Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Hey! Mind your language!

There are several phrases in anti-trafficking discourse that I am extremely uncomfortable with. Or even piss me off! They are not only conceptually and semantically incorrect but their main effect is to shock and outrage instead of the (I assume) intended "awareness-raising". I will list them here in decreasing order of annoyance/incorrectness. 

Sex trafficking
Erm, I don't know, Shared Hope Intl., I would guess it's, erm... "the recruitment, harbouring and transportation OF SEX"? 

At work I often receive e-mails from do-gooders who want to help "those sex trafficked sex slaves" (hey, did you think this was an adult phone line??) or work to end "human/sex trafficking" (I can't imagine another context where you would use "human/sex something"!). 

I have the feeling this started from the US and I think I understand the desire to use the phrase - to be brief and explain the highly complex phenomenon of "human/sex trafficking" within the "elevator pitch" of 10 seconds because you're so busy busy busy, but do we really need to put laziness, brevity and convenience before reality? After all, it's also much faster and brief to say "the n word" than "a person of colour", yet no self-respecting person says "the n word" anymore. And I see several problems with the phrase "sex trafficking". From a practical perspective, it contributes to the conflation of (human trafficking for) sexual exploitation and consensual sex work (although I suppose those who use "sex trafficking" don't make this distinction anyway). But from a linguistic/semantic point of view, people are trafficked, NOT SEX, and the purpose of trafficking is exploitation, NOT SEX! Some people may not see it, but there is a clear difference between sex and sexual exploitation. And although the meaning of "sex trafficking" is clear to everyone, the people and the exploitation are missing from it, as if they are somehow unimportant. But words matter and guide policies, and the fight against human trafficking becomes a war on sex, in which the buyers of commercial sex are portrayed as just as bad as the traffickers, while the actual trafficked people and their human rights come secondary. "Trafficking in persons/trafficking in human beings/human trafficking for sexual exploitation" may be a bit of a mouthful but is much more correct from a conceptual and semantic point of view. 
And then there's even the derivative verb "sex trafficked", which I find even more annoying. As a linguist by education I both welcome and dread the development of language - you just never know which madness will catch on next. While browsing for this part, I came across a similar complaint, albeit on more everyday issues: 

"When my aircraft pulls up to the gate at airports these days I am deplaned. At restaurants, my food gets plated (I wonder why my drinks aren’t also cupped or my soup bowled). People used to engage in dialogue. Now they just dialogue. Friends no longer enjoy fellowship, they simply fellowship..."

"Trafficked for sexual exploitation", although not quite as "sexy", is clear and precise enough and doesn't abuse the language (and is not even such a mouthful)! 

Labour trafficking 
Similar objections to those towards "sex trafficking" - people are trafficked, not labour and the purpose of trafficking is exploitation, not "regular" labour. And of course, there's the verbed form again - "labour trafficked", aaargh! 

I am anxiously awaiting the moment when "begging trafficked" will be a thing... 

Finally, to my knowledge, "sex/labour trafficking/cked" are only used in English. In other languages, we use appropriate terminology, such as trafico de seres humanos, traite des êtres humains, Menschenhandel, торговля людьми, etc. So please, English language speakers, we know you're busy but don't be so lazy!

This is another term whose main aim is to shock and outrage and its use has also grown exponentially in the past few years, with popular names as Slavery Footprint, Global Slavery Index, Free the Slaves, National Slavery Month, popping up every so often. While I'm fine with some metaphorical derivatives, such as "modern(-day) slavery", "practices akin to slavery", "slavery-like conditions", etc., which make a symbolic link between slavery, human trafficking and forced labour, I don't agree with the single use of the word "slavery" and "slaves" to denote human trafficking and forced labour and the people living in these conditions. 

