Abstract: WITHDRAWN: Problematizing the Educational Messaging on Sex Trafficking in the End-Demand Movement in the United States: The (mis)Representations of Victims (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

WITHDRAWN: Problematizing the Educational Messaging on Sex Trafficking in the End-Demand Movement in the United States: The (mis)Representations of Victims

Thursday, January 13, 2022
Treasury, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Ran Hu, MSW, MA, Doctoral Student, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
The “end-demand” movement against sex trafficking has dominated the current anti-trafficking discourse and influenced much of the anti-trafficking efforts globally and in the United States. Anti-trafficking groups in the “end-demand” movement advocate for ending sex trafficking through abolishing sex work industries. Digital platforms have been widely used for sharing educational messages on sex trafficking with the public. Drawing on the theoretical concepts, representational intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1990) and epistemic injustice, as well as the discourse analytical framework of recontextualization (Leeuwen, 2008), this study examined how “victims” are discursively and linguistically represented in these educational narratives and whether (and how) identified discursive patterns were mobilized to legitimize the end-demand movement. Forty-six webpages were drawn from the websites of 22 US-based anti-trafficking groups were included for the analysis.

Results show that sex trafficking was discursively conflated with consensual sex work across almost all narratives. This representational choice manifests the abolitionist feminist ideology that “draws an equivalence” between sex work and sex trafficking and considers both as “founded on violence and the impossibility of consent” (Ward & Wylie, 2017, p.6) and perpetuates a rather static view of people in sex work that is not grounded in the complexities and lived realities of sex workers, all of which represent hermeneutic injustice. The phrase “prostituted women” was commonly used when referring to both persons in trafficking and persons in sex work. Women victims (especially those of color) were represented as ignorant, immobile, and as commonly depicted as being “bought” and “sold” between customers and traffickers, while dismissing their experiences and testimonies are pre-empted, which represents testimonial injustice. These narrative elements jointly (re)produce an essentialist narrative that objectify and dehumanize women, women sex workers, and those experiencing trafficking. Last, Sex service customers were placed at the center of the problem of sex trafficking while traffickers were backgrounded. When anti-sex trafficking narrative is predominantly focused on problematizing sex service customers, key structural inequalities – such as sex work criminalization, racism, colonialism, sexism, classism, and poverty that form the intersectional vulnerabilities that have given rise to trafficking – are elided. These discursive patterns, consequently, working in tandem with the discourse that equates sex work to sex trafficking, they continue to legitimize the end-demand movement and anti-sex work policies that operate at a high cost of migrant women, sexual minority groups, and people-of-color and leave structural inequalities unaddressed.

Social work practitioners and researchers should give analytical attention to, and engage in ongoing reflection on how social and epistemic injustice may be perpetuated and legitimized through the use of language and narratives in discursive spaces. An important first step is to acknowledge the constructedness of “social” issues and the social, political and linguistic powers that operate in ways to legitimize particular voices while dismissing alternative ones. Problematizing and disrupting the misrepresentations in dominant discourses further allow us to support and advocate for the storytelling, interventions, and policies that are structurally competent, rights-inclusive, and centered on humanization. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming the very source of oppression and injustice.