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Cameron Conaway Headshot

Evolving Our Image of Human Trafficking

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Images influence movements. They shape human consciousness. Think of what you felt when you first saw the 9/11 image of The Falling Man. Look at how Amnesty International has, since the 1960s, employed posters to effectively and brilliantly create awareness. Recall how nearly every country ever, at war, has fueled their jingoistic drumbeats. Consider the rise of the meme.

Human trafficking.

What image just came to mind? Considering that human trafficking is a crime often described as the world's most complex, a crime that creates survivors who are among the most complex of crime victims, our collective image is painstakingly primitive. It's a sex crime. It's a sex crime that men do to women. Corresponding images ensue. Movies reinforce this. As do most books. And too many prominent groups whose mission statement says something about how they work to "combat modern-day slavery" or "fight human trafficking" release television commercials that only and always tie back to the overly primitive. It's a sex crime. It's a sex crime that men do to women.

Let's get a few things straight.

1. Sex trafficking is a type of human trafficking and the image of it carries tremendous weight in a way that, say, a young boy trafficked from Myanmar to work at a shrimp processing factory in Thailand simply cannot.

2. While men are the predominant leaders in the crime of human trafficking and, especially as it relates to sex trafficking, girls and women are the predominant victims, women also participate in the crime and have even initiated trafficking rings.

3. When considering the entire web of human trafficking -- a web that includes slave labor -- some of the lowest estimates say that boys and men make up 20 percent of the victims.

The images of girls trapped in cages and strapped to beds certainly contain brutal truths, but the truth is that for us to effectively combat human trafficking we desperately need to find ways to help all the various anti-slavery agencies, in all the various sectors of this crime, strike up meaningful collaborations, and we desperately need to evolve the images we use. The alternative is a dangerous stagnation, a time when more people than ever may be familiar with the term "human trafficking", but not associate it with where the shirts on their back or the food in their shelves came from. Sex sells, I get it, but how can we embrace this fact while moving progressively forward?

When I spoke with a major film director about this he said, "Our literary masters need to round out the public's perception of this crime. Our filmmakers need to do the same. Unfortunately, I don't think the public is ready for a movie about sex trafficking where young boys are the victims. Even with the church scandals and the Sandusky drama... I just don't think a movie like that would get backed."

Notice how even he brought the crime back to sex?

It's easy to embrace a definition of a crime that invokes the guttural emotion of a young child being taken advantage of for sex, especially when a more nuanced alternative is looking at ourselves and the labels we wear and the costs of our goods. We like our shrimp cheap. We reach for the lower priced cocoa. There's often a cost for cheap goods, and to truly get to the heart of human trafficking we must evolve our ingrained survival instinct for bargain shopping. This involves looking at ourselves -- not just some imagined bearded man in a hotel room in Thailand -- as possible participants in a crime.

But what else might be holding "the public" back? According to an article in The Guardian titled "The Truth About Trafficking: It's Not Just About Sexual Exploitation", it's the radical feminists and passionate, though often, misguided faith groups. The piece states that our contemporary understanding of trafficking first took hold, "... in significant part by the advocacy of women's rights groups who sought 'to redefine trafficking' specifically as the 'sexual exploitation' of women and children." The article went on to say that the powerful faith-based groups bought into the definition, and helped bring it to where we are today.

So what are we left with if the invisible passive sponge called "the public," isn't ready or is, perhaps, uncaring? What are we left with when the stories that need to be told can't get the funding or the backing? I don't know. But what I do know is that we need to support those in the anti-trafficking sector who at once have influence and know the true complexity of the crime. Christiaan Bosman, a South African who founded Open Hand Café in India, gets it. Lys Anzia, founder of the award-winning Women News Network, gets it. Pastor Eddie Byun, a South Korean who leads the Onnuri English Ministry in Seoul, gets it. And there are so many more.

We owe it to ourselves and to those who need us to support those who get it, to go into but also beyond the emotional stir of an image.

Readers: What else can we do?