(C) 2019, K.D. ROCHE

It’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month! What better time to educate your community on the reality of human trafficking and raise awareness about your organization and its mission?

Non-profit organizations committed to ending human trafficking still struggle to educate the public on the relevance of this issue to their own communities. Overwhelmed by public disbelief that human trafficking is not an American problem, advocates and anti-trafficking organizations attempt to educate others, while simultaneously using imagery that promotes misinformation about what trafficking really is.

Over the last decade, the anti- trafficking movement has grown exponentially. Law enforcement, social workers, healthcare providers, government programs, and other professionals are becoming more educated and aware. Many have dedicated time, energy and resources to improve prevention and increase direct services available to survivors of sex and labor trafficking. Yet despite their efforts, a large number of trafficking victims are still being criminalized. Most of the time, they don’t even have an opportunity to safely share the truth about their experience.

Many people are surprised when they learn the number of reported human trafficking cases that have taken place in their own states. They find it hard to believe that these “poor little girls” could truly be trafficked in their own neighborhoods. What they don’t understand is that most of those “poor little girls” aren’t being kidnapped or tied up in a basement somewhere.

In fact, you may have scoffed at a victim of human trafficking in passing at the gas station. Possibly thinking something along the lines of, “What kind of mother would let their teenager dress like that?”

While there are many factors which contribute to the underidentification of victims, arguably one of the most potent and detrimental causes is sensationalized media.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, sensationalism is defined as “the presentation of stories in a way that is intended to provoke public interest or excitement, at the expense of accuracy,”

Sensationalized images, stories, and headlines fill our news feeds and shape our understanding of what we believe human trafficking looks like.

This definition uncomfortably holds a mirror up to the marketing materials, PowerPoint presentations and publications of many non-profit organizations engaged in the fight against human trafficking.

This month, as organizations, advocates, and even survivors post and share news articles for Human Trafficking Awareness Month, I am flooded (and triggered) by an overwhelming number of images of girls in chains. Their mouths are covered by a man’s hands or duct tape. Degrading words are written in permanent marker across their faces.

I scroll past images of barcodes, meat packages and girls in cages and I cringe. These frail, desperate, and vulnerable looking girls adorning the covers of informational brochures and news stories speak loudly to survivors of human trafficking.

They scream,

“You weren’t trafficked.”

“Nobody tied you down or locked you in a cage”

“You don’t look like them.”

“THOSE girls are victims. YOU chose to stay.”

It shouldn’t surprise us when our community and public service providers don’t recognize human trafficking. When the consistent representation of a victim portrays less than 1% of cases, a problem identifying victims is unavoidable.

It shouldn’t surprise us when our community and public service providers don’t recognize human trafficking. When the consistent representation of a victim portrays less than 1% of cases, a problem identifying victims is unavoidable.

The idea that those being trafficked are begging to be rescued and ready
to trust the first person who offers to help is not only unrealistic, it is damaging.

This false narrative fails to prepare direct service providers for the rude awakening they will face when threatened and cursed out by a complex trauma survivor whose pain and fear is masked by angry defiance.

The stereotype of a victim is so contradictory to truthful presentation and behavior that many survivors are viewed as complicit, rather than innocent victims of crime. These contradictions of stereotypes are dangerous because they become the basis for evidence used to criminalize victims. This gives traffickers more power and control because they can threaten victims with catching a criminal record if they try to run, tell someone, or report to authorities.

Once a person carries a criminal record or becomes a felon, their chances of obtaining a good job are slim. It is not uncommon for a criminal record to be used against a parent, impacting their parental rights to raise or even see their own children. In some states, a felony can also prevent them from receiving government assistance.

If we truly want to help fight human trafficking, we cannot ignore the damage being caused by sensationalized marketing. Every time we share sensationalized images or news stories, we help blind the world around us from recognizing labor and sex trafficking. Pimps profit and thrive off “shock value” images and negative attention marketing strategies.

As a human trafficking field expert, I travel the country attending and speaking at conferences, summits, seminars, trainings and fundraisers. I hear presentations educating attendees about the disproportionate number of young women of color, boys, and LGBTQ+ persons who have been trafficked.

Are we are paying attention to the statistics being published, the professionals teaching, and the survivor leaders speaking out across the globe? Why are we not taking actionable steps to make sure professionals are trained to serve these demographics? Why are we not amending our organizational literature to reflect these marginalized groups that are largely ignored?

Studies have shown us that the demographics most affected by sex and labor trafficking are the least likely to be identified and receive help.

People of color, foreign nationals, people with physical and/or mental disabilities, transgender and gender non-conforming persons, and LGBTQ persons are all at an increased risk for exploitation. What is even more disconcerting, is that those most vulnurable to victimization are the most likely to be seen as a perpetrator or aggressor.

Let that sink in for a minute.

False information is dangerous because it affects public thinking and influence how people choose to vote (West, 2017).

According to David Lazer, “Such situations [misrepresentation] can enable discriminatory and inflammatory ideas to enter public discourse and be treated as fact. Once embedded, such ideas can in turn be used to create scapegoats, to normalize prejudices, to harden us-versus-them mentalities and even, in extreme cases, to catalyze and justify violence” (Lazer et al., 2017).

So, the next time you’re tempted to share that sensationalized news story or pick up literature perpetuating stereotypes, don’t. Instead, kindly inform the person that promoting or sharing information or images that use sensationalized imagery can cause major harm to human trafficking victims. Stand up for what is right and stand up against what is wrong. Don’t be silent.

If you or an organization you know is creating content to aid prevention, educate service providers, or serve survivors of human trafficking, consider contracting a professional Lived Experience Expert to review your materials and provide feedback.

We have far too much important work ahead of us to slow down our efforts by continuing to ignore and gloss over this issue. My hope is that this article can be a tool for you to use in educating others as you recognize harmful marketing materials and media. You can also download these free tips for reporting harmful media in less than a minute.

To request a content review or to learn more about the author, please visit


West, D. M. (2017, December 18). How to combat fake news and disinformation. Retrieved from

David Lazer, Matthew Baum, Nir Grinberg, Lisa Friedland, Kenneth Joseph, Will Hobbs, and Carolina Mattsson, “Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action,” Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and Harvard Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, May, 2017, p. 5.


  1. Thanks, K.D. I would add that buyers are influenced by the sensationalized graphics too. As you write, they don’t look like the ‘victims’ displayed in the marketing. The buyers will think that they are obviously not trafficking victims, if they get into their car, carry on conversation, and if they don’t complain. There are no ropes, so they are willing.

    Liked by 1 person

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