Print Friendly and PDF
only search

Marketing mass hysteria: anti-trafficking awareness campaigns go rogue

Efforts to raise awareness about human trafficking contribute to a save and rescue rhetoric that helps little, yet renders the lives of sex workers and minors in the sex trade unsafe.

Policy debate

Do the hidden costs outweigh the practical benefits?

We asked 10 people who work with human trafficking awareness the following: 'Campaigns to raise public awareness of human trafficking may have flaws, but their overall impact is positive. YES OR NO?'


Elena Shih & Joel Quirk

Elena Shih is an Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University.

Joel Quirk is Professor in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa).

Introduction: do the hidden costs outweigh the practical benefits of human trafficking awareness campaigns?


Anne Elizabeth Moore (NO)
Author of Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & Trafficking

Katherine Chon (YES)
Director, Office on Trafficking in Persons, US Dept. of Health and Human Services

Joanna Ewart-James (YES)
Advocacy Director at Walk Free

David Feingold (NO)
Director of the Ophidian Research Institute

Matthew Friedman (YES)
CEO for The Mekong Club

Zoe Trodd (NO)
University of Nottingham

Cris Sardina (NO)
Director of Desiree Alliance

Marilyn Murray (YES)
Creative Director at Love146

Sameera Hafiz (NO)
Advocacy Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance

Ima Matul (YES)
Survivor of Human Trafficking


Borislav Gerasimov (NO)
Advocacy Officer at Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women

Jamison Liang (YES)
Digital Programme Officer at IOM X

Kelli Lynn Johnson (NO)
Associate Professor, Miami University Hamilton

Dina Haynes (NO)
Professor, New England Law|Boston

Tryon P. Woods & P. Khalil Saucier (NO)
Assistant Professor, University of Massachusetts; Associate Professor, Rhode Island College

Lyndsey P. Beutin (NO)
Doctoral candidate, University of Pennsylvania

Anti-trafficking awareness campaigns have gone rogue in their efforts to save and rescue trafficking victims. With the United States leading the heavily funded crusade against sex trafficking and globally dictating the penalties of such crimes, there is minimal or no accountability for factual trafficking data. The hyper-sensationalism perpetuated by media outlets, government propaganda, and anti-trafficking organizations, have largely framed all sex work as human trafficking and all sex workers as needing to be saved and rescued from a life of degradation and exploitation. Over-saturated anti-sex trafficking awareness campaigns ranging from television commercials to welfare office posters are geared to incite public fear that our world is a seedy underground mass of sex-trafficking hubs. Sex workers face the brunt of the rescue industry’s hyperbole through state sanctioned violence, hyper-criminalization, over-policing, targeting, and stigma. As the US War on Drugs wanes down, it has been replaced by a War on Sex Work heavily undertaken by anti-trafficking awareness organizations that promote save and rescue rhetoric.  

Results of anti-trafficking awareness campaigns that focus exclusively on sex trafficking and child sex trafficking have shuttled other forms of trafficking such as labor and human trafficking onto the back burner. This is problematic for several key reasons.

While recent campaigns aim to bring awareness of child sex trafficking, recent research has suggested that the public’s understanding of sex trafficking is misinformed. A research report, Youth Involvement in the Sex Trade: A National Study by John Jay College and the Center for Court Innovation, contested the myth that youth engaging in the sex trade(s) were all victims of sex trafficking. This two-year long research project showed only 10% of approximately 300 interviewed minors in the NYC sex trade used “market facilitators” (e.g., pimps), and 70% stated they had sought services specifically for youths at least once and could not adhere to the regimented guidelines of the service agencies (one-half of the 1,000 minors interviewed nationally did not access services). A whopping 95% of NYC youth stated they exchanged sex for money purely for financial support.

