Becoming aware of Awareness-Raising as anti-trafficking tactic

CCO.Knabe-Sex-Trafficking-Board.5.31.12 (1)My Google Alerts are now full of nonsensical items on behalf of a Trafficking Awareness Month in the USA. I first discovered Awareness Raising when I began to study assumptions held in the world of helping. One holds that certain social problems are ‘hidden’, and ‘hidden populations’ are great favourites amongst sociologists (who can then claim to have located and revealed them). Of course, most of us do know marginalised groups exist; we see them every day and may belong to them ourselves. But the idea that we cannot see social ills creates the need for self-identified experts to inform us about them. Hiding has become a term especially used about undocumented women and under-18-year-olds who sell sex.

busHere the theory is played out with a message placed on a city bus so that a lot of random people see it (thus having their awareness raised). The term is not a synonym for consciousness-raising, whether yogic or feminist (Wikipedia is wrong) but a strategy with concrete techniques used first by social-policy adepts and activists and then spread in mediocre news-production and social media. See the example of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 8) for more explanation.

Awareness is by definition superficial and can only become deeper if followed up by curious investigation: wondering, reading, critique, talking with those more experienced, cogitating over ambiguities. But with awareness-raising as goal, previously uninformed audiences tend to accept whatever messages claim to be the truth, so that when campaigners are unprincipled (as many anti-traffickers are), audiences are misinformed. Misinformation – or deliberate disinformation – usually comes in the form of over-simplified categories that reduce human complexities to a couple of black-and-white labels, accompanied by unfounded statistics. I often meet people now who, when they discover what my work has been, dismiss it with a smug claim that we have a ‘difference of opinion’. I object: my knowledge is based on research and analysis over many years, not an awareness campaign disseminated on facebook or an online petition, not the acceptance of heavily biased or badly researched media articles.

satmThis field is not easy to comprehend but fraught with subtleties and apparent contradictions. My work began with my own questions, because I didn’t understand 20 years ago and I knew I didn’t. Over time I came to focus on those who position themselves as called to rescue women they call victims who, in large numbers, didn’t (and still don’t) identify that way (which doesn’t mean nothing is wrong or everyone is happy). I created the term Rescue Industry after years of study to describe non-self-critical helpers who assume they Know Better than the rest of us how we all ought to live. In my book Sex at the Margins I wrote of trafficking as a new keyword (thanks to Molly Crabapple for the tweeted photo). Creating this keyword was an essential step towards the Rescue Industry’s becoming able to engage in awareness-raising: you can’t put snappy messages on buses until you have snappy concepts (for theory-mavens I am talking about an apparatus of governmentality).

Anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigning have produced a generation of people who believe the facts have been established long since about who is Good and Bad, who is Victim and why and how to solve the problems. Most folks are not, of course, particularly interested in the details or nuances to the general narrative. At the same time some opposition campaigners also over-simplify in an attempt to reach uncritical audiences, by invoking civil liberties or freedom of choice and ignoring complexities.

billboardarlingtonHere’s awareness-raising on a highway before a Super Bowl in Texas. Note this is not only about the message but the medium, the board-in-your-driving-face. Speeches and presentations given by social workers, politicians, academics and others at meetings and conferences do not qualify. Website mission statements do not qualify. You have to go out into the world and Do Something broadly educative. I recall when I worked amongst undocumented migrants detained at the Mexico-US border how we dreamt of travelling south to hold posters up in bus and gas stations warning of certain, er, problems ahead.

The following Google Alerts for 6 January 2015 come from around the US; town-names show how awareness-raising as a tactic has spread: Fargo, Spartanburg, Fond du Lac, Fresno, Duluth, Houston. Despite varying immigration and cultural histories, all conform to and reproduce the dominant confusing and dysfunctional message.

Google “Human Trafficking” 6 January 2015

Official Reports Progress in Awareness of Human Trafficking
Department of Defense WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2015 – Defense Department awareness of slavery and human trafficking issues is paying off significantly because of …

Human trafficking awareness events planned in Fargo
INFORUM FARGO – An event scheduled here Sunday in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day will feature a panel discussion with local experts …

Ongoing human trafficking cases
Daily Republic Mitchell SD
Trina Nguyen and Loc Tran face federal human trafficking charges and other charges after allegedly operating a brothel in Minot, N.D., and then, after …

SC prosecutor discussing fight against human trafficking
The State Columbia SC The State Wilson’s office says he plans to talk about the need for new legislative tools for fighting human trafficking. Benton plans to talk about how some of those …

Human trafficking: How one Minnesota girl was lured into ‘the game’
Duluth News Tribune Duluth MN It was the early 1980s, and the evolving Block E of downtown Minneapolis had life, with hustlers and prostitutes interspersed with the suit-and-tie …

Human trafficking event held Saturday
Fond du Lac Reporter Fond du Lac WI A presentation about human trafficking will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 10 at Fond du Lac Public Library’s Eugene G. McLane Meeting Room.

