I am going to think and write about human trafficking through a perspective both psychoanalytic and socio-historical. In fact, part of my quest and my thinking about this matter is to find the right disciplinary mix to speak from and to. This essay is situated in a problem. It may be an intractable problem. At the very least it is a very difficult one. How is it that there is not the social or political will to fight a social problem of great magnitude, great trauma, and great criminality: slavery in the 21st century? There was an abolitionist movement in the 19th century. Why not now?

I became immersed in, and also simultaneously traumatized and overwhelmed by, the phenomena of human trafficking several years ago when I joined a committee that was part of the International Psychoanalytic Association. The IPA is the main international organization for psychoanalysts and the committee I joined was also an NGO to the UN. The mandate of the committee was to bring psychoanalytic and mental health issues to the United Nations and to bring the issues with which the UN was engaged into psychoanalytic venues. The Committee has worked on a number of issues: migration, developmental disability, and status of women. But two years ago we began to educate ourselves and our constituency among analysts about human trafficking.

Here’s the back story. In 1949, the UN issued a statement condemning what it then called Trafficking in Persons. Slavery. It took half a century, until 1995, for resolutions and protocols and more defined policy to emerge. Since that time, the UN has kept statistics. As of 2014, the estimates are as follows: 12 million people are trafficked for labor, 30% of them women and children. 21 million people are trafficked for sex (98% of these 21 million are women and children). In some countries, children represent 20% of this number. In other regions — Western Africa and the Far East — the number reaches over 90%. Recently, it has become known that 35% of all traffickers are women. There are countries where people are trafficked from, countries that specialize in transmittal, and countries that consume. We, members of the First World, are the consumers.

An intensely lucrative billion dollar illegal system with global reach, acquiring and delivering slaves. The UN’s policies boil down to Prevention, Protection, Prosecution of traffickers, and Activism. Sounds simple. Obvious even.

Bilingual human trafficking awareness billboard © Mayor Mike McGinn | Flickr
Bilingual human trafficking awareness billboard © Mayor Mike McGinn | Flickr

It turns out not to be so simple and the conflicts around the meaning of human trafficking swamp any global and concerted political movement to eradicate it. Everything is in question. How to advocate? How to work politically? What is the status of the statistics?

Five Problems

First, there are significant problems among women around these phenomena. In theory, sex trafficking is distinguishable from sex work (which itself is distributed across a spectrum of gender, country, and socio-economic status). But that distinction can shatter. The meaning of sex work and the policies regarding prostitution and sex work shredded the women’s movement in the United States forty years ago. It continues to divide women deeply committed to feminism and liberation and dignity for women. For some, trafficking is violence against women. It is slavery. For others, trafficking needs to be given the dignity and rights of work. It needs to be taken out of the criminal justice system.

Second, human trafficking creates big divides between men and women. To the degree that the problem of trafficking is viewed as stemming from men and male sexuality, every possible collaboration of citizens and progressive persons gives way. It is death to organizing in a more general political environment. In a recent discussion of the presence of trafficking around large sporting events like the Super Bowl, many men reacted as if the attack was on sports and masculinity itself. The problem of the trafficked persons disappeared into the general, agitated need to defend football. Examples like this are too frequent not to be significant.

Third, there are deep divisions about whether and how to deploy either a liberal or a radical agenda. The liberal position is the way of humanitarian aid and help. This is rather contemptuously referred to as the “rescue industry” by proponents of a more radical agenda. From the radical perspective, aid, care, and protection replace the more important agenda of critiquing the economic and political conditions in which trafficking flourishes.

Fourth — and here is where psychoanalysis comes into play — there is the trouble that arises over trafficking because it involves sex. Inevitably, it seems, people project into sex trafficking fantasies of transgression, of horror fused with excitement. This type of fusion highlights what Melissa Grant refers to the “prostitute imaginary” — the fallen woman, criminalized and made an object of desire and contempt, shunned and consumed.

Other psychological issues permeate discussions of sex trafficking and sex work. Where does consent fall in these experiences? What is chosen? What is, in the end, controlled? Of course, one may ask that about any kind of “work.” And finally, there is simply the unbearable horror of trafficking. The isolation of women and children, the trauma of violence and isolation, the coercion of mind and will, the dehumanization of persons.

