Hollywood and Human Trafficking

In 2008, the movie Taken presented a riveting image of human trafficking that captivated the public imagination and brought human trafficking to the forefront of many people’s attention. Some people may assume this is a good thing, and yet for the past 15 years most anti-trafficking professionals (including those of us who have lived experience of human trafficking) have had to work harder than we otherwise would have to counter widespread misinformation rooted in a Hollywood understanding of how trafficking happens

Film is powerful, by design. It is meant to leverage the ways humans are hardwired for connection to create emotional responses in the audience. When people connect emotionally to a story, they are often motivated to act. When that emotional connection is based on misinformation about how trafficking happens, we end up with near-unshakeable public pushback against the very practices and policies that would prevent trafficking and help victims. Inaccurate depictions of effective interventions and how trafficking happens distract from the real and pragmatic needs of victims which include things like housing, legal aid, healthcare, education resources, qualified therapists, and immigration resources. 

When creating that emotional connection draws upon narratives and norms held by conspiracy theorists and political extremists, confirmation bias leads to genuine fears fueling intense commitment to false beliefs. And when that emotional connection is engineered by and for a person or organization that is known to be unethical or harmful, genuinely fearful people feel empowered to attack, invalidate, and harass anyone whose evidence or nuance challenges their beliefs. Instead of leveraging audiences’ concern for children into impactful advocacy, sensationalized “awareness” can lead to vigilantism and glorifying “savior” approaches that harm victims. 

We saw this happen during the Q-Anon/ Wayfair conspiracy, and it had a direct result of harm to current victims and survivor leaders. New organizations formed to “stop trafficking” using practices and approaches that are known to be harmful. Existing anti-immigrant and racist sentiment was easily weaponized by conspiracy theorists and many active white supremacist activists took on “trafficking” as their new vehicle to further their cause, with a lens that disregards the evidence as well as experiences of BIPOC, LGBTQ, and otherwise marginalized survivors. Misinformation and disinformation can influence juries as well. In at least one case, traffickers were found not guilty when the violence they enacted against their victims doesn’t “look like” what juries have come to believe trafficking is. Similarly, pedophiles and traffickers are frequently depicted as stereotypical tropes that reinforce racism and antisemitism.

Organizations were opened without collaboration or communication with existing, long-standing crisis programs that had learned from evidence, best practices, and past mistakes. They raised thousands of dollars under the banner of saving children (that could have made existing efforts more impactful), without even knowing that there is a body of evidence developed over the years to point us toward effective interventions and away from harmful ones. Many of these pop-up organizations are now shuttered with no accountability for how the money was spent. Some “awareness” organizations even started providing direct services (such as case management and counseling) without any ethical or professional preparation. And we saw “groomer” language leveraged by extremists and conspiracy theorists against the very people they claim to care about – victims of child sexual abuse and exploitation – to advocate for policies that put children at increased risk for sexual abuse, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

When these things happen, it may put human life at risk, such as in the case of Pizzagate, when a gunman with an AR-15 opened fire in a restaurant where families were eating. It can even lead to the deaths of survivors when rescue operations that lack adequate preparation for the complex realities of trafficking go wrong or survivors reach out to pop-up organizations in crisis and these organizations who don’t know what they’re doing can’t help them or reinforce their fears.

We are seeing many of the same dynamics now with Sound of Freedom. The general public tends to know primarily about organizations that have big budgets and flashy comms operations through their well-funded comms operations, which means that they only know details that are carefully engineered to raise funds and stoke panic. Those of us who work in the anti-trafficking sector know about incredible organizations that are less flashy but that have more substance. And because we know what substance looks like, we also recognize grifters who leverage legitimate fears of human trafficking to build substantial incomes and public profiles without following best practices or honoring the diverse experiences of survivors. They present stories that reinforce colonial narratives about the Global South. They justify this by saying it is “based on a true story,” but whose story? Is it told from the perspective of and by the people in the impacted communities, or from the perspective of the rescuer, who does not have to live with the long-term personal or community consequences of his actions?