Human trafficking hidden but present in Upstate
Spartanburg Herald Journal Spartanburg SC January is human trafficking awareness month, and statewide and local events are scheduled to bring attention to the issue that exploits about 21 …

Life after human trafficking
Houston Chronicle Houston TX Life after human trafficking … Today she’s a 33-year-old college junior with a 4.0 GPA — living proof that the victims of human trafficking can recover.

Fresno meeting set to discuss human trafficking, domestic violence
Fresno Bee Fresno CA Centro La Familia Advocacy Services will host “A Community Convening: Conversations Not Heard” to raise public awareness of human trafficking …

mccainThen, of course, there are ads aimed at victims themselves, which are more properly understood as outreach. The latest generation of these show clearly that objects of help may not know they are victims.

In the midst of writing this post I listened to Marvin Gaye’s early rendition of I heard it through the grapevine. Grapevines pre-date awareness-raising.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

9 thoughts on “Becoming aware of Awareness-Raising as anti-trafficking tactic

  1. Bobby

    “Sexually trafficked children” (from the poster) is something new. I object to “sex trafficked” but “sexually trafficked” is even worse! Obviously “Sexually abused children” are children who have been sexually abused, but “sexually trafficked children” are what – children who have been trafficked sexually? Do they now say “sexual trafficking” in the US to mean trafficking for sexual exploitation or what? What’s next – “children who are sexually trafficked as sex slaves”? This is just beyond ridiculous and beyond “getting out of hand”..

    1. Laura Agustín

      You’re right about sexually as an adverb modifying trafficked, as they sometimes write sexual trafficking. As I mentioned in the post, awareness-raising requires snappy language, and PR or media consultants undoubtedly come up with this stuff to get attention more than convey sensible concepts. They probably think they are ‘innovating’ too.

  2. MigrantWorker

    Thanks for another great post Dr. Laura!

    Funny, just as I started typing this, my Google Alerts notifier popped up, as it does every night at 7pm, to notify me about some more anti-trafficking drivel.

    I live and work in South East Asia. I first became of aware of ‘awareness-raising’ after I moved from China to SEA about 5 years ago (China doesn’t allow proselytizing, so I’d not encountered it there). Like you suggest in your post, I took this new found ‘awareness’, and ran with it. It became an almost full time hobby of mine tracking down all of these ‘trafficked’ people in SEA. It did not take me long to determine that ‘trafficked’ humans virtually don’t exist. Saying they don’t exist at all, anywhere, is not something I’m willing to say for the same reasoning and logic that I will not say that UFO’s and aliens don’t exist. Trafficked humans, sex slaves, and little green men from other planets all might exist, but I’ve never seen any of them.

    My work has given me access to the most rural villages in SEA, many only accessible by boat. When I asked villagers if they sell their children they all reply with laughter. They love their children, why would they sell them? They have enough food from their farms, rivers, and jungles, and they are tightly knit villages, with everyone living on top of each other. If a child goes missing, the whole village knows about it. Their children are also their retirement.

    Urban poverty is a different environment. I have met girls that’s parents made arrangements during hard times for the girls to work in return for loans of money. And when the girls work online, or in a bar, long enough to repay their debt, they can move on. I have more than a few friends that sold their virginity in response to a family crisis or medical emergency. I’m sad for them, but they aren’t sad for themselves, it’s part of surviving and they understand that at a very young age. They are happy they had the opportunity to sell their virginity, their body, or their companionship, to help their family out of a bad situation. They are unhappy when they lose that freedom of choice or self determination, and their brothers or fathers have to revert to theft for survival and end up in jail, costing the already poor family even more money.

    And, as you point out, there are the health risks. Many areas license sex workers, and part of that licensing is a weekly STD/HIV test. When groups like the IJM come into these areas, the first thing to stop is the licensing and testing, and the first thing to start is the girls start working the streets as free-lancers; no health checks, no accountability, crime goes up.

    I could go on, but you know the rest already.

