Movies and myths about human trafficking

Liam Neeson rushes to save his daughter in Taken. 20th Century Fox

Hollywood loves a good bad guy.

From ruthless mobsters to drug kingpins to serial killers, evil characters are often plucked from real-world events. As human trafficking has garnered more attention, it was inevitable that the issue would hit the big screen. Traffickers, after all, are your quintessential villains. They enslave and exploit human beings for profit.

Today, a growing number of films portray a hero taking down a human trafficking ring.

The Taken series, in which Liam Neeson plays an ex-CIA operative with “a very particular set of skills,” is arguably the best-known example. In the first installment, Neeson has 96 hours to rescue his daughter from an Albanian sex-trafficking ring in Paris that abducts young girls, drugs them and sells them to Middle Eastern sheikhs. He succeeds, of course, in supporting-cast-obliterating fashion.

In Human Trafficking, an earlier made-for-television movie, Mira Sorvino plays a New York City police officer who goes undercover to take down a Russian trafficking ring.

And in The Whistleblower, which is based on a true story, Rachel Weisz plays an American working as a UN peacekeeper in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina who uncovers a trafficking operation.

These movies have helped raise awareness of human trafficking. But there’s one problem. As my research shows, Taken, The Whistleblower and Human Trafficking propagate and reinforce several critical misunderstandings about trafficking.

Movie myths

Rachel Weisz in The Whistleblower. 20th Century Fox

All three films portray only sex trafficking of young women and girls. The movies depict Americans as heroes, and “others” – Albanians, Arabs, Russians – as villains. The Whistleblower offers a more nuanced picture with both an American hero and some Americans involved in the exploitation. Finally, in true Hollywood fashion, rescue represents the end of the story.

A viewer might leave these movies unaware that there is more than trafficking for sex, that labor trafficking also exists and that it occurs in numerous industries, from agriculture and manufacturing to restaurants and hair salons. Viewers might not know that men, women, boys, girls and transgendered individuals are all targets of human trafficking.

Viewers might also be misled into thinking that the problem is a foreign one, leaving them unaware of the role Americans play in human trafficking. In fact, some traffickers are American, and the U.S. drives demand for inexpensive goods like clothes and electronics, some of which is made possible by the work of exploited individuals.

Finally, moviegoers might have no idea that rescue is really only the beginning of an even more challenging process – assisting and supporting survivors in their recovery and reintegration into their communities.

Too much dramatic license

Why does this matter? This is Hollywood, after all. We know that James Bond does not represent the reality of life as a spy, despite the more battered, world-weary spin Daniel Craig has given him recently. But most of us don’t engage in espionage after a spy movie ends.

Human trafficking is different. As President Obama highlighted in a recent presidential proclamation declaring January national slavery and human trafficking prevention month, every sector of society can play a role in combating this problem.

The president echoed what many scholars and advocates like myself have emphasized: a comprehensive, multisector response is needed to prevent human trafficking.

This effort requires that people know not just that human trafficking exists, but exactly what it is.

As with other violent crime, only a fraction of the population has any personal experience with human trafficking. Few individuals have talked with a survivor about his or her experiences, and not many have read the existing research on human trafficking. Most of the public garners much of what they know about human trafficking from media portrayals of the issue. This includes some individuals now working on anti-trafficking initiatives. I’ve listened to scholars and advocates at conferences praise these movies without mentioning their inaccuracies. It seems even the savviest among us believe more from the media than we discard.

Impact on responses

Maggie Grace in Taken. 20th Century Fox

If popular portrayals of human trafficking shape what advocates and the general population understand about the issue, then they will also shape what people advocate for. And federal and state law and policy on human trafficking reflect many of the same distortions found in films on human trafficking.

Beginning with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000 and continuing with dozens of laws adopted at the federal and state level since then, the law on human trafficking has centered primarily on criminal law, reflecting the “rescue” narrative. Such law enforcement is necessary but not sufficient. Other critical components – prevention and services for survivors – have received much less in the way of resources.

The depiction of young women and girls trafficked for sex as the quintessential victims has shaped law enforcement efforts, leading to a prioritization of combating sex trafficking of women and girls over labor trafficking or the plight of exploited men, boys and transgendered individuals.

When media portrayals show only sex trafficking of women and girls, the risk is that labor trafficking and other vulnerable and exploited individuals do not receive the attention they need. In fact, research by the International Labor Organization and other organizations suggests that the number of labor trafficking victims may well exceed the number of sex trafficking victims.

In addition, current anti-trafficking law and advocacy continues to pay too little attention to the root causes of this exploitation. The lack of emphasis on prevention reflects the popular notions that “rescue” is what is needed. It also indicates an unwillingness to acknowledge that mainstream U.S. culture and consumerism contribute to the demand for the goods and services provided by exploited individuals. In contrast to Hollywood portrayals, the reality is that the food we eat and the clothes we wear may well be produced by trafficked labor.

What we can do

Of course, Hollywood is not going to stop making action movies. But we can do a better job of calling attention to the disconnect between cinematic portrayals of human trafficking and the reality of the problem. The desire to keep celebrities engaged in particular social issues is understandable given the attention they can bring to an issue, but it should not mean remaining silent in the face of inaccurate or unbalanced portrayals.

Ultimately, it is critical that policymakers and advocates have access to and rely on evidence-based research and survivor perspectives on human trafficking so that they can develop responses that are likely to make a difference.