Images from a campaign produced by Voices For Dignity. DualD FlipFlop/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

If we apply these empirical findings through a social justice lens, it clearly shows that youth are using prostitution as survival mechanisms due to the fact there are minimal resources made available to them other than state/city sanctioned programs that leave little recourse for them to determine their future outcomes. When we spend millions of dollars annually on awareness campaigns looking for pimps that aren’t there, additional millions annually on youth programs for shelter and services not utilized, and have contributed millions in taxpayer revenue to fund program-specific street outreach/trafficking, we must ask ourselves why the estimated 3,946 NYC homeless youth engaging in prostitution did not seek these services out.

The answer is simple: if minors are caught prostituting, most are arrested, pipelined back into a system that has more than likely failed them repeatedly, or sent back to environments that are dangerous and abusive. A similar study in Atlanta found no shelters for youth at all despite the heavily funded claim that the city was an immense hub for child sex trafficking.

If minors are caught prostituting, most are arrested, pipelined back into a system that has more than likely failed them repeatedly, or sent back to environments that are dangerous and abusive.

A legitimate question posed to the anti-trafficking awareness campaigners would be: why do these campaigns dismiss the needs of the majority of youth in the sex trade that are not being coerced by third parties? Anti-trafficking awareness campaigns employ scare tactics that present all children as sex trafficked. They detract from building a movement that addresses sustainable and workable solutions to fix the vulnerabilities of societal realities that affect youth such as homelessness, systemic abuse by the child welfare system, and the fact that minors have little or no legal options to actively participate in their self-determinations.

Another defective hyperbole in anti-trafficking awareness campaigns are the statistics of actual trafficked victims considered minors defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2003. Anti-trafficking gateway organizations frequently put forth statistics that the average age of entry is nine to 15 years, that trafficked minors exist in the 100,000s annually and/or "any given time", and that their gender is predominantly female. The Polaris Project, considered to be the leading global expert on human trafficking (including both labor and sex), was held accountable by sex worker rights organizations that demanded they add an explanation on the conflated numbers claimed by anti-trafficking awareness campaigns. They have since added a webpage on their site that breaks down the jargon of guesstimation: "‘The average age of entry for girls into prostitution in the U.S. is 12-14 years old’ … Many people have used this controversial statistic. It is widely quoted by both policy makers and NGOs in an effort to bring attention to child sex trafficking. While we commend their intentions, the statistic itself may not, in fact, be true”.  Polaris Project furthers their statement: “The Facts: This stat is not actually supported by any data. We've looked at both our internal data and external data sources, such as open source research and media, and we don't believe that 12-14 is an accurate average age of entry into prostitution”.  

When government-supported entities and funded stakeholders are not held accountable for accurate trafficking data, the burden of proof lies upon public knowledge of such data. Incorrect data purposely distorts the right of the public to make informed decisions and skews the balance of how far governments can regulate consensual sexual freedoms. We find this deeply problematic as sex trafficking in minors or adults has not proven to be epidemic. No statistics put forth by the U.S. Justice Department, FBI, or credible research has shown an epidemic. Factually, government statistics represent hyper-criminalization and arrests disproportionately affecting communities living in economic disparities and in communities of color.

A segment of a 2007 art installation in Trafalgar Square, London which aimed to raise awareness of sex trafficking in the UK. PA Archive/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Another dangerous effect of anti-trafficking awareness campaigns are the inconsistent and erratic statistics of sexually trafficked persons who are controlled by second and third party exploitations. If you look at any leading anti-trafficking organizational rhetoric on sex trafficking, hundreds of thousands of sexually exploited people (mainly minor girls/women) are held captive by hundreds of thousands of pimps. According to the Polaris Project, 100,000 to 300,000 “new” children are sexually trafficked each year; the Department of Justice makes similar claims with 200,000 to 300,000 children being forced into prostitution in the U.S. “at any given time”; another leading report states 400,000-500,000 children are being trafficked in the United States. Even if we held the opinion that established anti-trafficking research was viable, information is erratic vague and inconsistent. Almodovar satirically makes a valid point in questioning Polaris’ statement as to why neighbors wouldn’t take notice of the lines of men waiting outside to be sexually serviced in the approximate 15 minutes they would have from the door to the sexual act itself?  In truth, these much cited numbers would entail victims to service 25 to 48 men daily during a 12 hour shift, with no time to take care of daily functions such as using the bathroom, eating, sleeping, or texting the Polaris BeFree Textline etc.