Stories about rescue are compelling. They excite the parts of our nervous systems that want the endorphin boost of feeling relief after a threat is subdued. They touch the human parts of us that know and feel grief and connect so easily to the grief of others. They exploit our innate wiring – wiring that was meant to help us build community and keep each other safe – to remind us that doing something is better than doing nothing, but without giving us opportunities to consider the most important questions: What can be done that actually helps? Are there things we know usually help, or things we’ve learned usually hurt? Who needs to do the thing, and how can they do it ethically? 

Most importantly, we often don’t pause to wonder: Who made this movie and why? Whose narrative is shown in this movie, and whose narrative is excluded? 

We are survivors of human trafficking – individuals who have experienced force, fraud, or coercion in commercial sex or other forms of labor, who engaged in the sex trades as youth, and/or who were commercially sexually exploited as children. Many of us are on social media, and for the past two weeks, our social media feeds have been full of survivors who have years and years of professional experience in anti-violence work raising concerns about the Sound of Freedom. 

And as is always the case when political extremism intersects with conspiracy theories in a society whose disregard for facts and evidence is growing, the attacks, invalidation, and harassment have been intense. We’ve seen our colleagues who are actual survivors of child sexual exploitation called pedophiles for not supporting this movie. We’ve seen them accused of being part of the media, accused of gaslighting (in classic DARVO form), and even called slurs. We’ve seen them called “groomers” or told they must be traffickers. Most disturbingly, we’ve seen them graphically, abusively sexually harassed in crude ways that are especially frightening and triggering for survivors of stalking, sexual abuse, and trafficking – all by people defending this movie.

This has to stop.

We are asking for your support.

  1. Be a good bystander to the survivors currently being harassed, abused, and targeted because of raising concerns about this film. Learn about the 5 D’s of Bystander Intervention and use them when you see online abuse happening.
    1. Distract: Continue engaging in the original conversation with the person, without acknowledging the abuser so that they have other comments to reply to. 
    2. Delegate: Report the abuse to the platform. 
    3. Document: Take screenshots of the harm in case it escalates into a direct threat. If it is video footage or includes the image of the person being abused, always ask them what they want done with it. If it is a screenshot of a post that includes the name or username of the person being harassed, black that out before sharing. And if it includes the name or username of the person behaving abusively, ask the person being harassed before sharing that screenshot. They will likely be the one on the receiving end of retaliation for that person’s name being revealed. 
    4. Delay – Maybe acting right in the moment is not appropriate, or maybe you were too stunned in the moment to know what to do or say. You can always check in with the person afterward to see if they’re okay or if they need anything. Offering a listening ear or space to process may be helpful.
    5. Direct: Occasionally, if we can tell that the person being harassed wants us to intervene and if we feel we can safely do so without escalating the situation, we may want to respond directly to the person abusing our colleague online. Use this one cautiously, though. Learn more at Right To Be.
  2. Be cautious of organizations that claim to be fighting trafficking, but are known by those in the movement to engage in harmful practices or to reinforce oppression through extreme narratives. Poorly prepared and untrained organizations can unintentionally make survivors vulnerable to revictimization and re-exploitation.
  3. Remember that movies are entertainment, not reality. Do not build your commitment to our cause on a fictionalized foundation. If you are moved to act, reach out to a trusted organization in your community to find out what they need to better serve survivors.
  4. Commit to learning about familial trafficking, which comprises the vast majority of child sexual exploitation. See: https://www.yamt.org/familial-trafficking and https://www.instagram.com/withinfamilies/
  5. Find out what longstanding, trusted anti-trafficking advocates know will help end child sexual exploitation. https://love146.org/do-more/ 
  6. Commit to a better understanding of all the ways human trafficking can happen, including labor trafficking and adult trafficking. See: https://freedomnetworkusa.org/the-issue/