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In the Booth with Ruth – Virginia Heath, Anti-Human Trafficking Advocate and Filmmaker

Virginia Heath Film Director

What inspired you to support the movement against human trafficking and make films about human trafficking and sexual exploitation?

As a woman filmmaker, I have always felt strongly about issues of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. In 2009, I was asked if I would write and direct a film – My Dangerous Loverboy – that would raise awareness of the sexual exploitation and internal trafficking of young people in the UK. At the time, this was an extremely hidden issue. There was a slowly growing awareness of women being sex trafficked into the UK from abroad but very little recognition that British teenagers were being groomed, moved around and sexually exploited by gangs in our own towns and cities. It was happening right on our doorstep. As part of the research for writing the film, I was taken to hang out in places like shopping malls, back streets and parks where grooming was taking place. I was shocked to see what was going on with my own eyes.

I felt passionately that there was a real need to raise awareness of the dangers of sexual exploitation in a way that was not moralistic and related to young people’s real lived experience. I believe that knowledge gives people the power to make positive choices about relationships and can reduce the risks of being manipulated and exploited. I also feel it is much more effective to inspire people to change attitudes and take action by creating material that will have a powerful impact, rather than by preaching to people.

Alongside making the My Dangerous Loverboy film, my colleagues and I felt strongly that we should be using the web and social media to get the message out to as wide an audience as possible. We were lucky enough to win a National Film Board of Canada Award, which inspired us to set up our website, Facebook page and YouTube channel. The music video version of the My Dangerous Loverboy story, Set Me Free, plus a powerful animation, Me, Jenny & Kate, has now reached an audience of almost 40,000 on YouTube. We have also collaborated with very experienced frontline service workers to create a powerful education resource pack, which includes the film called Love or Lies? This is aimed at the all-important task of raising awareness of sexual exploitation in schools and with professionals working with young people.

Can you describe each of the films you have made in the area of human trafficking?

I have made three related films about the sex trafficking of young people in the UK. The My Dangerous Loverboy project started with a twenty-minute drama film that tells a powerful story of the grooming and sex trafficking of a teenage girl. It is a drama inspired by real events and stories that I heard from girls as young as thirteen, who are the victims of ‘internal’ sex trafficking around UK cities.

Despite the tough subject matter, I wanted to make a film that had authenticity, emotional power and a distinctive visual style. I tried to capture the heady mix of excitement, romance and danger offered by ‘loverboys’ that can be so alluring to young girls and entice them down a path of sexual exploitation. I used a strong colour palette, ‘noir’ lighting and a specially composed music soundtrack to convey the attractions and dangers of the world in which the ‘loverboys’ operate. I wanted to create Jade, the lead character, as a teenage girl with dreams, who is troubled but extremely talented, to make her dark slide into entrapment all the more accessible to a teenage audience.

A large part of our target audience is teenage girls who are likely to be into music and part of Jade’s character is that she dreams of being a singer. We commissioned a song, Set Me Free, for Jade (played by Juliet Aaltonen) to sing which reflects her journey in the film. There is an upbeat pop version at the beginning of the film and then at the end there is a reprise of the song, which is much darker and more bluesy. The film can be seen as a love story gone very badly wrong. The grooming process often includes enticements of jewellery, clothes, alcohol, drugs, parties, but the most potent inducement is the offer of love, which is then betrayed. As the girls I talked to used to say, “All I ever wanted was to be loved. Is that so hard?”

After making the My Dangerous Loverboy film we created the music video, Set Me free, which condenses Jade’s story into four minutes and has proved a powerful way of communicating online.

Finally, I made an animation, Me, Jenny & Kate, which is directly inspired by the stories of young ‘survivor storytellers’ who have suffered sexual exploitation. The story was written and drawn as part of a Barnardos SECOS project. The voice over uses a young women’s exact words and the animation style is inspired by their drawings.

What research, if any, did you have to undertake before making the films and how did you go about that?

In order to write the films, I did extensive research with frontline agencies such as Streetreach in Doncaster, Barnardos SECOS project in Middlesborough, NSPCC in East London, Safe and Sound in Derby, and Sheffield Sexual Exploitation Services amongst others. I wanted the My Dangerous Loverboy film to have a powerful, authentic voice so I began a process of extensive interviews with young women who had suffered sexual exploitation together with discussions with frontline service workers.