"Sexy?" © Women's eNews | Flickr
“Sexy?” © Women’s eNews | Flickr

Last year, at a meeting attended by psychoanalysts and humanitarian aid workers, the activist Sister Winifred spoke of her two decades of work with victims of human trafficking in Ethiopia. She told us of her experiences in the field, standing on tarmacs or docksides waiting for the return of bodies for burial, often finding these bodies to be missing internal organs. At one point she told us, “I was never, in 20 years, able to persuade one woman who was being enticed into a move to Europe or America for ‘work’ and opportunity not to get on that plane or boat. No one was persuadable.” Her audience consisted of principled and seasoned clinicians and aid workers, all of us accustomed to dealing with human tragedy and pain. Not one of us said a word. No one could think.

At another meeting I attended, a young lawyer described her involvement in the prosecution of child pornographers. Day after day, alone in a basement of some courthouse, she was asked to watch child pornography. Her task was to decide if this material met the criteria for prosecution. No one she worked with had thought to question the impact of this experience on the young lawyer. She herself seemed almost surprised that she was plagued by images.

These kinds of experience led us to think a lot about secondary traumatization. And every time we have talked at some NGO event or indeed to anyone about the trauma suffered by caretakers and aid workers, people notice. They sit up and take notes. It seems likely that we might make more progress helping the helpers than helping and freeing the persons trafficked. This is both alarming and saddening.

A forced child laborer in the textiles industry © International Labour Organization | Flickr
A forced child laborer in the textiles industry © International Labour Organization | Flickr

Thinking a lot, and with some despair, about the tremendous gap in our sensibilities regarding trafficking and our political will, I found myself drawn back to the 19th century. Two texts on slavery and abolition seem important to me. First, I became fascinated with David Brion Davis’s great three-volume treatise on the Civil War and the abolitionist movement. Davis identifies two developments that he believes contributed in important ways to the process through which the institution of American slavery ultimately became unacceptable. One of these developments was political and the other was psychological. First, he argues that the revolution in Haiti proved genuinely inspirational for black perspectives in the US. And second, Davis suggests that the gradual presence and emergence of voices and faces of educated black men and women, by virtue of their very presence and their words, made it significantly more difficult and finally impossible to continue the grotesque dehumanization, the making of a degraded and excluded “other,” which had dominated American discourse.

Could something like this process make the face, the “other” of human trafficking more visible, more identifiable? Would this help politically? Organizationally? Strategically?

While sex workers write and participate in political debates in regard to sex work, to what extent do they constitute a link to the trafficked person? I think I am asking the question of personal voice and witnessing. How do these literate figures in the sex worker community speak for the trafficked woman, man, or child? What is the link between a woman or man in an escort service, a dom, a person in control of hours and work practices, and a child under 10 forced to take growth hormones so she can have more “clients per day”?

Still from a workshop on human trafficking given by Kristin Heydel © Oregon Department of Transportation | Flickr
Still from a workshop on human trafficking given by Kristin Heydel © Oregon Department of Transportation | Flickr

That’s the kind of information that led me to the other text I have been immersed in, which is Edward Baptist’s account of the important impact that the rise of the cotton industry had on American capital development, and the coinciding escalation in brutality and violence towards Black slaves. In his book The Half Has Never Been Told, Baptist argues that capital markets rested on slave markets in this period. The escalation of brutality is described in excruciating detail. Torture, he calls it. Not work. Gulags, concentration camps — this is what built American wealth and builds the wealth of international profiteers of human trafficking.

I used the term face deliberately before. I think Levinas offers a position from which to think. According to Levinas, our encounter with the face of the other places an ethical demand on us. The responsibility we must assume for the other is an unalienable task. There is no alternative and no shirking that duty. We must be responsible to the other. We must face the other and this action must never be one of colonization. So there is something distasteful about women and men of the First World arguing about cultural relativity and questions of slavery and consent on the bodies of Third World persons — whatever the gender or age. But one cannot turn away from this responsibility. Does this offer us a possible vantage point from which we can move forward?

In a curious way, and I don’t know how useful this can be, it might be that the process of thinking through the complex nature of human sexuality, as I touched upon earlier, might help us to move beyond relating to the human trafficking industry, both its victims and its perpetrators, as belonging solely to the domain of the Degraded Other. By thinking through the nature of the complex feelings that themes like sexuality, humiliation, degradation, sadism, and masochism evoke in us, we can illuminate a site for identification with the human trafficking industry. Perhaps this line of reflection can help us to become more porous, so that trafficking ceases to be the other’s fate.