Below is a blog that I wrote for Polaris a few months ago.
As a man working in the anti-trafficking movement, I see fellow men playing three roles in the world of sex trafficking: men who are pimps, men who are johns (I am a speaker at our local “John School”), and men who are anti-trafficking activists. It is no wonder, that at a recent conference a woman named Wiveca Holst–an incredible Swedish woman’s rights activist who I admire a great deal–said to me with kind honesty, “no offense, but I don’t trust you.” Without a shred of malice, she went on to explain how her years of experience working with male activists in the women’s rights movements have been checkered with a mix of well-meaning men making honest mistakes, men with outright poor intentions, and the occasional man who actually respected her as an equal.
Wiveca went on to explain how the single most impactful event in the Swedish anti-trafficking movement was in 1994 when the Social Democratic Women successfully lobbied for a party list that alternated between male and female candidates for Sweden’s largest party, the Social Democrats. This precedent spread to other parties, and today Sweden’s parliament is 47% women, the most gender-equal in the world. It is no wonder that the country has implemented breakthrough legislative policies that stamp out human trafficking while also protecting women’s rights.
If you are serious about protecting women, Wiveca said, give women equal power and they will do just fine. While I wish there were a way to quickly accomplish the same effect in the United States (since we vote for specific candidates instead of a party list, it is harder to enforce equality) the clearly positive impact this empowerment has had on the human trafficking situation in Sweden hammered home the important point that Wiveca left me with: women don’t need men who are willing to help them, they need men who are willing to follow them.
Men should be involved in the fight against sex trafficking, but they shouldn’t feel as though they need to lead it, or try to be a “rescuer” like some Liam Neeson character with a gun. The best thing a man can do to stop sex trafficking is to respect every woman in his life as an equal. If there is once piece of advice I could give to men who are interested in contributing their skills to the important fight against human trafficking it would be this: talk less, listen more. (Says the guy writing a blog!)
Human trafficking is a horrific crime that takes a full person and degrades them into a thing to be sold. True assistance, the type I have seen Polaris Provide provide to our clients over the years, is the type that works to reverse the effects of this horrible experience by treating individuals with the utmost respect and dignity.
We take our value of empowerment very seriously in every stage of our response while helping a person out of a human trafficking situation throughout our involvement in their recovery. Though we assist hundreds of victims of human trafficking every year, you will notice that we don’t have a lot of photos of victims on our website. Why is that? Because we recognize that if any of us on staff had gone through that kind of experience, we wouldn’t want to be asked to display it publicly, so why would we ask this of our clients? Sure they could say no, but by simply asking them we would remove their option to have been treated with the utmost respect and privacy. The goal is to treat our clients as we would want to be treated if we were in their shoes—empowered and respected.
I remember reading one male activist’s description of how he traveled overseas to “rescue girls in brothels.” A photo showed him wearing army fatigues and he proudly discussed the details of his undercover cameras and dangerous operations. When an interviewer asked how many “sex slaves” he had rescued, his response was something along the lines of “not enough.” This type of conversation makes my heart sink. We are not talking about “sex slaves” we are talking about people. If he was helping 100 men who were forced to work in a soup factory would he say he had rescued 100 “soup slaves?” No, he would say that he had helped 100 men to freedom. Just because individuals are forced into commercial sex, does not give us the right to wed these individuals to that identity. When we make this mistake, we are perpetuating the problem. When men start thinking that they are called to bust down the doors of brothels and rush in to save the day, they are often committing the same fundamental crime against women that human traffickers have already committed—the only difference is that instead of treating a women as if she is a thing to be sold, they are treating her as a thing to be saved. Both actions serve to aggrandize the person who is objectifying women, and neither is particularly helpful in empowering women, or ending human trafficking in the long-term.
As mentioned in Part I of this blog, to help end sex trafficking, men need to respect women. That goes for everyone: policy makers, police, activists, and every Joe in between. Pimps and johns are all young boys before they involve themselves in this crime. Our goal should be to demonstrate the type of equality that will make the notion of a trade in women un-imaginable to our children. If human traffickers respected women as equals, they would never think that they had the right to abuse and sell another person. If the johns I speak to in “John school” every month respected women as peers they wouldn’t buy women’s bodies with a blind eye to their agency. And if my male peers and I learn to respect women as we work together to end this problem, we will create a world where our daughters and sons will not be able to fathom the type of gender inequality that contributes to sex trafficking today.