Human Trafficking: Do Our Advocacy Efforts Dehumanize Victims?

by Holly Smith

Anyone who has read my book, "Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery," knows the topic of objectification is important to me.

In "Walking Prey," I address the specific connection between sexual objectification of women and the vulnerability of girls to sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking.

In essence, my argument is that the overwhelming portrayal of sexually objectified women in the media can cause impressionable girls to self-objectify and, in turn, be more vulnerable to and accepting of sexual exploitation.

Sexual objectification of women is essentially the representation of women in a way that highlights and values only one aspect of their whole selves (i.e. their sexuality or conventional sexual appeal).

The process strips away their humanity and turns them into objects, which are often used as tools to promote a product or to appeal to a certain audience.

This is why I am so sensitive to the way in which women are presented in media, including television commercials, print advertisements, billboards, television shows, movies, video games and more.

But, lately, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in how victims of human trafficking are portrayed in the media, especially in images used for advocacy, awareness and/or promotion, and particularly for promotion of products.

Just as objectified women are often valued only for their sexuality or sexual appeal, victims of human trafficking are often objectified and valued only for their current state of victimhood and/or for the most sensationalistic feature of that victimhood.

It highlights only one aspect of victims' whole selves: powerlessness as victims.

Martha Nussbaum deconstructs and discusses the concept of objectification in this article from the academic journal, Philosophy and Public Affairs. Nussbaum states that objectification means treating a human being in one or more of the following ways:

1. As a tool for his or her purposes

2. As lacking in autonomy and self-determination

3. As lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity

4. As interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types

5. As lacking in boundary integrity, as something that is permissible to break up, smash or break into

6. As something that can be owned by another, be bought, be sold, etc.

7. As something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account

As summarized by Evangelia (Lina) Papadaki in this article from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Rae Langton added the following three features to Nussbaum’s list:

1. The treatment of a person as identified with his or her body, or body parts

2. The treatment of a person primarily in terms of how he or she looks, or how he or she appears to the senses

3. The treatment of a person, as if he or she is silent, lacking the capacity to speak

Of course, any one of these features of objectification captures the essence of human trafficking. So, I get that, in order to portray the crime of human trafficking, images have been created in which victims are objectified, either literally or symbolically.

And, I also get that images of victims can be powerful tools for advocacy. But, the problem is, if an individual, organization or government body uses such an image as an instrument for advocacy, awareness or self-promotion, it is still a continued objectification of a human trafficking victim.

Of course, the victims in these images are often models, actors or products of graphic design; however, they represent real people and real victims of human trafficking.

In her article, Nussbaum makes clear that “objectification has features that may be either good or bad, depending upon the overall context.” Therefore, the use of such images should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

We should be asking to what extent victims are being objectified in a certain image, who created the image, who is using the image, why is it being used and how often?

First, let’s consider some examples of images that objectify victims: One particularly garish example is an image that portrays naked girls packed onto a white plate with the words “fresh meat” printed over cellophane wrapping.

In this image, the victims are treated as products because they lack autonomy and self-determination. They also lack agency by being interchangeable with other seemingly identical victims.

They can be owned; their experiences and feelings (if any) do not need to be taken into account, and they lack the capacity to speak.

Another image portrays a young woman whose forehead bears the mark of a UPC code and whose neck is wrapped with rope. In this image, similar arguments hold true, as the victim is, more or less, just a body.

Though these images are meant to critique the objectification and commodification of victims, they only succeed in replicating the offenses. They fail to provide a counter-narrative to a victim’s lacking in autonomy, agency, integrity and humanity.

Many images even perpetuate the silencing of victims. Some images portray victims with duct tape over their mouths, some with other people’s hands over their mouths and others with a symbolic X, or other images, over their mouths.

How do these images help to empower victims?

Getting back to Nussbaum’s point about overall context, let’s see how some of these images are being used.

A quick Google search yielded several such images used mostly in association with news articles, blog posts and informational websites, some of which promoted organizations, events or products, while others sought donations.

Other instances of use seemed less about advocacy or awareness and more about entertainment. For example, one website depicted multiple images of objectified victims in a Tetris-like game in which points were scored for matching each of the images.

As I have argued in my book, "Walking Prey," the overwhelming use of images that sexually objectify women can have negative effects on youth, especially impressionable girls who lack positive guidance or role models.

Likewise, the overwhelming use of images that objectify victims (especially those with multiple features of objectification) can also have negative consequences. Not only can it potentially affect how victims see themselves, but also how society views victims.

Many survivors, including those who are now in professional roles (myself included), have had experiences that left them feeling valued only as victims and only for the most sensationalistic details of our experiences.

For example, I have been invited to both casual lunches and formal affairs to realize my hosts only sought to hear the details of my story.

I have also stood on stage and felt as though I was being seen less as an author or professional speaker and more as a sideshow circus act.

Survivor and advocate Minh Dang addresses the need to “re-humanize survivors” in her foreword for Laura T. Murphy’s "Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives:":

As we incorporate survivors into the anti-trafficking movement and encourage them to be at its forefront, we need to recognize their humanity.

As we continue to raise awareness after National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, I encourage others, if and whenever possible, to portray victims in a way that retains their humanity and/or promotes their empowerment.

When considering a particular image, we should ask ourselves, what does this image project about victims? And, what message does this image send to the public about victims/survivors?

Are we telling society victims/survivors are whole human beings with pasts, presents and futures? Or, are we saying victims are forever trapped as victims, as objects moving through a Tetris-like game of life, in which everyone changes and grows except them?

For inspiration, I leave you with an advocacy image from the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST), which depicts both survivors and advocates celebrating freedom together.