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Survivors of Human Trafficking Need Solidarity, Not Pity

By Aditi Bhattacharya, LMSW

Surviving human trafficking takes courage, resourcefulness and creativity. When I talk to youth who have been trafficked, I don’t think “poor victim”—and neither should you.

As a social worker, I am continually humbled by the survivors I work with. They are creative, resourceful and unbelievably strong. They have all worked hard to retain their dignity under incredibly difficult circumstances. It’s my professional duty to give them the information and resources they need. It is NOT my job to “rescue” them or to pity them.

Human trafficking includes both labor trafficking and sex trafficking, but sex trafficking tends to get more attention. After all, it is a much more egregious act. But sex trafficking also provides shock value. Many media stories concentrate on the sordid details of the horrors that survivors have gone through. This isn’t done because the survivor feels like those are key details to their own story, or because they help the public understand trafficking better. Instead, those details act as click-bait, tickling our own voyeuristic desires.

Trauma “porn” like this doesn’t show survivors as complex individuals.

Instead, they are reduced to victims. This is the absolute opposite of trauma-informed therapy, which engages survivors to recognize their own resilience and helps them build the toolbox they need to heal and create the lives they want for themselves. Trauma-informed therapy is about empowering individuals, not “rescuing” them.

Media stories that approach trafficking survivors this way elicit pity instead of genuine empathy. This may motivate some people to donate to the cause of stopping human trafficking, but it can’t create real understanding or solidarity—that can only happen when survivors are seen as real, multi-faceted human beings. This is a huge disservice to survivors.

It can also prevent people from developing a deeper understanding of what human trafficking is and how it works. Exotifying survivors makes people think that trafficking could never happen to them or affect their lives, and that it’s only something that happens in other countries. But the truth is that trafficking occurs in every state in the United States, and New York has the fifth highest rate of reported human trafficking cases. Trafficking doesn’t have to involve smuggling or kidnapping. Labor trafficking can include a teenager being prevented from going to school so that they can look after their siblings. Sex trafficking doesn’t have to involve physical restraints or abuse—it can involve threats and more subtle forms of coercion. But when stories in the media concentrate on the most shocking cases, other instances of trafficking may go unrecognized and unreported.

I’ve worked with human trafficking survivors in different settings, but currently work at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. I know young survivors have referred each other here, understanding that we meet them where they are, and respect them instead of pitying them.

We don’t approach them as “poor victims.”

Youth are incredibly attuned to how others view them, and we would immediately lose their trust if they saw us assuming that they are only hapless victims. Instead, we approach survivors as individuals. We provide them with free and confidential physical and mental health services, and make sure they know that we are here for them no matter what, with no judgment.

This Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we need to actually listen to survivors and lift up their stories.  Certainly, pain will be a part of their narratives. Their scars are part of who they are and what makes them unique. But they are only a part. Also a part of their story is what came before, and what they’ve done since. How they’ve survived, how they are healing. Their passions, their relationships, their careers. This respects their personal agency and their whole person. Listening to and respecting these stories allows us to move beyond “rescuing” or providing “charity” to victims, and instead stand in solidarity with these amazing survivors.

Aditi Bhattacharya, LMSW is the Rape Crisis Program Coordinator at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. She received her MSW from the Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work in 2011. Her career has spanned three nations and two continents, and has comprised marketing communications and non-profit program management; this has all been a lead up to her vocation as a clinician. Aditi is passionate about applying trauma informed care to support vulnerable populations, while also finding ways to make clinical work more accessible and applicable to people across nations and cultures.

The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.

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