Category Archives: Labor Trafficking

A Call to Action: Why sexual and domestic violence organizations are crucial to the anti-trafficking movement

Over the past 6 years working in the anti-trafficking field, I’ve seen an enormous amount of positive growth in conjunction with many negative challenges.  I’ve often attributed this to the anti-trafficking movement being in its “adolescence,” as it is technically much younger than the anti-sexual and domestic violence movements that began in the 1960s and 70s.

This so-called adolescence has its benefits: the anti-trafficking movement is energetic, optimistic, and very popular. Everyone seems to want to work on human trafficking, the news media consistently covers the topic, and donors are looking to fund anti-trafficking efforts.  Additionally, passionate organizations and experts are doing ground-breaking work to combat trafficking. The field is understandably taking advantage of this energy and popularity by gaining some of the strongholds that the domestic violence and sexual assault movements were able to gain in the 80s and 90s – longer-standing organizations are solidifying their leadership, shelters are developing and programs expanding, and anti-trafficking laws are moving through political gridlock to assist survivors and hold exploiters accountable.

However, adolescence also has its “growing pains” and the anti-trafficking field can sometimes be just as erratic and impetuous as your average teenager.  New organizations with little understanding of the crime seem to be forming every day; some even end up harming victims further.  New individuals in the field may seem to claim expertise overnight, after seeing a movie or hearing a presentation on trafficking; some even falsify or elaborate on their credentials. Many of my colleagues in the sexual and domestic violence fields have told me they wouldn’t want to work in the anti-trafficking field for these reasons – because it can mean trying to reason with zealots who think they can “rescue” every victim or deal with individuals trying to “make a name” off of a new and burgeoning field.

Being the “popular kid” has its costs as well. When other anti-violence fields see that the anti-trafficking movement continues to garner the attention of news media and donors, it can feel incredibly discounting.  When the crime of human trafficking is so often painted in the extreme as an issue “like no other,” it can feel extremely alienating.  This frustration and alienation can be damaging, leading to a lack of collaboration and leaving other fields feeling like trafficking doesn’t intersect with the issues they work on.  But for sexual and domestic violence organizations, we can’t walk away from working on human trafficking – both because the anti-trafficking field needs our voices and because it is without a doubt “our issue.”


In my capacity as a trainer on the intersections of human trafficking with sexual and domestic violence, I’ve also seen exciting growth and frustrating challenges in the sexual and domestic violence fields’ work on human trafficking. There has been amazing progress towards incorporating exploitation into sexual and domestic violence programs as well as tremendous leadership in these fields to be a part of, and even at the helm of, the anti-trafficking movement.  However, I still frequently hear the sentiment that human trafficking just doesn’t fit squarely into these fields, making it more understandable why sexual and domestic violence agencies do not dive into anti-trafficking work.

For sexual assault agencies, sex trafficking typically feels like a natural fit into the parameters of working on sexual violence, whereas labor trafficking may not.  I remember doing a training for a state coalition that asked specifically for the presentation to “stick to sex trafficking” and not go into labor, thinking that their member agencies wouldn’t have occasion to encounter these victims.  However, when I asked the organizations what types of trafficking they had seen, many mentioned cases of individuals being sexually assaulted within situations of domestic servitude and agricultural labor.

For domestic violence agencies, finding parallels to this work may feel like an even bigger leap, especially with the way trafficking is often portrayed. The media and even anti-trafficking speakers typically highlight the more sensational stories of brutally violent “stranger-traffickers,” and rarely depict a trafficker as the husband selling his wife for sex or the father forcing his children to work. But as with many other crimes, traffickers can be those closest to their victims and exploitation can be a part of intimate partner violence and familial abuse.

The intersections are real and cases of human trafficking will fall into the laps of those working on sexual and domestic violence regularly. It may not be the primary case you see, but exploitative abuse is ever-present in your work, making it essential for you to be an integral part of the movement to combat trafficking.

