forces us to ignore male, adult and transgendered victims. We observe the effect of saturating the media with images of prostituted women and girls: the majority of funding and shelters are geared toward female and child sex trafficking victims. Additionally, these pictures indicate that only men are carrying out these crimes. It's true that there are male traffickers, but women are also traffickers. Sticking to gender stereotypes and traditional victim-perpetrator roles ignores the fact that female traffickers are highly effective at gaining the trust of, luring and exploiting people whilst remaining undetected. This reality becomes evident in law enforcement practices: note that in reported sex trafficking stings, those arrested are usually male pimps and johns.

Google Image Search "Human Trafficking"

2. Human Trafficking Is Sex Trafficking
The synonymous use of the two words is a huge issue. Scrolling further down that page will show you girls being restrained on a bed and even without showing a sexual scene to you, you know this is about sexual exploitation. If no other reason than because this is how the human trafficking movement has trained you to see it. Most of the organizations using these images deal with sex trafficking, specifically child sex trafficking. That is not to say sex trafficking isn't an issue that needs to be addressed, and some of these organizations are doing great work. But by using the term human trafficking and not specifying that they are only dealing with sex trafficking, these organizations are sending an inconsistent message. Sex trafficking is one of many forms of slavery in the world today, and the ILO estimates that 22% of victims are in a sex trafficking situation while 68% are in forced labor situations (the other 10% are enslaved in state-imposed forms of forced labor like prisons and rebel armies). So you can feel terrible for the girls being kidnapped in these photos and may want to stop it, but have you ever considered who was forced to make any of the every day goods you buy? By showing that human trafficking is only sex trafficking, people don't realize or are able to ignore their own complicity in labor trafficking.

3. Force Is Required
Hands over a girl's mouth, ropes and handcuffs are overly represented. Accompanied by bruises and cuts, these elements are telling viewers that some sort of force is always involved. According to the stories told by these images, a potential victim has to be bound, scarred or clearly look distressed. These depictions are an issue because force is only one of many tactics used by traffickers to control their victims. To prosecute a trafficking case in the United States you have to prove force, fraud or coercion. Force is exactly what you think it is and what is shown in the stereotypical images above. Fraud could look like false promises, lies, tricks or, most commonly, the bait and switch. Coercion could be threats of harm to the victim or to his or her family members, the threat of abuse or anything that causes the victim to believe serious harm would come to him or her. Would you ever look at your nail tech and know that her employer is threatening to kill her children back home if she doesn't work? The pictures showing physical force and restraint create a very limited criteria of what trafficking looks like. As a result, people miss other indicators and red flags.

4. Victims Are Easily Identified and Want Out
You see elements like barcodes and traveling tags which insinuate that you can easily see a victim of trafficking because of their outward appearance. It is definitely true that some victims are branded by their traffickers in unique ways, but most victims are not easily recognized. If you do happen to recognize someone that is enslaved, they might not understand that they are a victim or want your help. Many times, traffickers have brainwashed victims into believing they deserve what is happening to them or that anyone who wants to help them is lying. While in Greece, we heard about how sex traffickers conditioned women and girls to deny being forced into prostitution; the traffickers would have clients come in and say they were police there to help. If the girl took up the offer for help they were beaten.

We Love Sensational Stories and Images

If it bleeds, it reads. Sex sells. Living in the age of the Internet where we are constantly flooded with media content, if an organization wants you to notice them in your social media feed, they have to have something that shocks and grabs your attention. That is exactly what these images are doing: showing you terrible scenes so that you will care because it is so awful. Chances are, if you saw an image of a worker cleaning dishes in the back of a restaurant, you wouldn't give it a second thought. I understand that by the use of images like these more people are more aware of sex trafficking, but at what cost? It is easy for people to get on board with anti-sex trafficking because it costs them nothing; they don't have to make any sort of life change to say that the kidnapping and prostitution of girls is a horrible crime. But if we told the whole story of the many facets of human trafficking – how pornography and sex trafficking intersect, how most of the items we own are made by slaves or how governments are forcing prisoners to work would it have any effect on those who say they are against human trafficking? Whenever we say we are against human trafficking, we need to make sure that we are not condensing the issue to stereotyped images. The overused, stereotypical portrayals of trafficking create a standard, and anyone who does not fit the character of the innocent, sex trafficked girl gets ignored.

Topics: Awareness, Sex Trafficking, Forced Labor

About the Author

Mariah Long

Mariah was previously the Program Manager of End Slavery Now. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati's DAAP program with a degree in Digital Design.