In recent years, the issue of “human trafficking,” or what some have deemed “modern slavery” has become increasingly salient in the United States. Billboards overlooking busy highways display images of bound limbs and hopeless-looking, often bruised and bloody women and children; informational posters adorn the backs of bathroom stalls in restaurants, airports, and malls; an increase in social media graphics urge the public to pay attention to what the House of Representatives has called an epidemic. No doubt, human trafficking is a major humanitarian crisis, with the International Labor Organization estimating some 5.4 victims caught in trafficking networks for every 1,000 people in the world. And yet, the dominant discourse in the US tends to allude solely to the sex trafficking of women. This sex trafficking hysteria in the United States is the backdrop of my research.
The phenomenon of prioritizing sex trafficking over other forms of trafficking and forced labor is supported by “NGO-ification”- the spread of a giant network of NGOs that have led the anti-trafficking movement in the United States. Many NGOs have adopted restrictive and stereotypical portrayals of the “deserving” trafficking victim as a young, sexually exploited woman, rendered powerless at the hands of evil deviants. These representations frame the organization's mission statements, definitions, and graphic campaigns. When outsourcing their humanitarian efforts abroad, NGOs frequently represent women from non-Western countries as disempowered, naive, and unable to make the consensual, uncoerced decision to join the sex industry, maintaining harmful practices such as brothel raids. My Senior Thesis frames the exclusionary language used by anti-trafficking NGOs against a backdrop of deep and expanding neoconservative ideologies and policies in the United States, such as the TVPA and the annual TIP Report.
Neoconservative NGO representations oversimplify and misrepresent the causes and experiences of trafficking and forced labor to the public and add to an anti-trafficking field dominated by moral indignation of sex. Most troubling is the limited discussion of the populations made most vulnerable to trafficking (migrants, sex workers, and ethnic, racial, or national minorities) or the structural factors of inequality that cause trafficking. In order to truly help those affected by trafficking and forced labor and eradicate the heinous human rights abuses occurring in informal labor sectors, it is crucial that anti-trafficking organizations adopt a labor approach that recognizes the exploited individual first and foremost as an exploited worker rather than a sexually objectified victim, and focus on reforming neoliberal policies that sustain trafficking and forced labor.