Incorrect data purposely distorts the right of the public to make informed decisions.

Ultimately, anti-trafficking awareness campaigns hinder the rights and safety of sex workers more than they help. Hysteria built on morality that instills fear into public hearts and minds is not a new concept. The War on Drugs has led 50 years of successful campaigns to incarcerate communities of color en masse. Laws enacted to protect victims of sex trafficking have been used to entrap those who labor in the sex trades consensually. Online ads placed by law enforcement on adult-oriented sites are used to bait men who are under the impression the make-believe girl is a minor and willing to exchange sex for money. This is not sex trafficking, this is pedophilia.

National sex trafficking raids such as Operation Cross Country also have little to show for the millions of dollars spent on uncovering trafficked victims; the documented numbers of rescued victims are minimal at best. In 2014, 8,500 law enforcement officers in 106 cities participated in the three-day long sting, where 168 minors were rescued. This adds up to 50 agents per child, an average of 1.58 child per city.

Sensationalized television shows highlighting sex trafficking as the main focus always concludes with law enforcement going into economically repressed communities where vice is rampant and arresting the drug addled street worker. After berating and slut-shaming her, she is arrested for prostitution and drugs. She is not offered services by anti-trafficking organizations, she is pipelined to the county jail. She now carries a record of prostitution, preventing her from employment opportunities, academic opportunities, decent housing (The Crime Free Multi-Housing Program), and the stigma of a conviction. If this woman has children or is engaged in any ongoing interactions with child protective services, a misdemeanor conviction of prostitution can almost guarantee she will lose her children. What good has been done when the collateral damage of save and rescue is painfully high?  

For lack of a better descriptive of this scenario, the path to Hell is also paved with good intentions. More often than not, sex workers are unable to go to law enforcement as they are depicted as deserving of the violence, or are threatened by the very people who are publicly funded to protect them. This past summer, in the case of Celeste Guap, an Oakland teenager, five California Bay-area law enforcement agencies sexually trafficked her to other law enforcement representatives. She was arrested and minimal consequences were handed out to the law enforcement agencies with seven out of 30 officers involved in the sex ring. No anti-trafficking organizations rescued this teenager from what amounted to heinous violations of authoritative power structures and, under federal guidelines, constitutes as sex trafficking.  

In conclusion, we reject the frameworks of anti-trafficking awareness campaigns as conflated and ultimately dangerous to those who labor in alternative economies that the laws do not protect and serve or, wholly provide representations. We acknowledge trafficking exists in the most deplorable and heinous conditions through capital means of demand/supply-supply/demand. However, marketing mass hysteria to gain public support reifies trafficking in all forms, (i.e. labor, sex, and human trafficking) and furthers the demand for these economies to thrive in clandestine markets regardless of government objectives to curb or eradicate trafficking. Enacting laws upon existing laws only expands the consumption for underground labor forces that ultimately hinder and defeat the purpose of the laws designed to aid victims of trafficking. The targeting, profiling, arrests, and convictions against vulnerable populations inherently impair the health and wellbeing of communities that have limited or no access to services that provide safe working environments and/or protections against state-sanctioned violence. These deterrences do not mitigate or alleviate circumstances of human trafficking, and only exacerbates the installation of fear and retributions of dangerous retaliations put upon by the government itself.

About the author

Cris Sardina is the coordinator for Desiree Alliance, a national sex workers rights organization. She has led the organization since 2010 and holds a Bachelors degree in Women's Studies and a Masters degree in Social Justice. Cris has worked on anti-trafficking issues countering the anti-trafficking industrial complex that the rhetoric used to sustain narratives harms those who work in underground economies.

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.