When many people think of typical victims of human rights abuse, they often conjure up stereotypical images of passive and powerless people. We imagine them as incapable of self-expression and spotless in terms of their moral posture -- supremely innocent, utterly degraded, waiting to be saved. The biases underlying these notions can lead some human rights advocates to favor "perfect victims" in advocacy and publicity campaigns, and consequently to disregard injustices faced by other marginalized individuals who may inspire more ambivalent and complicated responses from the public.
The privileging of "perfect victimhood" is misguided because all people have human rights regardless of subjective determinations of "worthiness." This is, in fact, the very core of the idea of human rights. The danger of the "perfect victim" construct is illustrated by two examples: Anti-prostitution advocates who privilege abuses experienced by victims of trafficking over violence faced by those voluntarily involved in adult sex work; and society's failure to view economically disenfranchised black men as victims of the devastating 'war on drugs' because they, too, stand in opposition to notions of "perfect victimhood."
A well-intentioned student at the law school where I teach human rights advocacy once told me "victims of sex trafficking are perfect victims." In her estimation, women and girls who are trafficked into prostitution -- those forced, deceived, or coerced -- are archetypal victims and, therefore, more deserving of human rights protection. We must address the roots and realities of abuses like human trafficking, but the hierarchies of victimhood implicit in such ideas about "deserving victims" often lead to harmful human rights policies and practices.
Victims of trafficking into prostitution fit into anti-prostitution advocates' moral prototype of "perfect victimhood." These advocates privilege the violence "perfect victims" experience over the violence faced by legally and socially stigmatized individuals involved in consensual adult sexual transactions and thus viewed as less deserving of our attention and advocacy. Anti-prostitution crusaders often pursue misguided policies that lead to violence and stigma against sex workers; yet, they are silent on how these policies and practices cause harm.
Allied with right-wing politicians, they pushed for the adoption of the "anti-prostitution pledge," which requires organizations receiving U.S. foreign HIV/AIDS prevention funding to adopt a policy opposing prostitution. But anti-prostitution advocates don't acknowledge how this policy effectively stymies HIV prevention efforts among sex workers, a group at high risk of HIV infection. Public health advocates have long argued that the anti-prostitution pledge makes it impossible for organizations to implement HIV prevention programs with sex worker communities in a non-judgmental spirit of solidarity -- how do you take an oath against a community's activities and then work in partnership with them? The Nicholas Kristofs of the world live tweet their brothel raids but don't report on the "rescued" sex workers who are forced into "shelters" only to face sexual and physical abuse. Before large sporting events like the Olympics, anti-prostitution advocates drum up moral panics about imminent rises in trafficking cases -- alarm bells that routinely prove to be unfounded -- and then are silent when there are police crackdowns of sex workers under the guise of rooting out trafficking.
Another example of how the "perfect victim" paradigm blinds us to the injustices faced by those who don't fit its construct is our willful ignorance of the most severe human rights violation in the United States today -- the mass incarceration of poor black and Latino men and youth due to the 'war on drugs,' a failed policy that has not led a decrease in drug use or availability. Although black people do not use or sell drugs at higher rates than white people they are incarcerated for drug infractions in shockingly larger percentages. The 'war on drugs' has always been a war on poor people of color with devastating effects: Those convicted of drug crimes may lose the right to vote and face discrimination in access to public benefits, employment, public housing, or education following their release.
In light of these disparities, why do we not view black men trapped in the vortex of the criminal justice system for drug crimes as victims of state-sponsored human rights abuse? In part, it's because our society portrays them as dangerous, as aggressors -- the opposite of "perfect" or "deserving" victims. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, and we continue to feed a drug war that has shattered countless lives. And, yet, because these men fit the vicious stereotype of aggressive, criminal men of color, we don't see them as possible victims, only as potential threats, and thus we don't view the injustice they face as a massive human rights abuse.
When I was a law student, my criminal law professor once said that as an indigent criminal defender working with poor communities of color, people often asked her why she was dedicating her career to working with "such people." They didn't believe that her clients were "perfect victims." She said her response was always simple and always the same: "Here, too, there are rights."