Yeah, no, there aren't! According to this Wikipedia article, in 1841 there were around 8-9 million slaves in India alone. Add to that the slaves in the Ottoman Empire, in the European colonies in Africa and Asia, and in China and I'm sure you'll get a number much higher than even the wildest speculations about "slavery" today. And what about throughout history - Egypt, Babylon, China, India, Mongolia... - when maybe not in absolute numbers but as a prevalence, slavery was probably much higher than the 0.4% today (30 million "slaves" for seven billion people). Needless to say, even one person in a situation of trafficking or forced labour is one too many! 

Although the definitions of "slave" in the Oxford dictionary and Merriam-Webster can be understood as related to exploitation and forced labour, in some figurative way we can all be considered slaves to capitalism and neoliberalism. In a more literal sense, many trafficked persons actually do own property and are free to leave but do not, in the hope that they would receive the payment that they rightfully earned. And from a practical perspective, do you really want to call trafficked people "slaves"? If you're a service provider, would you really say to your client "you were a slave and you need support now"? If I were out of a trafficking situation, I'd rather hear something like "you've been a victim of human trafficking" or "a serious crime was committed against you". 

For me the terms "exploitation", "forced labour", "human trafficking" and even "slavery-like conditions" (and similar) are clear and precise enough, while "slavery" on its own usually only sensationalises the issue and shocks and outrages the audience. The problem with shock and outrage is that they are not just "raising awareness" but creating do-gooders who just want to "help those sex trafficked sex slaves". 

I guess this is the least contentious one and not really annoying, but still should be avoided, where possible. The reasoning is that the word "victim" suggests passivity and lack of agency, someone who can't think or act for themselves but has to rely on others. Instead, social workers and psychologists often prefer more neutral or empowering terms, like "trafficked persons" or "survivors of trafficking" (emphasising the strength of living through the trafficking situation). The word "victim" cannot be avoided because of official documents and legal frameworks, according to which only officially identified or presumed victims can access services or file a complaint against the traffickers. But I think anti-trafficking organisations and especially service providers, at least in their interactions with the clients, should refrain from using it. 


  1. Thaaaaaaaaaaaaank you!!

    Here's something I recently wrote in a comment about the subject:

    Speaking of cultural contexts: I am aware that in the US, the term ‘sex trafficking’ is commonly used to describe human trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation. One could argue that my objection to the term is mere nitpicking, but I think it’s important to discontinue using it. Firstly, shortening the admittedly long-winded description to ‘sex trafficking’ removes the human element. Just compare it to drug trafficking: it describes the illegal trade of drugs. ‘Sex trafficking’, however, is the illegal trade and commercial sexual exploitation of human beings, not of sex, and I don’t consider that unimportant. Secondly, the term adds to the common misconception that the majority of cases of human trafficking involve commercial sexual exploitation, which, according to the best available guesstimates is not the case. (One should note, however, that other forms of human trafficking might very well involve sexual harassment or rape, too.)

    ILO 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labour

    Thirdly, the term is a slippery slope: more and more media outlets and organisations use the terms ‘sex trafficking’ and ‘prostitution’ like synonyms, which obviously, they aren’t. In my view, the term ‘sex trafficking’ adds to the conflation of sex work and human trafficking and, considering how complex these subjects are, one shouldn’t shorten it for mere convenience.

  2. These are the objections I formulated some time ago in the framework of an article I wrote, for which the editor wanted to use the word "sex trafficking" as one of the key words. They are partly the same plus an additional one:
    - It is not sex that is trafficked, it is human beings who are trafficked.
    - It is not about sex, it is about money.
    - It suggests that trafficking for prostitution is fundamentally different from trafficking for other purposes, e.g. domestic or agricultural labour, which it is not. In all cases it is about making profits from the exploitation of human beings under forced labour or slavery-like conditions.
    - Using the word ‘sex’ in trafficking has a sensationalist and emotive connotation with which I am quite uncomfortable (I would, f.e., never use the word “sex slaves”).

  3. Thanks, Marjan. Can you give me a link to the article or do you mean that you just expressed objections to the editor to adding 'sex trafficking' as a key word (I mean, the article was not related to the phrase 'sex trafficking' itself?)