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The anti-sex trafficking apparatus has been shown to be largely dominated by the anti-prostitution oppression paradigm. This narrative is nurtured by stigmatising beliefs rooted in religious and cultural assumptions. It is also bolstered by a securitarian, anti-migration political agenda and characterised by medicalising interventions. While in this article I join many others in critiquing anti-trafficking aid, I reflect specifically on one of its less explored aspects. I focus on the extent to which criminalising and moralising attitudes are embodied by different kinds of professionals working in humanitarian care for rescued ‘sex trafficking victims’.
I do not make the case that the humanitarian is a profitable anti-politics machine. Nor am I exploring the ideological ambiguities of humanitarian aid and anti-trafficking interventions. Instead, I aim to shed light on the emotional tenor of the interpersonal relations in sex trafficking aftercare. In particular, I want to show how suspicion and stigma operate at this micro but pivotal level, regardless of the cultural or religious context.
I rely on three episodes from my fieldwork to illustrate how post-rescue humanitarian assistance is neither unprejudiced nor humane. These episodes belong both to different religious and cultural contexts and to different types of assistance (governmental/non-governmental, faith-based/non-faith based, shelter based/outreach). The three episodes should be read along a continuum which goes from a lower to a higher degree of distrust. In the first episode, assisted young women are considered as freeloaders, in the second as blackmailers, and in the third as lost souls. This continuum of distrust is paralleled by an equally strong stigmatising attitude. Ultimately, I argue that an often-subtle stigmatisation operates through the people working in contact with survivors. This judgmental attitude turns aftercare into an uncomfortable experience that is not fully centred on the recovery of users.
This judgmental attitude turns aftercare into an uncomfortable experience that is not fully centred on the recovery of users.
Continuum of distrust
To varying degrees, the ‘Madonna-versus-whore stigma’ informs the approach of those offering assistance to ex-victims of sex trafficking. This means that there is a stigmatising continuum of distrust at the heart of the rescue-and-recover logic. Anti-trafficking organisations can be imagined as located at different points along this continuum. Crudely put, at one end, where the highest level of victimisation occurs, distrust is lower. Faith-based-organisations lie towards this end. Their mission is to redeem and purify lost souls, while also fighting and forgiving evil ones. In line with their reassuring victim/perpetrator dyad, they conceive of their beneficiaries as ‘pure’ victims, far from threatening whores. At the other end, suspicion is higher; the victim is not conceived of as wholly disempowered. This is the end of the continuum where border police and lay organisations which do not adopt a sex workers’ rights perspective tend to sit. Not driven by a higher mission, lay organisations may be more ambivalent: not towards doing good against ‘slavery’, but towards sex work. The vast majority of interventions lie somewhere in between these two endpoints, combining both criminalising and moralising elements.
Episode 1: freeloaders
In my first episode, the support staff of a shelter for female victims of trafficking in Hanoi, Vietnam treats residents as freeloaders and as ‘easy women’.
By the end of my fieldwork, I was aware that in the shelter house there was stigma and I felt that I had to share my concerns with both the then co-director and psychologist of the project. Guards and cooks stigmatised both the residents’ poor origins and their past of forced participation in transactional sex. Such denigrating attitudes were evident during meals, when guards and cooks constantly checked how and how much the girls ate, making jokes about the fact that at home they would not have had so much food to eat. Furthermore, the guards remind the girls with their modest origins, but also with their past as prostitutes. One girl also disclosed having been inappropriately touched by a guard. Finally, a pervasive stigma was evident at the prospect of ‘going out’. It seemed that every time a girl wanted to go out or befriend a boy, immediately everybody thought that she was going into a hotel to have sex.
Episodes 2: blackmailers
The second episode regards Sabrina, a ‘sex-trafficking victim’ who returned home to Brazil from Europe. She was repatriated from Switzerland by an evangelical NGO, and converted to evangelical Christianity soon after. For her psychological recovery and further financial support, her case was followed by the public local women’s centre. The government psychologist overseeing her recovery considered Sabrina to be an emotional blackmailer.
One day while I was living with Sabrina and her family, her electricity was cut off. Sabrina started crying inconsolably. She said that it had been the third time already. Before entering into prostitution, she had promised herself that this would never happen again. Sabrina was suffering from a severe eating disorder. Nevertheless, she managed a small Portuguese fast-food stand between a slum and a motorway, serving a clientele of truckers. This was the small business that the NGO had helped her to set up, but it was not profitable enough, barely paying for itself. Shortly after that event, I went to my weekly meeting with the psychologist of the women’s centre. She told me how Sabrina was constantly asking for money and benefits from the local authorities and from the NGO. She thought that Sabrina was emotionally blackmailing them to obtain more money, adding, ‘She is locating the responsibility of her going back into prostitution on us. And she is also subtly threatening us that Godiva [Sabrina’s friend] will become a prostitute too’.
Episode 3: lost souls
The final episode shows how the officers of two highly faith-based-organisations – one Indian and one Nepalese– seem more devoted to their broader cause of liberating the world from sexual slavery and to cheering new devotees of their religious community than to tending to the emotional needs of the women they assist.
I was accompanying the repatriation of Anuma and Salina, two Nepalese girls rescued from Sonagachi red-light district in Kolkata a year before. From the van driving them to Kathmandu, they saw their home country for the first time after what had been a few years. I recall noticing how Anuma’s eyes started to shine as we reached the mountains, with a river running in the valley. As she saw the river she said, ‘There must be fish there’, and then she was looking out of the window searching for fishermen. Her words and excitement went totally unnoticed by the staff of both accompanying NGOs. The silence that reigned in the van during our eight-hour drive contrasted with the noise of the welcoming celebration as we opened the door of the van. The scarce attention to the two girls’ feelings clashed with the loud religious festivity which seemed to make their individual voices even more quiet. Indeed, when we arrived at house 5 – where Anuma and Salina were to meet their ‘new big family’ at the NGO – almost everybody from the neighbouring houses had gathered, clapping hands and singing. Anuma and Salina had their eyes wide open, their mouths shut, and big crucifixes hanging on their chests.
There must be fish there
Each of these three episodes points to how pervasive distrust and stigma can ‘spoil’ the interpersonal relationships forming part of post-rescue assistance. They exemplify how a victimising-cum-stigmatising attitude is embodied by different kinds of frontline professionals, regardless of cultural or religious factors or of the context of assistance (governmental/non-governmental, shelter based/outreach, etc.).
In the Vietnamese shelter, residents are made to feel ashamed, when instead what they need are new trusting bonds to support them in creating a new ‘normal’ life. In the Brazilian case, the assisted woman’s eating disorder, along with her reluctance to start talk-based therapy, should have been urgently addressed. Instead, she was supported to set up a small restaurant and treated with mistrust. In the third case, the repatriation trip from Birgunj to Kathmandu highlights the lack of empathic connection at a moment when the emotional presence of NGO staff would no doubt have been welcomed.
The quality of the relations between carers and cared-for is amongst the most crucial and supportive factors in a surviver’s recovery, with the literature showing how important sensitive and non-judgmental post-trafficking care is. Yet what my research reveals is just how often this kind of care is lacking. Our efforts to understand and intervene must start with attentive interpersonal relations at all levels of assistance. There must be fish there.
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