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Sex Trafficking: Beyond the Abstract Evil

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Readers of my work know I've investigated the horrors of sex trafficking in places like Thailand and Cambodia. But besides personally meeting the survivors and warriors who work daily to combat this complex crime, I've also become a bit of an anti-slavery conference nut. I've attended conferences in Chittagong, Manila, L.A., D.C. and N.Y.C. Some were funded by well-established NGOs, while others by a group of people simply looking to generate community engagement. The primary focus of each conference was to find practical solutions to combat sex trafficking, that type of modern-day slavery which is arguably the most difficult to talk about and, at times, listen to.
"The way to truly combat this crime is not, and never will be, to talk around it. We must talk through it."
The stories from survivors, as empowering as they can be, can also take their toll on those of us fortunate enough not to have actually experienced such trauma. That "toll" is often referred to as "vicarious trauma." It's the result of our empathic engagement and our trying so hard to understand the survivor's trauma that, even if for a brief moment, we lose perspective that they are there and we are here. That as much as we are connected, we are still separate. That we didn't actually experience what they did. I'm recovering now from a bout of vicarious trauma. Still struggling with sleep and mood issues, and with finding a rhythm at work because of it.

This is all to say that I know well the many difficulties that can arise from talking about these issues. But the way to truly combat this crime is not and never will be to talk around it. We must talk through it.

By far the most effective conference I attended was in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Government officials, peace activists, law enforcement, NGO representatives and survivors all took turns sharing the details of their experience. They didn't turn distinct realities into faraway metaphors of "darkness" and "evil" and "letting light shine." There was no sugar-coating. In fact, it was the kind of intense and detail-oriented environment where sugar-coating wouldn't have even been tolerated. Those who spoke went straight at the issues of exactly how they were tricked, by who and when and why, how the raid happened, the exact cultural, social and economic variables that encouraged the crime. They provided the names of laws and even what precise word in the law needed to be changed in order to close loopholes that allow the criminals to escape.

Months after this conference, I shared the experience with a man I met at a conference in L.A. I'll never forget what he said:

If religion or your faith community brought you to this fight, great. You are needed more than you may ever know. But we must be careful not to speak of the concrete dynamics of this crime with the often abstract language of our religious faiths.

He nailed it. This is what happened in Manila. And this is what was happening before our eyes in L.A. This was the problem I'd been experiencing, but couldn't yet articulate.
"We must work to demystify the criminals, and learn to speak about them as though they are real-life human beings (because they are)."
The reason we understand today how organized crime works, for example, is because we interviewed and listened to everyone involved in it -- including the high-ranking gang members themselves. Just calling them "evil" and putting them "out of sight, out of mind" by locking them up would have had disastrous consequences for the way we approached future situations. Police officers studied their criminal patterns; sociologists dug into the homes and environments they came from; psychologists explored the way their upbringing may very well have shaped their criminal behavior, and Criminology majors sat in class and dissected what these criminals said about their motives, their family backgrounds and their current lifestyles. We got to the root of the crime, in part, by talking real, and by doing the hard work of remaining emotionally stable enough to listen and learn from the criminal.

Is this a call for all of us to be willing to listen to the mother who sold her child into a life of sex slavery? Yes. Is this a call to extract what information we can about the man who arranged, say, the kidnapping of sex trafficking survivor Shandra Woworuntu from JFK airport? Yes. Am I asking you, as Thich Nhat Hanh did with the father of a Sandy Hook victim, to think of the criminals involved in these horrific crimes as victims as well? Yes, I am.

We feel deeply when we hear traumatic stories such as those from Somaly Mam or of the young boys in Chiang Mai who have HIV as a result of being passed around as sex slaves. The voices of the survivors must remain at the forefront so that we know with precision the kind of treatment they endured, and the myriad factors that went into their being victimized. But so too must we listen to the victimizers. Just as we work to empathize with and learn from the survivors, so too must we demystify the criminals and learn to speak about them as though they are real-life human beings (because they are).

Essay originally appeared at The Good Men Project.