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Hell bent on “abolition”

Abolitionist rhetoric is widely used within the anti-trafficking movement to call individuals to action – to be part of a movement to end modern-day slavery. These days, becoming an abolitionist seems fairly straightforward. One can influence change by taking part in education, outreach or advocacy efforts. Abolitionism itself has become a raison d’être with which to engage the public, spread awareness and create support for the issue. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen elsewhere in the anti-trafficking field, where language intends to evoke an emotional call to action – and does so successfully – its influence is seldom questioned.

Karen Bravo argues that analogies between human trafficking and historic slavery are “superficial, counterproductive, and harmful”. Instead, the “use of the analogy too often appeals to emotions in order to serve the particular ends of the user. In other words, there is nothing ‘new’ about modern day slavery, or even in its response, outside of a shift in the collective social conscience”. This isn’t to say that meaningful lessons can’t be extracted from historic slavery, but too often they aren’t. Moreover, while modern abolitionism gives a cursory nod to the transatlantic slave trade via campaign and advocacy rhetoric, policy demands to eradicate slavery are broadly derived from Victorian objections to the “white slave trade” of the early 1900s, revived post Cold War, emphasizing the importance of sex in both articulating the problem and designing current interventions by linking embedded understandings of emancipation (freedom) to moral objections about prostitution.

Religious organizations driven by a morality-based ethos to eradicate human trafficking frequently call on and perpetuate popular abolitionist rhetoric. Arguably, a major driving force of the abolitionist movement was and remains Christian values, which began with evangelists in the UK and the US and now finds resonance with a range of trafficking groups, from high visibility trafficking organizations to local churches. Lately, there has been a great deal of attention to, as CNN calls it, the “new Christian abolition movement”. With calls to the faith community to Free the Captives or the Slaves through programs like “freedom Sunday”, the public (religious and secular) is inundated with messages connoting abolition and emancipation. This speaks to the history of the Christian church and its social activism in the US and UK, but also to the influence of this history on both mainstream and religious culture. This may sound like great news – human trafficking is a horrific crime; if individuals are driven by morality to address the issue, then where is the harm? What is not openly discussed – or debated – is its impact on anti-human trafficking efforts.

The language used to incite action goes beyond informing a particular religious community or campaigning efforts more broadly. The moral impetus described here is linked to very specific social and ideological constructs which permeate narratives about trafficking and subsequently, the shape of anti-trafficking activities. Perpetuated by (predominately Christian) groups in the US, and largely unexamined, these constructs have been taken at face value and mainstreamed into anti-trafficking initiatives globally, particularly relating to policy development, victim protection and prevention; specifically regarding the emphasis on sex and “savior”.

Neo-abolitionism emphasizes sex trafficking (with the occasional nod to other forms of exploitation), often conflating sex trafficking and prostitution. The result has predominately focused on the abolition of the sex trade (instead of trafficking) via awareness-raising to change the law. Conversations about economic inequality, structural development, and labor migration policy, which are integral to understanding and effectively preventing trafficking, don’t tend to hold the sensationalist value necessary for many anti-trafficking activists or NGOs to captivate their audiences. These conversations are resigned to the margins of public awareness-raising. For many, prostitution IS sexual slavery; finding resonance with feminists, who are strange, but welcomed collaborators in this approach. This conflation results in the division of sex workers as either lawbreaking prostitutes or brainwashed victims, resulting in resources biased in favor of fighting sex over fighting trafficking. Scholar on religious ethics, Yvonne C Zimmerman argues that sexual ideology informed by moralist principles,

has contributed to anti-trafficking policies that favor constituencies ill-equipped to combat trafficking; that reframe human rights violations as sexual impropriety; and that cut off funding to reputable agencies with a history of effective anti-trafficking work, thereby creating antagonistic relationships among different groups working to stop trafficking. […]the crucial issue, rather, is how introducing religious and moralistic language into these kinds of human rights issues has served to create policies inimical to effectively ending these violations (2010, pg 80).

