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

By Becky Owens-Bullard, CCASA Blogger & Project Director of the Denver Anti-Trafficking Alliance (DATA)

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 Sky where 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.

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

  1. This is a brilliant and eye opening article, highlighting a point that had never occurred to me before now. Thank you for taking the time to draw attention to an issue that many people just wouldn’t have considered before now. I hope you manage to raise more awareness of the complex problems that misidentifying such a sensitive area of work involves.

    Kind regards


  2. You are so right! We absolutely need to know and understand the “real reality” if we want to improve the situation.

    In many parts of the world, it’s too easy for anybody to find victims, but it’s extremely hard to change their life. We need professionals for that.

    • Really? Please explain what you mean by the term “professional”? When I started a program to help these victims in 1987 – I had already been helping them for almost 10 years “unofficially” while still working in the sex industry. That’s where I saw the trafficking going on. That’s how I got access to these victims to get them out of the situation they were trapped in. When I looked around – there were no schools for this nor any degrees in this subject because NO ONE BELIEVED DOMESTIC TRAFFICKING WAS EVEN REAL IN 1987. Linda Lovelace had been telling the public about her story of trafficking since 1980 – and still no one was believing her. When I then was the 2nd American victim to come forward to speak out publicly about this being real and that these victims needed specialized help – I wasn’t believed at first either. Which is why we had to help these men and women ourselves – because others like the police were too busy telling us these people were there “by choice” or calling them “whores” or “criminals”. Then I had producers ask me to bring on 4 and 5 survivors with me from our program to speak about their experiences. I then turned down multiple movie and book publishing deals so people wouldn’t accuse me of “making it up to make a buck” to establish credibility. Then after bringing on four and then five survivors – then finally people started believing. It was not until 2008 that then-President Bush issued the first ever grants to the “faith based” groups to provide help to these victims that anyone even wanted to get involved in this field. Prior to them NO ONE WANTED ANYTHING TO DO WITH US. We were not allowed in drug treatment centers. We were kicked out of domestic violence shelters. We were kicked out of homeless shelters. When I would look for places to hold our Sex Workers Anonymous meetings – I had churches tell me they wouldn’t let us meet in their church. I had hotels refuse to rent us their conference rooms. They were too scared we were going to prostitute on their grounds. But when money came into the issue – suddenly everyone and their cousin now wants to “help”. That’s when other survivors started complaining about people who knew NOTHING about this subject suddenly appointing themselves “outreach workers” and “advocates” and “coaches” – we were the ones who started demanding these people be actual survivors themselves NOT PROFESSIONALS. Do you know what some “professionals” do to a prostitute that comes in looking for help? I had one psychologist offer to take out my sessions with him “in trade”. I had another one who would masturbate while I was trying to tell him what I was going through. I was the first one who started offering counselors and therapists “continuing education”. These non-survivors have made such fools out of themselves – that now people are calling for education and training. I SPENT 20 YEARS HOUNDING the universities of this country to start putting together university level courses of study in this subject so that professionals could receive proper training in how to work with us effectively. Developing the program I did that is effective took me over TEN YEARS OF RESEARCH to finally develop the program that worked to help heal us for the long run. Finally last year the University of Toledo agreed to put together the first course of study in trafficking – and that was after spending TEN YEARS alone hounding a professor there to do this course. I’ve seen PhD’s that don’t know what they’re doing in this work – so I am curious what you mean by “professionals”. What we need are people that are not only survivors themselves – but also have some experience actually walking others through the recovery process. It’s not easy because they’ve learned to distrust anyone who says “let me help you” which is often the first words out of a predators’ mouth.

    • Very well written and I agree 100%. The use of the word rescue, makes me think of a burning building with people trapped inside. Someone may decide to be the hero and pick someone up and carry them outside and set them down. But when the person runs back inside to be with or try and find their child or lover, or mother, then what can the rescuer do? Or, if the person has burns all over or smoke inhalation…they need treatment which the “rescuer” is not qualified to do.
      I am working in Thailand, trying to help young people who leave their orphanages, to get an education or a job, to keep them from being trafficked.
      And it is hard, heart-breaking work.
      But I love the heart of the “rescuer” because they want to do what they think is right. But like most social injustice issues, there is way more to it than that.
      I think the “rescuing” is the easy, glorified stuff. But, what about prevention? And what about after care? So much more difficult and so much more of a time commitment. But so totally worth it. We need all three…prevention, assistance/identification and after care.

    • Actually Mathieu, we need systemic change for that. Make no mistake about it, prostitution is a system of oppression. And that system of oppression—which is what is truly defective here, NOT the victims of it—is not something that occurs in a vacuum with everybody else as mere innocent bystanders.

      Systems of oppression are always supported and carried out with deliberate intent.

      To believe that some women somehow fall into the prostitution pot-hole by accident with no external forces pushing us and keeping us there is to believe that you can have an imperialism without any imperialists, a dictatorship without dictators, and that all of this happens in a fit of society’s collective absent-mindedness.

      According to the International Labor Organization, 96% of the women in prostitution want to exit, but lack of access to resources and support makes it near-impossible for them to do so. Many of us have no families to turn to for support after exiting (I was orphaned so I literally had NO family at all other than my sister who had also been trafficked, too).

