At What Cost: The Road to Anti-Trafficking is Paved with Good Intentions

Today I was humiliated. Publicly. It happened at an anti-trafficking event where I was presenting to over 100 law enforcement and I’d just finished a solid, engaging presentation that acknowledged the fact that I was survivor but that didn’t go into details about my ‘story’, concentrating instead on the issue itself, how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go. Grasping me by my hand and framing it with, “what Rachel didn’t tell you was” the host inexplicably felt the need to fairly graphically describe my past including my ‘multiple rapes by multiple men’. I focused on a spot on the floor and didn’t look up until he was finished. I’d spent two hours talking about my 16 years in the movement, the thousands of girls and young women I’d served and the organization GEMS that I’d built from scratch into the largest service provider to commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked girls in the country. I’d spent two hours as a professional, as the Chief Executive Officer of GEMS, as an expert, and within a couple of minutes he reduced me to a rape victim. Some of the women who worked there came up to me afterwards with tears in their eyes, apologizing profusely. As survivors of sexual assault themselves, they were both mortified and incredibly triggered by their colleague’s behavior. His closing remarks had taken what had been a successful event, and at least for me, and likely other survivors of sexual violence in the room, completely tainted the experience.

I’d love to just put this incident down to just some random, ignorant jerk. But I can’t, because he’s actually one of the ‘good guys’, an ally, someone who’d worked hard to organize the event to bring more awareness about the issue, someone who ‘meant well’. After his remarks, he turned and presented me with a gift bag that including a teddy bear and used words like ‘honored’, ‘respect’ and ‘amazing’. I understand that he had good intentions, and yet like so much of the work done in the anti-trafficking movement today, it still hurt and humiliated me, and other survivors of sexual violence.

I’d also love to say that this was a rare occurrence, that these incidences for me and other survivors are few and far between. But I can’t. Because they’re not. If this was an isolated incident, I’d write a journal entry not a public piece, but there’s a pattern in the movement that needs to be addressed. There’s an unprecedented level of interest in this issue right now and are lots and lots and lots of good intentions in the movement. But frequently that doesn’t seem to translate to good judgment, sensitivity and thoughtfulness.

In my own life, just a few examples include: a funder who without warning chose to read aloud an excerpt from my book that described my experiences with johns at a non-trafficking related event and then asked other people in the room to discuss it; flyers for a speaking event put on by an anti-trafficking coalition that read “Rachel Lloyd – Sex, Drugs and Violence”; staff at a large organization that works on trafficking and gender-based violence tell me laughingly that they were going to be my ‘new pimps’; organizers of a conference quizzing me not about my work but about my time in the life to decide whether I should speak at the conference. I could go on with numerous examples of the challenges that I experience doing this work but what’s more worrying to me is if these are just a few of the experiences that I, as a nationally recognized expert, as a CEO of a leading organization, as someone who hasn’t been in the life for almost 20 years, who should be on some level inoculated from this by years of professional experience and education, am experiencing and am often hurt and shocked by, how is the movement treating emerging leaders? What are newer leaders, younger leaders experiencing? Unfortunately working with a variety of survivor leaders, both at GEMS and across the country, I’m seeing passionate, committed individuals who are willing to use their voices to make a difference but are overwhelming being hurt by the very people claiming to want to ‘help’ them.

If you’re not convinced that this is pervasive or that this is just my own personal experiences, some additional examples that have hurt survivors that I know, respect and care about include: flyers for an awareness event advertising ‘Buy a Sex Slave,’ an advocate at an event claiming that babies who were in the womb while their mother was in the life were trafficking survivors and that anyone in their life in the future, (a broad span that seemed to include everyone from their friends, adopted family, and the mailman) were all also trafficking survivors, a TV show that has filmed victim/survivors without their knowledge, t-shirts directing people to pray for pimps and johns; an incredibly graphic video clip shown at an event where there were many survivors present; a reporter known for anti-trafficking work who chooses to include the most salacious details in every story about survivors. And over and over again, survivor leaders showing up for events, agreeing to interviews, engaging with organizations only to discover that the only interest people have in them is for their ‘story’ and ideally the more sensational, the more graphic the better.

There seems to be a pervasive belief that if you are interested in fighting human trafficking then you have the carte blanche to be as sensational as you like (FYI, you don’t). There also seems to be an incessant demand to ‘hear your story’ despite the fact that for people already working in the movement the benefit of repeated listening to graphic details is at best questionable and at worst voyeuristic. When allies are questioned or critiqued for their tactics, the ‘but we’re just trying to raise awareness’ defense is frequently invoked. In fact, it’s often seen as poor form to voice these concerns , especially to do so publicly, even if the hurt or humiliation we experienced was public. Critiquing actions of individuals and organizations within the movement we’re often shamed by those same people for somehow not being grateful, that are responses are only because we’re still struggling with our own trauma, or laughably as if our commitment to raising awareness or fighting the issue is somehow far less valid than the organization that’s ‘just trying to help’. Our concerns are frequently dismissed with comments about how ‘serious’ this issue is, as if hurting survivors isn’t serious, or that we’re wasting energy when we should be focusing on the ‘real’ problems. All of these responses simply minimize the damage that’s done and survivors are left feeling guilty, ‘over-sensitive’ or questioning their own healing and recovery.

I can’t speak for all survivors as shockingly we’re not a monolithic group, but I can speak for myself as a survivor and for the survivors I work alongside at GEMS in our advocacy and education work; we can actually deal with offensive comments from people who are ignorant about the issue. In fact that’s why we are willing to put ourselves out there to educate and inform people and to create real and lasting change. We walk into a room expecting that, have our ‘educator’ hat on and we’re prepared for those types of comments and questions. We understand that many people still have no idea about this issue and that with their lack of understanding will come insensitivity and judgment. What is increasingly becoming harder to deal with as survivor leaders in the movement is the constant level of damage done by those who are within the movement, those who are our allies, those who are apparently on our side.

The challenge is less that people in the movement are uninformed and more that people aren’t willing to take a breath, to pause and think through how this approach might affect survivors, how if the words trafficking were replaced with rape or child sexual abuse how the approach might significantly change and how awareness at any cost, particularly at a cost to survivors, is ultimately more harmful than helpful. In medicine, the tenet is ‘First do no harm’ and it’s a basic principle that more allies could stand to use. If you’re going to be an ally, then be a true ally. We love and appreciate our true allies, we respect and value those who respect us and treat us as fully-rounded, complex, normal human beings not like some freak show with a story. We need more of those people in our lives, in the work, in the movement. What we don’t need any more of is good intentions that aren’t backed up by thoughtfulness, integrity, common sense values and an educated, informed approach. Survivors aren’t actually asking for special treatment, we’re simply asking to be treated as people, as colleagues, as leaders in this work who bring far more to the table than the ability to make people cry. We’re asking simply that in your fight to help victims of trafficking, that you don’t harm survivors in the process.

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Wednesday, December 4th, 2013, 2:28 pm
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