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Take Off The Cape: Why Using The Word “Rescue” Is Harmful To Anti-Trafficking Efforts

Guest post by Becky Owens Bullard

Photo credit: ColorfulArtist86, deviantART

Photo credit: ColorfulArtist86, deviantART

When I came to the human trafficking field from working on domestic and sexual violence, I was shocked by a lot of things. It was disturbing to learn about the various ways traffickers abuse and exploit victims for labor and sex and surprising to see how frequently human trafficking intersected directly with intimate partner violence, sex assault and child abuse.

However, a different type of unsettling surprise for me came not from the crime itself, but from the terminology used to discuss it. More specifically, I was shocked by how commonly the word “rescue” was used to describe identifying and assisting victims and survivors of human trafficking.

This was so foreign to me because in the domestic and sexual violence fields it would be unthinkable to refer to victim identification and assistance as a “rescue” or “rescue mission.” I can only imagine the faces of my former colleagues if I had said that my work with an individual had “rescued” them from their abuser. There would have been some serious questioning of my ability to provide appropriate, trauma-informed services to that person without doing considerable harm as well as my motives for doing the work in the first place.

Having come from disciplines where the use of this term would be seen as highly inappropriate and demeaning to a victim or survivor of crime, it was very odd to me that “rescue” was a term used not only in everyday language around the issue but also in awareness and education, news media and even in the names of anti-trafficking organizations and programs. Although “rescue” is a word that evokes images of life-saving missions to pull people from a burning building, I soon found out that the anti-trafficking field had essentially reclaimed the word to convey uniqueness in the ways trafficking victims are identified and given assistance.

Now you may be wondering, “What harm can using a term like this really do?” Unfortunately, the frequent use of “rescue” has a serious impact on victims and survivors of human trafficking as well as to the human trafficking field as a whole. Here are some reasons why:

Trauma Bonding & Psychological Abuse

Some of you may have been thinking “but human trafficking is unique and usually involves kidnapping and confinement, so rescuing fits!” However, more often than not, traffickers aren’t complete strangers utilizing brute force but are known or become known to their victims by forming relationships and strong trauma bonds, making it difficult to leave because of love, hope and fear involved. Some victims are even trafficked by intimate partners, parents and other relatives. Also, anyone who has worked with trafficking survivors will tell you that the dynamics of this crime are complex and the forms of power and control employed by traffickers are often psychological rather than physical, similar to domestic violence.

Impact: So if your idea of a human trafficking victim is someone waiting to be rescued, you will find yourself confused when, instead of holding out their arms to you in relief and gratefulness, a victim uses some choice words to tell you where you can go and returns to their trafficker over and over again. Using the word “rescue” simplifies this incredibly complex crime and promotes misconceptions about who traffickers are and how they control and manipulate their victims. This is not only detrimental to law enforcement and service providers’ ability to identify victims, it is also harmful to our capacity to prosecute traffickers when a jury expects a victim who was chained up by their trafficker rather than one who leaves and returns to a trafficking situation multiple times.

Uneven Power Dynamic Between “Rescuer” and “Rescuee”

Wondering why my previous coworkers would have been concerned if I said I “rescued” someone from their abuser? Because when you say that you “rescued” someone, that statement is about empowering and aggrandizing yourself while disempowering the person you think you rescued. This is because “rescuing” creates an uneven power dynamic where the “rescuer” (read: hero) has all of the power in the relationship and the “rescuee” (read: helpless victim) has no agency or role in the exit of his or her abusive situation. While not everyone using the word “rescue” is purposefully trying to pump their own egos and disempower victims, they are certainly using the term without thinking of its true meaning and impact.

Impact: A relationship built on inequality with an empowered, potentially self-serving role for the “rescuer” and a demeaning and demoralizing role for the victim mirrors the uneven power dynamics they experienced with their trafficker. This unequal relationship is the antithesis of trauma-informed care, as it doesn’t allow for mutuality and true empowerment, and ultimately inhibits a victim’s path to healing and survivorship.

Everyone Wants to Rescue a Victim!

The use of the exclamation point is for sarcasm and the point is that this simplistic view of human trafficking gives a simplistic idea of the solution. Well-meaning, compassionate people hear about the horrors of human trafficking and how victims are just waiting to be rescued, and think, “Hey, that is something I can do!” without understanding of the complexity of the situation and the necessity for a trauma-informed professional response. Look no further than Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Skywhere he discovers in his chapter entitled “Rescuing Girls is the Easy Part” that taking women out of brothels doesn’t mean they won’t return or that all their problems have been magically solved.

Impact: Multiple organizations are forming with the idea of “rescuing” trafficking victims without professional experience in victim services and trauma. Sometimes these organizations even plan their own undercover rescue missions or try to be a kind of renegade force to fill in where official law enforcement can’t respond. A week doesn’t seem to go by that I don’t hear of a new organization that wants to “rescue” or “save” victims of human trafficking. And while they may have good intentions, ignorance and inexperience can be incredibly harmful to victims and survivors who need professional trauma-informed services. Moreover, the ease with which organizations are able to form and claim expertise in this relatively new field of human trafficking is astounding and frightening. Because the field is younger than say the domestic violence or sex assault fields, new organizations can often form without much question from funders or even partners in the field as to how qualified they are to be providing services in the first place.

