Unchained But Held Captive

It is human trafficking awareness month, and as a prevention coordinator for an anti trafficking organization nothing gets me more excited than the thought of educating an uneducated public. Unfortunately, that is often times not happening. This year I find myself incredibly frustrated with the misrepresentations of victims in a stereotypical manner that is damaging to the ability of a community to accurately identity and help victims. If you google image search human trafficking, the vast majority of the photographs that will pop up are of young girls with tape over their mouth, rope or chains around their wrists and neck, or curled up, dirty, and naked women in what appears to be a dark basement, cellar, or abandoned, urban building.


First of all, I have never ever encountered a victim that looked like that, nor did I ever look like that at any point, and God forbid we actually talk about the exploitation of boys. These photo’s do not represent victims, they sensationalize a human rights “issue” by glorifying our constant need for shock to be entertained or attention grabbed. Sure, the piercing eyes of the girl with a dirty male hand around her mouth will stop anyone in their tracks, but what is that photo truly saying? It implies kidnapping and physical coercion, but never acknowledges the brainwashing. The chains of modern day slavery are not on hands and feet, but rather in the hearts and minds of the hopeful, hopeless, needy, abandoned, lonely, abused, forgotten, rejected, unlovable, homeless, broken, bullied, addicted, and vulnerable.


This makes it incredibly hard for anyone who was not physically held in a cage, with chains, ropes, or extreme levels of violence to identify as a victims. Being unable to identify as a victims makes leaving the life just about impossible, and keeps that person in the bondage of shame. So many of us (survivors) have struggled with even being called a survivor because we do not identify with the images that apparently portray victims. We cannot move forward until we do identify and remove the crushing gorilla on our back called shame. We (survivors as well as a culture), look at those images as a photo of the definition of human trafficking. The actual definition is: “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” Coercion could include the threat of one’s children or siblings. Fraud includes blackmailing someone into doing what you want. Deception includes dating someone you think loves you, but actually just wants to use you. Payment can also be goods, favors, drugs, etc. Let’s not forget that 20% of victims are being used to harvest or produce most of the products we consume. Current media does not portray the fastness and complexity that is human trafficking. Current photography covers only one form of recruitment and harboring of humans, kidnapping and captivity. Both of which are the rarest of situations.


Until the public understands what hold’s people to their abusers, they will never have the compassion they need to help and understand their needs. It s frustrating when someone will not leave the life or returns after being out. It does not make sense, but what you must understand is that their brains are not functioning as yours and mine are. Trauma alone clouds one’s ability to think logically, then you ad in threats, brainwashing, trauma bonding, and you have a situation similar to dealing with dried super glue. That is why chains, tape, and ropes are not required. Traffickers can be hands off once they have beaten you enough and/or threatened the ones you love. That is what people do not understand. It is not just their lives and wellbeing at stake, it is someone else’s too. The weight of that it’s heavier than any physical or mental harm that comes to someone. The threats echo in your mind as you are being abused, and it is how you are able to survive, continue on, and stay in it.

Awareness campaigns that are uneducated and feeding into the stereotypes of our culture need to either change their tactics or simply stop and save their money. If you are a photographer, I challenge you to get creative. Interview survivors, hear the real stories and find a way to portray the truth. This should not be about entertainment but preventing our sons and daughter from having to face the same thing, and finding the ones who are already involved. You can captivate an audience with the truth. Think twice when you see those images, do your homework and read the accounts of survivors. Below you will find a list of books you can buy today.

Roadmap to Redemption by Rebecca Bender

Runaway Girl by Charissa Phelps

GEMS by Rachel Lloyd

Renting Lacy (get it through Shared Hope)

Boys For Sale (fictional but based on true stories) by Marc Finks

More Than Rice by Pamala Chestnut

Walking Prey by Holly Smith