This on the ground research informed the process of script writing and was followed by further feedback sessions so the script grew organically out of the subjects’ real lived experience. I believe this process of engagement has helped the film to speak strongly and effectively to its intended audience. I was inspired by speaking to young women, the ‘survivor storytellers’ themselves, but also by speaking to some truly inspirational women who were leading projects like Marilyn Haughton at Streetreach in Doncaster and Wendy Shepherd at Barnardos SECOS in Middlesborough.

What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish human trafficking and sexual exploitation?

I believe knowledge is power and we need to raise awareness through education in schools but also with the professionals that work with young people. This is what led us to create the Love or Lies? educational resource pack.

It is noticeable that the materials raising awareness about sexual exploitation are often aimed at warning young women of the dangers, whereas there is not much material addressing the perpetrators or the underlying attitudes that lead men to sexually exploit women. I think there needs to be more research into what encourages men to act in this exploitative manner and a big awareness raising campaign that might start to tackle this issue head on. This needs to start early in schools, addressing negative and potentially damaging attitudes, and encouraging positive relationship choices.

What other projects/charities are you involved in for anti-human trafficking and what else does your work in this area entail?

As a creative person wanting to make a difference in this arena, I fully support the work and campaigns of other anti-human trafficking charities. I am primarily a filmmaker so my work with the My Dangerous Loverboy campaign and support for the Love or Lies? education project is all done on a voluntary basis at present and very much based on awareness raising activities.

For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?

We began the My Dangerous Loverboy campaign inspired by the idea of using all forms of creativity to fight against sex trafficking. I still believe this is a positive vision for action and anyone with creative campaign ideas is always very welcome to contact us through our Facebook page or the contact form on our website. 

A simple way to help raise awareness and spread the word is to share the My Dangerous Loverboy YouTube links here.

What are your plans for the future?

Having made the My Dangerous Loverboy film, I am very aware that there are many important stories to be told about the sexual exploitation of young people. This is especially the case in relation to boys, which is still an extremely taboo and hidden subject.

We have the ambition to make more films inspired by stories from survivors of sexual exploitation/trafficking and are currently in the process of raising funding to carry on the work of creating films that can give these brave, young storytellers a powerful, authentic voice.

Recommended websites/books/films/further reading:

My Dangerous Loverboy website

Love or Lies? Education project – Eyes Open Creative

National Working Group for Sexually Exploited Children and Young People

Barnardos SECOS Project

ECPAT – Campaigning against Human Trafficking

About Ruth Jacobs (297 Articles)
Author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a drug addicted call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from my own life. In addition to fiction writing, I am also involved in journalism and broadcasting, primarily for human rights campaigning in the areas of sex workers' rights, anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking.

7 Comments on In the Booth with Ruth – Virginia Heath, Anti-Human Trafficking Advocate and Filmmaker

  1. gerrymccullough // January 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm // Reply

    Another enlightening post, Ruth. Shared and tweeted. Keep up the good work, Virginia.

  2. Reblogged this on Soul Destruction – London Call Girl Diary & Book and commented:

    Virginia Heath, who has made three films about the sex trafficking of young people in the UK, shares about those films and the research involved in creating them.

  3. This is fantastic work that you are doing, Virginia. I’ve seen the trailers to My Dangerous Loverboy. Where can I obtain a copy of the entire film?

    I want to make a comment here, in that, yes, it is very important to bring this material into the schools and make the curriculum part of the school program. The only problem is that the vast majority of prostituted/trafficked youth are abused at home. They’re looking for love in all the wrong places because they don’t know what real love feels like.

    I wish there were a way to provide healthy homes filled with unconditional love for all children everywhere!

  4. Reblogged this on Bipolar For Life and commented:
    VIrginia Heath is the filmmaker of My Dangerous Loverboy, a film about how sex-trafficking of young girls is done. She has developed a whole curriculum for schools to teach girls the signs of grooming for trafficking so they can avoid becoming trapped.

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