Compounding the emphasis on sex within neo-abolitionism is the emphasis on emancipation. Campaigns with a focus on “freedom” divert attention from underlying factors of exploitation and reduce the discussion on human trafficking to, as Grechen Soderlund describes, “melodramas that depict innocent victims enslaved by evil people who must be stopped” (2011, pg 200). A strictly dichotomous morality narrative reinforces the image of the deserving victim awaiting rescue and ignores a bevy of actors often complicit in exploitative labor. In Singapore, for example, where might unscrupulous (yet unglamorous) recruitment agencies fit in to this tidy model? Drawing illegal or unfavorable contractual obligations to vulnerable migrants is often part of a recruitment process which may lead to trafficking and exploitation, but tends to sound less romantic than good versus evil: perhaps granting the damsel some agency, the fiery dragon less teeth, and a prince who is more or less left to figure out a multitude of logistics rather than an easy ride on his noble stead.

This is particularly problematic for individuals who do not have an interest in being “saved”; exploited individuals (alongside much of the public) may feel alienated by a strictly religious ethos, which may contradict the needs of a victim (say, in seeking an abortion). At an extreme, there have been cases of individuals occasionally driven by a moral imperative dangerously assume that their one-off righteous actions to “free” a woman or girl in prostitution will turn back the clock on structural inequality. For instance, Gretchen Soderlund points to two instances in which Nicholas Kristof purchased the freedom of two girls in Cambodia, failing to acknowledge the agency of the girls (one of whom returned to the brothel), the socio-economic reasons for their situation and thus, the efficacy of his actions; unfortunately, highly publicized instances like Kristof’s may encourage others to exhibit similar behavior on a grander scale. Even the US State Department agrees that measures like these:

[…] may in fact exacerbate problems of prostitution in impoverished areas. The trafficking in persons Report of 2009 specifically warned against taking such measures to combat human trafficking in all its manifestations. In the case of prostitution, such a strategy creates a market for sex slaves whose freedom becomes another item to be purchased on the brothel’s menu. Just as ‘‘virginity’’ can be purchased at a premium in illicit sex markets, so too now can ‘‘freedom.’’ […]. An influx of crusaders with full wallets can ultimately result in the costly purchase of false hope (Soderlund 2011, pg 204).

And, although constructed as the ultimate goal for every abolitionist, the “saving” bit is merely one step in an often lengthy journey to recovery. “Rescued victims” in fact face complex problems regarding their migration, financial status, educational and economic opportunities, psychological/emotional and physical recovery, and criminal justice complications. There is a concern that the rescuing abolitionist will bore of this extended commitment, or fail to recognize the particular long-term needs of victims ensuring that their ability to access further assistance is limited.

The result has been an anti-trafficking field pickled by the discourse of advocates who succeed in shouting the loudest about the most heart-wrenching cases (you know, the ones tackling the plight of individuals who fall prey to abuse). And often funding, especially grass-roots funding from individual donors tends to cater to those groups rather than organizations best equipped to address the issue. Funding to anti-trafficking organizations has been affected in part due to an ongoing politicization of women’s bodies and the influence of Christian morals in daily political life and noticeably, there is an acceptance (and occasional preference) in the anti-trafficking field for what is morally justifiable over what may be evidence-based. Religion not only affects organizational policies to address trafficking, but international constructs of human trafficking and interventions aimed to address it. As Yvonne Zimmerman points out,

While theological claims could highlight the imperative and urgency of anti-trafficking efforts, the ways in which these theological premises were subsequently incorporated into and used to authorize specific anti-trafficking policies seriously debilitated global anti-trafficking efforts. The problem therefore was not “religion” per se, but the ends to which religious recourse were put (2010, pg 98).

A zealous effort is not always the same as a one which is effective, no matter the organization. Current rhetoric should be re-examined, challenged, debated within the anti-trafficking field. Because abolitionism has been long considered the morally sound justification for eradicating slavery, policies claiming to achieve this goal have been unquestioningly adopted and adapted to suit different forms of exploitation. So far, while espousing abolition of human trafficking, in practice, this has mostly included the abolition of sex work and the “emancipation” of women in the sex trade. But is this the most effective solution – particularly in preventing human trafficking?


  1. […] from trafficked fisherman to the language used in human trafficking discourse, touching on  the role of abolition in the trafficking debate, the dangers of misguided campaigns against human trafficking, forced […]

  2. […] previously voiced our concerns about the use of emotive language and abolitionist rhetoric. Films in particular showcase and reinforce exemplary narratives to generate audiences, such as in […]

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