On the other hand, even organizations that clearly see these intersections and want to be involved may not necessarily get invited to the anti-trafficking table as equal partners. At the first meeting of my organization, the Denver Anti-Trafficking Alliance, I asked how many of the 40-plus diverse agency partners in attendance had worked with a trafficking victim and almost all raised their hands. When I asked how many had attended a collaborative meeting on human trafficking, only a small number raised their hands.  I also remember a state sexual and domestic violence coalition telling me that anti-trafficking organizations in their state used their member agencies when they needed shelter for a victim, but wouldn’t include them in funding or collaborative discussions. This lack of inclusiveness has underpinnings in some of the issues of adolescence mentioned above, and is a significant barrier to providing a comprehensive response to human trafficking.


While the anti-trafficking movement may not be actively seeking sexual and domestic violence organizations’ participation, your voice is critical to anti-trafficking work. As mentioned before, being in its adolescence means the anti-trafficking field has several energetic, amazing organizations and experts doing exceptional work; however, the field is also vulnerable to inexperienced organizations and self-proclaimed “experts” that can do serious harm to victims and survivors. Sexual and domestic violence organizations can help prevent this harm by bringing a time-tested, trauma-informed perspective to the anti-trafficking table. This perspective and the non-harmful services available to victims through sexual and domestic violence agencies are essential to support the anti-trafficking movement where true expert voices may be in the minority.

At this point, let me be clear (because I can visualize some people getting worked up about now), I am not asking you to drop your work on sexual and domestic violence and become an anti-trafficking “only” organization or to take on “one more thing” with no funding behind it. I am asking you to recognize human trafficking as part of your existing work on abuse. Because, let’s be honest, you are already doing the work. If a man is sexually assaulted by his employer who is also trafficking him, your organization will serve him if you can because he is a victim of sexual violence. If a woman is sold for sex by her husband to “make ends meet,” you will serve her if you can because she is a victim of sexual and domestic violence. Right?


So now is the time to claim your seat at the anti-trafficking table and to add your voice to those of anti-trafficking advocates working to help the movement mature past its adolescence. By doing this, your organization can provide services to trafficking survivors that are time-tested and trauma-informed, take part in collaborative funding opportunities to support those services, and vet agencies and individuals whose experience may be lacking and ultimately harmful to survivors.

Your voice is not only important because the sexual and domestic violence movements are technically in their “adulthood” and have a seasoned perspective of trauma-informed service and collaborative work— it is also critical to this work because human trafficking is, without question, your issue too.

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Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Human Trafficking, Intimate Partner Violence, Labor Trafficking, Sex Trafficking, Violence Against Women

Take off the cape: Why using the word “rescue” is harmful to anti-trafficking efforts

When I came to the human trafficking field from working on domestic and sexual violence, I was shocked by a lot of things. It was disturbing to learn about the various ways traffickers abuse and exploit victims for labor and sex and surprising to see how frequently human trafficking intersected directly with intimate partner violence, sex assault and child abuse.

However, a different type of unsettling surprise for me came not from the crime itself, but from the terminology used to discuss it. More specifically, I was shocked by how commonly the word “rescue” was used to describe identifying and assisting victims and survivors of human trafficking.

This was so foreign to me because in the domestic and sexual violence fields it would be unthinkable to refer to victim identification and assistance as a “rescue” or “rescue mission.” I can only imagine the faces of my former colleagues if I had said that my work with an individual had “rescued” them from their abuser. There would have been some serious questioning of my ability to provide appropriate, trauma-informed services to that person without doing considerable harm as well as my motives for doing the work in the first place.

Having come from disciplines where the use of this term would be seen as highly inappropriate and demeaning to a victim or survivor of crime, it was very odd to me that “rescue” was a term used not only in everyday language around the issue but also in awareness and education, news media and even in the names of anti-trafficking organizations and programs. Although “rescue” is a word that evokes images of life-saving missions to pull people from a burning building, I soon found out that the anti-trafficking field had essentially reclaimed the word to convey uniqueness in the ways trafficking victims are identified and given assistance.

