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By Dr. Barbara Barnett, Contributing Writer

For journalists telling the stories of individuals trafficked into forced prostitution, one of the challenges is crafting a narrative that accurately characterizes the physical danger and emotional abuse victims experience. These narrative choices can affect the ways that audiences think about the crime of trafficking and its victims. 

One story-telling technique is the use of first-person narratives, which allows trafficked individuals to describe their circumstances, from their perspectives, in their own words – an important consideration when writing about a crime that denies its victims the ability to speak or act in their own interests.

The appeal of first-person stories as part of a compelling narrative is obvious: authenticity, drama, pathos. Trafficking is a brutal crime and first-person stories don’t sugar-coat the experience. For example, an article in CosmoGirl! centered on the story of 19-year-old Nin Sopheap, who left Cambodia for Thailand. Orphaned at age 16 and verbally abused by her stepfather, Sopheap was tricked by a relative into working in a Bangkok brothel, initially believing she was going to be a maid: “When I refused (sex), a guard took me upstairs and beat me. I cried and screamed as he kicked me in the chest, slapped me, and punched me. . . . For the next few months, I felt like I was in prison. I was forced to have sex with at least three men every night. At first I tried to fight it, but soon I just gave up. I knew in the end the men would rape me anyway.” QWeekend, published in Australia, reported on women from Thailand who also were beaten and locked in rooms with no windows or doors; one girl was set on fire. Lily, a trafficked woman, told reporters that she once prayed of being born again as a different woman but now “she’d prefer to come back as a dog.” 

In my study of global magazine reporting of trafficking over a 10-year period, I found these first-person accounts described the immediate brutality of trafficking and were also helpful in grasping its long-term effects. One Texas Monthly story profiled Kiki, a woman trafficked from Thailand, recruited by a U.S. trafficker with the false promise of a job in a restaurant. The job was actually in a brothel. Kiki eventually worked enough to pay the $60,000 debt she was charged for her transportation to the United States. She was free to leave the brothel, but disoriented and without money or identification, she could think of nowhere else to go and so returned to her trafficker. Although Kiki later managed to build a life outside trafficking, she returned in spite of attempts by her boyfriend, his family, and support organizations at intervention. 

In the magazines I analyzed, first-person stories called attention to the physical and emotional pain endured by trafficked women and focused on individuals who were forced into trafficking by deceit or desperation. They illustrated the lack of power the women had and, not surprisingly, journalists often characterized them as victims. 

While it’s important to note the ways that traffickers exploit and abuse their victims, reliance on first-person narratives to convey that brutality might unintentionally ignore an individual’s strength.

Recounting the details of a painful story can be a courageous act. Journalists might then think of trafficked individuals as both victims and survivors. Would stories have been any less accurate if articles had included information about how trafficked individuals found the strength to withstand and resist harm, not just information about the harm itself? Would stories be inaccurate if journalists referred to the trafficked in these first-person stories as survivors?

First-person stories can educate readers about the violations inherent in trafficking, but a concern is that focusing on victimhood reduces trafficking to an individual problem, ignoring or minimizing economic, social, and cultural factors that push or pull individuals into trafficking. Men who purchased sex, men who trafficked individuals, and women who trafficked other women were largely absent from the magazine articles I studied. The resulting coverage restricts ideas about who is trafficked, how and by whom. And because policymakers rely on media as one source of education about trafficking, the message of first-person stories may be that trafficking is a problem to be addressed by punishing or rescuing those who sell sex. This raises questions about narrative decisions that focus primarily on one person in the trio of trafficker, purchaser, and trafficked. 

For the full study to which this essay refers, see, Barbara Barnett, “Dividing Women: The Framing of Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in Women’s Magazines,” Feminist Media Studies 16, no. 2 (2016): 205-222.

Dr. Barbara Barnett, Professor Emerita, taught at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, the University of Kansas from 2003-2019, where her research focused on gender and violence. Previously, she worked as a journalist. 

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