For all of these reasons and the harmful impacts they have, the anti-trafficking field has to reevaluate the use of the word “rescue” in everyday language among practitioners, in communication to the general public and most importantly, to victims and survivors themselves. We should rely on more traditional, professional terms when we talk about discovering and working with victims of this crime that truly reflect its nature, such as “identification” and “assistance.”

This reevaluation and revamping of our terminology is crucial because before we can meaningfully move forward in our efforts to end human trafficking, we have to communicate the correct information about what this crime looks like and have appropriate responses and services that don’t further disempower victims and survivors. It’s time we take off the “rescuer’s” cape and elevate our language around anti-trafficking work to the trauma-informed, victim-centered place that it should be.

This article was originally published on the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault blog.


Becky BullardBecky Owens Bullard is the Project Director of the Denver Anti-Trafficking Alliance and is a national trainer on issues of human trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault. Becky has conducted trainings nation-wide for diverse audiences, created the Human Trafficking Power and Control Wheel, and authored numerous trainings, victim assessment tools and articles on her blog, the Voices Against Violence Project.

About Ruth Jacobs (296 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.

4 Comments on Take Off The Cape: Why Using The Word “Rescue” Is Harmful To Anti-Trafficking Efforts

  1. Reblogged this on MrMilitantNegro™.

  2. Great read.

  3. Yeah, OK, I hear you. However, there is a huge difference between a survivor developing Stockholm Syndrome for her/his pimp, and the Ukrainian girl deceived by an offer of employment and ending up in a Middle Eastern brothel chained to her bed, or a Philipina woman offered a job as a housekeeper in Saudi Arabia and finding out she’s keeping house, all right, but not the way she thought she would be; and both of them having had their passports taken. Or even a Mexican boy, offered a great-paying job in the USA and finding himself picking tomatoes in Florida, living in a falling-down trailer and eating beans and tortillas, just like home only worse.

    They can’t even cry “help” because they don’t know the language.

    These are the people to whom “rescue” resonates with every breath, with every snatch of sleep that might fall upon them between unwelcome tasks, that beats upon clenched teeth yet does not dare to burst out.

    These are true stories of people I have known, or known of through the Network. The Ukrainian girls and women will probably never escape–they furtively come to the street clinic to have their STDs treated and get more condoms, even though their customers mostly refuse condoms. The pregnant ones are found, sometimes, in parking garages which seem to be the most popular place to dump out-of-service and therefore useless prostitutes.

    The Philipina, whose sister I happen to know, eventually got rescued because she was able to press her face against the barred window of the basement where she was chained when not in use (she was given an opportunity to sleep for four hours every three days) and cried out to passersby until someone realized she was really in trouble and called the police, who rescued her.

    I am deeply concerned about conflating domestic violence survivors with human trafficking victims. I am very much aware of the seesaw course of a domestic violence survivor while she is in the process of separating her own identity from that of her abusive partner. That is a completely different scenario from the desperation of the unwilling and often truly captive slave who desperately awaits rescue. Yes, RESCUE!

    Let’s not assume that slaves are not really slaves after all, but “partners” with their keepers.

    Let’s not mistakenly assume that because the 13-year-old prostitute claims she really “loves” her pimp and runs back to him the minute she gets a chance, that her life with him is all rosy. There’s a reason she’s “in love” with him. He’s her “rescuer” from some even worse situation. At least that’s what I discovered in my four years working in a street clinic for teens who had run from the frying pan into the fire.

    If I had said to them, “Darling, do you want to be RESCUED?” They would have had a good laugh and spit in my face, because to them, rescue meant Juvenile Hall and that meant being at the mercy of whoever wanted to use them there, then being spat back out on the street penniless, so where were they supposed to go but back to their pimp? They didn’t know anything else, except for the horrors they left behind at “home.”

    Did they need to be RESCUED?

    Of course! Don’t be shy. Yes, they did.

    But not by Might Mouse, or the police, or any other obvious means, because they are street-smart and they know.

    But a hot meal, a friendly voice in ripped jeans, a rap session with other street kids and an encouraging moderator….and, eventually, a high school equivalency class, job skills training, help with building interviewing skills….role models who have been there and know what the score is, what the obstacles are, what the motivations for staying in that life are….these are the ways to RESCUE a teen who is stuck in the urban domestic trafficking cycle.

    I happen to know that one because I was there, did that, and because someone RESCUED me I was able to, well, have all these letters after my name and be able to look that sad girl in the eye and say, yes, I DO know what it’s like, and I managed to get where I am by LETTING SOMEONE HELP ME.

    Don’t make assumptions that leave trafficked people stranded without help.

    Take a deep breath, gather your courage, and realize, yes you CAN rescue someone who is enslaved. They are desperately waiting for you, but you have to have the insight to know whether this is a “police rescue” situation, or whether this is a rescue that might take months or even years. But you WILL be their rescuer, either way.

    I remember my rescuer, and will be indebted to him all of my life, because he gently showed me the way and I followed. It took three years, but he never gave up on me, and I finally grabbed the rope he threw me and climbed into freedom.

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