Now you may be wondering, “What harm can using a term like this really do?” Unfortunately, the frequent use of “rescue” has a serious impact on victims and survivors of human trafficking as well as to the human trafficking field as a whole. Here are some reasons why:

Trauma Bonding & Psychological Abuse

Some of you may have been thinking “but human trafficking is unique and usually involves kidnapping and confinement, so rescuing fits!” However, more often than not, traffickers aren’t complete strangers utilizing brute force but are known or become known to their victims by forming relationships and strong trauma bonds, making it difficult to leave because of love, hope and fear involved. Some victims are even trafficked by intimate partners, parents and other relatives. Also, anyone who has worked with trafficking survivors will tell you that the dynamics of this crime are complex and the forms of power and control employed by traffickers are often psychological rather than physical, similar to domestic violence.

Impact: So if your idea of a human trafficking victim is someone waiting to be rescued, you will find yourself confused when, instead of holding out their arms to you in relief and gratefulness, a victim uses some choice words to tell you where you can go and returns to their trafficker over and over again. Using the word “rescue” simplifies this incredibly complex crime and promotes misconceptions about who traffickers are and how they control and manipulate their victims. This is not only detrimental to law enforcement and service providers’ ability to identify victims, it is also harmful to our capacity to prosecute traffickers when a jury expects a victim who was chained up by their trafficker rather than one who leaves and returns to a trafficking situation multiple times.

Uneven Power Dynamic between “Rescuer” and “Rescuee”

Wondering why my previous coworkers would have been concerned if I said I “rescued” someone from their abuser? Because when you say that you “rescued” someone, that statement is about empowering and aggrandizing yourself while disempowering the person you think you rescued. This is because “rescuing” creates an uneven power dynamic where the “rescuer” (read: hero) has all of the power in the relationship and the “rescuee” (read: helpless victim) has no agency or role in the exit of his or her abusive situation. While not everyone using the word “rescue” is purposefully trying to pump their own egos and disempower victims, they are certainly using the term without thinking of its true meaning and impact.

Impact: A relationship built on inequality with an empowered, potentially self-serving role for the “rescuer” and a demeaning and demoralizing role for the victim mirrors the uneven power dynamics they experienced with their trafficker. This unequal relationship is the antithesis of trauma-informed care, as it doesn’t allow for mutuality and true empowerment, and ultimately inhibits a victim’s path to healing and survivorship.

Everyone wants to Rescue a Victim!

The use of the exclamation point is for sarcasm and the point is that this simplistic view of human trafficking gives a simplistic idea of the solution. Well-meaning, compassionate people hear about the horrors of human trafficking and how victims are just waiting to be rescued, and think, “Hey, that is something I can do!” without understanding of the complexity of the situation and the necessity for a trauma-informed professional response. Look no further than Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Skywhere he discovers in his chapter entitled “Rescuing Girls is the Easy Part” that taking women out of brothels doesn’t mean they won’t return or that all their problems have been magically solved.

Impact: Multiple organizations are forming with the idea of “rescuing” trafficking victims without professional experience in victim services and trauma. Sometimes these organizations even plan their own undercover rescue missions or try to be a kind of renegade force to fill in where official law enforcement can’t respond. A week doesn’t seem to go by that I don’t hear of a new organization that wants to “rescue” or “save” victims of human trafficking. And while they may have good intentions, ignorance and inexperience can be incredibly harmful to victims and survivors who need professional trauma-informed services. Moreover, the ease with which organizations are able to form and claim expertise in this relatively new field of human trafficking is astounding and frightening. Because the field is younger than say the domestic violence or sex assault fields, new organizations can often form without much question from funders or even partners in the field as to how qualified they are to be providing services in the first place.

For all of these reasons and the harmful impacts they have, the anti-trafficking field has to reevaluate the use of the word “rescue” in everyday language among practitioners, in communication to the general public and most importantly, to victims and survivors themselves. We should rely on more traditional, professional terms when we talk about discovering and working with victims of this crime that truly reflect its’ nature, such as “identification” and “assistance.”

This reevaluation and revamping of our terminology is crucial because before we can meaningfully move forward in our efforts to end human trafficking, we have to communicate the correct information about what this crime looks like and have appropriate responses and services that don’t further disempower victims and survivors. It’s time we take off the “rescuer’s” cape and elevate our language around anti-trafficking work to the trauma-informed, victim-centered place that it should be.

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Filed under Domestic Violence, Familial Violence, Human Trafficking, Intimate Partner Violence, Labor Trafficking, Sex Trafficking, Sexual Violence, Violence Against Women