    Something that did strike me this week was the news about the 2 boats put on ‘autopilot’ towards the coast of Italy. All of the reports calling the hundreds of people on those vessels ‘victims of human trafficking’. While they were on those boats they were merely people that had sold all they had and bought a ticket to something certainly better than where they had left. They were probably even a little excited about their new futures.

    It wasn’t until they were ‘saved’, that they truly became victims, and realized the futility and economic loss of what they had just endured.

    ‘Victims’ of human trafficking and sex slavery are not victims or slaves until after they’ve been ‘rescued’.

    ‘Raising awareness’ is more palatable copy than ‘raising money’. Actually, if you aren’t raising money while raising awareness, then you would just be called a ‘paper boy’.

    What saddens me the most about the rescue industry, is that their supporters, the hard working people with big hearts that give them their money, really do have the best of intentions. I think even their celebrity figure heads like our buddies Kutcher and Sorvino (maybe not Sorvino, she actually set foot on Cambodian soil, she could have asked a so-called ‘victim’ what they really wanted or needed), really do think they are doing good. If had ‘raised awareness for them first, many of them would stop. “Don’t feed the bears” has been received pretty well, maybe “Don’t feed the NGO’s” will catch on sometime soon.

    The LGBT and pro-choice communities fight so hard for their right to their own sexual self-determination. If a woman has the right to have sex with, or marry, another woman, and has the right to an abortion, why shouldn’t she have the right to have sex for money? Especially when they really, really need the money.

    Why is having sex in exchange for money even bad? If you are desperate for money, I think money is the best reason! It’s certainly a better reason than having sex because you drank too much, or because you thought it would make him like you more, or elevate your social status. Sex for money put food on the table, or made it possible for a loved one to go to the hospital. Exchanging sex for badly needed money, as opposed to the reasons most of us have sex, makes me think we’ve got it backwards;perhaps sex for free should be outlawed.

    Why is it that when American journalist write stories about women aged 14-20 in America, they are referred to as ‘young women’ making ‘sexual decisions’, but when it’s a ‘young woman’ from another country, usually with darker skin, the journalists always write about them as ‘raped children’ or ‘sex slaves’.

    If America is the ‘land of the free’, and stands as a beacon for freedom, democracy, capitalism, entrepreneurship, hardwork, etc., why are they running around the world stifling those very values they hold in such esteem? Certainly sex industry workers and minors working in factories or on fishing boats exemplify those traits far more than the average worker in America.

    Most American’s relatives came from other countries on big ships in less then ideal conditions. America still defines itself as a country of immigrants. But now, thanks to America, America, buy it’s own definition, is now a country of ‘human trafficking victims’ and ‘sex slaves’.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Thank you for this, I guess you know I addressed some of the more basic points in Sex at the Margins. I wouldn’t confine blame to ‘America’, though – if you read my work you know why!

      1. MigrantWorker

        Actually, I’m ashamed to say, I have not read your book. Your reply prompted me to click on your links to Amazon to see if I could download the Kindle version and none of your links are working for me. They take me to an Amazon header with a blank page beneath. I was able to find it doing a search on Amazon. You might want to check your links.

        I did waste a few hours of my life on Louise Brown’s ‘Sex Slaves’ several years ago, which can be found in most of the Hostel’s and used bookstores in SEA. Judging by the poor quality of the paper and ink I think they are being printed and sold by the street kids in Cambodia, and left at the hostels by Australian backpackers. I wonder if she’d approve street children being ‘trafficked’ to sell illegal copies of her book? Probably, as the ends seem to always justify the means with her crowd.

        I found found fiction author’s Burdett and Leather to have a far superior grasp of the subject matter than Brown, and were far more entertaining.

        I watched ‘Whore’s Glory’ about a year ago, and found that to be an accurate portrayal.

        I look forward to reading your book. Perhaps you should take your vast knowledge of this subject and start writing fiction (Burdett and Leather style fiction, not Brown style fiction).

        1. laura agustin Post author

          I test all links before publishing and just did again and they work – here and on the next post on the book’s being a ‘classic’ and in the upper-right corner of the site.

          There are hundreds of books and thousands of articles and dozens of documentaries, mostly that I find boring or misleading. I met Louise Brown once, she changed her mind about things after that old slave book.

        2. Cameron

          I have to recognise that I am Australian and have myself left the book you refer to in a hostel once. So I guess I fit the stereotype. Unfortunately I can’t remember what I thought of the book.

          means vs ends, ends vs means
          it is not so simple as it may seem


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