      Many others have families who won’t take them back, or help them, or maybe even were the ones that put them into prostitution in the first place.

      These findings support Dr. Melissa Farley’s comprehensive study, which revealed the same thing.

      When pimps and traffickers use coercive language to dissuade their victims from seeking help to exit, they are not always lying to their victims in order to brainwash them and trauma-bond them.

      When pimps and traffickers tell victims of commercial rape (which is what prostitution really is) that there is no other place in society for us, that we were thrown away by society and allowed no other place except the gutter in the first place so obviously no one cares about us, that no one else will ever accept us or want us now because “once a whore, always a whore”—the rest of society often proves them right, unfortunately.

      And of all the ways that the rest of society, including many non-survivors in the anti-trafficking movement, treats us and persists in “othering” us makes it pretty hard to debunk that and give women trapped in prostitution a reason to believe that they can exit.

      We also know that it’s not primarily middle class and rich women from healthy, supportive families—i.e. women who have options and opportunities—that comprise the overwhelming majority of the prostitution rolls, don’t we?

      The trafficking of women and youth into the commercial rape industry (fueled by privileged men’s money and self-entitled demand for access to others’ bodies as disposable commodities) is not just an issue of sexism, institutionalized misogyny, and job discrimination against women with poor women bearing the brunt of poverty due to economic terrorism. It is also due to classism.

      Namely, middle class society’s belief that poor women are all inherently defective creatures who only “pop out babies for the welfare check”, that we are not good enough to bring home to meet mom or be socially included and given chances for jobs, and instead are only good for an “easy lay”—for men to use as disposable meat socks in which to “sow their wild oats.”

      The willful collective refusal of American to alleviate poverty on the systemic level in its own backyard out of sheer contempt for poor women helped to cause domestic sex trafficking (which is NOT some new phenomenon) to skyrocket enormously since the 1990’s.

      That classist mindset is rampant in the anti-trafficking movement as middle class non-survivors (who have materially benefited from an unfair system that privileges them over, and at the expense of, poor, marginalized women) view impoverished sex trafficking survivors as “damaged goods” who need to “get right with God”—implying that our own personal moral turpitude, rather than systemic oppression, caused us to be desperately poor and vulnerable, putting us into prostitution in the first place. This is the most vile and insidious form of victim-blaming bile there is.

      Despite the wealth of anti-trafficking information disseminated through the millions of dollars pumped into all these anti-trafficking “awareness” non-profits—which never offer decent paying jobs to poor disadvantaged survivors but always manage to cough up six figure executive/administrative salaries for middle and upper class privileged non-survivors—survivor-run organizations that actually provide victim services run into one stone wall after another when looking for housing and other society-reintegrating opportunities for survivors.

      They are repeatedly turned away from communities because middle class people don’t want “those women” in their neighborhoods—ironically while having no qualm about protecting/shielding the johns living with and among them who use their money, male privilege and social class privilege to drive the prostitution industry, unjustly enriching traffickers and brothel/strip joint/escort agency owners in the first place.

      Many johns are “community pillars” who enjoy a significant degree of social status, and they view poor disposable women as cheap non-human commodities that they’re entitled to purchase and do anything they want to us because they “paid for it.”

      And while the overwhelming majority of men are NOT johns, the fact that society would rather continue privileging johns over (and at the expense of) victims of sex trafficking and see poor women denied adequate poverty relief so they don’t have to “choose” between dying from poverty or dying while in the “life” of prostitution speaks volumes.

      Society’s rejecting of poor sex trafficking survivors and kneecapping us repeatedly in our Sisyphean endeavors of trying to rebuild our stolen and ruined lives and reintegrate back into society—the very same society that threw us away into prostitution in the first place—solves nothing. Instead, it further disempowers the victims of a crime while further empowering the perpetrators of that crime (the traffickers and johns).

      And that will merely reinforce what every pimp and trafficker tells their victims after forcing them into prostitution: that no one will ever socially accept them, that nobody else will ever love them or care about them, and that prostitution is the only “opportunity” society will let us have.

      All of these things that traffickers and pimps say to break their victims down are given truth to power when employers won’t give poor trafficking survivors chances for good jobs that would enable us to climb out of abject poverty because “we don’t want your kind”, and when citizens block a shelter or even a small group home for poor survivors to have some minimal degree of homeostasis so they can heal from the trauma they’ve suffered and slowly rebuild their lives.

  3. Providing an environment for girls to stay that is an alternative to the situation they are living in now,is a small farm in the mountains of Mexico where a womens community would provide a family atmosphere with vocational training and empowerment,yet close enough to the US border so that american volunteers could teach weekend seminars and travel by road.This would give an opportunity to women to share their special knowledge of living skills with girls that would normally never have access to it.Interested in developing this idea let me know

  4. I agree with you on the problematic nature of the word “rescue”. I wrote about another reason why it is problematic in a recent article on the Huffington Post. (I cited your article in my post.) The reason is that it marginalizes women and girls who do not fit the stereotype of a victim who needs to be rescued. goo.gl/YUiZxE

  5. EXCELLENT article. I also came to this movement with 20+ years of DV work and every time I hear rescue it feels like I just scraped off all my fingernails on a cheese grader. Uncomfortable and wondering how much damage is done.

    I’d like to connect…can you please email me at nita@cooath.org

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