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Anti-trafficking movements and journalism: who sets the agenda?

Many have criticised the media for their sensationalist reporting on sex trafficking. But few realise the extent to which social movements are shaping this agenda.

Sex trafficking is a framework for understanding commercial sex exchanges that draws on socially potent narratives about immigration, race, gender, and sexuality. More than any other institution, the media have been central in establishing this framework as credible and legitimate, despite various concerns that have been raised by critics about the problematic nature of sex trafficking journalism and the activist organisations it spawns. Indeed, ending sex trafficking has become the most popular humanitarian cause of the new millennium. Today the cause is as likely to be championed by human rights activists as it is celebrities, evangelical Christians, Mormon activists, high school and college students, politicians, feminists, or women’s magazine readers. This unlikely collection of activists has promoted the belief that sex trafficking is not only rampant, but it is one of the worst abuses imaginable.

For Western societies, sex trafficking first surfaced as a key political, social, and moral topic during the 1880s in England, when a social purity activist asked the crusading journalist William T. Stead to help push forward stalled age-of-consent legislation in Parliament. The result was a scandalous piece titled the “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” which described the auction of a vast number of virgins to London’s wealthy aristocrats. Stead’s methods and conclusions were problematic, but he succeeded in his quest to raise the age of consent in England and triggered an international movement to end the traffic in women.

The sex trafficking framework that Stead popularised eventually made its way to the US. In the wake of Stead’s piece, English social purity activist Josephine Butler toured the US declaring that the 15th Amendment had failed to liberate a new class of slaves: female prostitutes. Inspired by Stead and Butler, temperance and social purity groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union began to demand that US editors use Stead as an example and print stories of sex trafficking in their papers. Newspapers at the time were hesitant to openly discuss sex or prostitution for fear that this content would be perceived as immoral. However, social purity movements taught editors that they could report on the horrors of prostitution-as-sex-trafficking without incurring charges of prurience. At the behest of social purity activists, newspapers in the US slowly began to publish stories on sex trafficking. In return, activists praised these newspapers in their own social movement publications and encouraged their rank-and-file to patronise them.

Sex trafficking disappeared from the public agenda for several decades in the twentieth century. However, in the 1990s, news organisations and journalists began promoting sex trafficking as a salient and relevant framework for understanding some forms of immigration. This coverage was in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which ushered in a period of widespread voluntary and involuntary mass migration. In the US, the news media began reporting on sex trafficking as an unseemly byproduct of the Cold War’s end. Around this same period, feminist and human rights activists began to organise on behalf of trafficked women; by the mid-1990s some of their organisations were even consulted by the media (the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women and the Global Survival Network, for example). However, none of these groups gained as much traction within the mainstream Western media as today’s rescue organisations.

Screenshot provided by author.

Over the last 15 years abolitionist rescue groups have increasingly set the national news media agenda around sex trafficking. These organisations now frame, define, and quantify the practice for journalists. Today it is commonplace in the US to see segments on shows like NBC’s Dateline, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and ABC’s Nightline that chronicle the activities of neo-abolitionist groups like International Justice Mission, Shared Hope International and, most recently, Operation Underground Railroad. These relationships have spawned a new genre of sex trafficking journalism. Journalists and camera crews embed themselves within anti-trafficking groups to offer firsthand reports of the undercover, paramilitary-style raids these groups conduct in their global campaigns to end sex slavery. Well-funded rescue groups, with journalists and local law enforcement by their side, lay elaborate traps to arrest middlemen and send young sex workers to shelters in the name of ending slavery. Journalism has again developed a symbiotic relationship with anti-trafficking organisations, whereby the organisations set the agenda around trafficking by engaging in effective public relations. The news media, in turn, is rewarded with titillating and exciting footage for nighttime news audiences.

In recent coverage of sex trafficking there appears to be a continual feedback loop: the news media have inspired social movements to adopt sex trafficking as a cause at various points in history. Once the issue becomes entrenched, journalists become beholden to anti-trafficking movements as experts for continued coverage of the topic. The press proceeds to adopt a frame from these groups that it had earlier helped to establish as dominant. As I have shown elsewhere, the history of anti-trafficking groups and the history of modern journalism are deeply intertwined. Not only did these social movements and journalism develop symbiotic relationships with one another, but early-twentieth century controversies over the excesses of sex trafficking reportage actually helped change journalistic practices.

The history of sex trafficking journalism and activism is marred by scandal, sensationalism, and unsubstantiated claims. From Stead to Somaly Mam, sex trafficking is a topic that lends itself to excesses and abuses. Part of the problem is that the narratives have become so universally accepted that they have become ready-made stories that journalists can publish with little reflection or criticism. We need a renewed call for responsible reporting on this issue. Understanding the history of this reportage and its relationship to social movements can help lead us down a path that avoids some of the main pitfalls of the past.


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