When Helping Hurts: The Accidental Pimp Part 1

by Megan Jessup
So many challenges are presented to agencies who are missioned to address the issue of modern day slavery and commercial sexual exploitation. If we’re not careful, even the most well-intentioned and well-thought out plans and designs can have adverse effects on the population(s) we are trying to serve and protect. Seemingly miniscule decisions and details can have far reaching effects, both positive and negative. In our agency, it is not uncommon to have long drawn out discussions about very nuanced issues. We don’t always get it right, but we will always continue to learn and grow and be intentional. Because in order to effectively advocate for victims and survivors, there are certain critical areas that we, as a collaborative network, must be intentional about in our various approaches. We will explore the issue in this three part series.

We must change our branding

If I were to ask you to close your eyes and “picture” human trafficking in your mind, what images would
arise? I’m guessing that things like chains, handcuffs, gags, tears, sad faces, cages are not too far down the list. That is because we see them everywhere. We see images like these on billboards and in public service announcements, we see them on agency promotional material and fundraising paraphernalia. They provide visual representation of the horrors of trafficking.

And while they are highly effective at grabbing the attention of viewers, inciting an emotional response from the public and encouraging financial investment from donors, they do not paint a picture of reality. With domestic human trafficking, the chains are often psychological. While there are certainly stories where traffickers used physical force and abduction when seeking out potential victims, this is the rare exception. Most traffickers use manipulation and coercion through a relationship with their victims. What does this look like in reality? It looks like the runaway boy who needed food and shelter. It looks like the girl who fell in love with a boy who said he loved her too, only to exploit her trust in him later. It looks like a drug-addicted parent who needed their child to earn money for their next fix or for rent. It looks like child who has already endured so much sexual abuse in his/her life that he/she no longer believes they never had a choice and that sex is the only tool at their disposal.

None of those scenarios include chains or cages. And by spreading awareness through the use of those images, we are painting a false reality for the audience at the peril of the actual victims. The community begins looking for signs of physical bondage and overlooking actual indicators. Victims are left stigmatized and unidentified and blamed because it was “their choice”… which is the same thing they were told by their exploiter.

Images such as these are also incredibly disempowering. Think about it for a second. If you were struggling with something in your life and wanted to find someone to help you, would you seek out a resource that saw you as a helpless and miserable victim or would you seek out one that saw your resiliency and strength and potential?

In other words, would you go to the agency whose brand was of heartbreak or of hope?

We must avoid using possessive pronouns

“Our girls had a fabulous experience and it was life changing.”

“I can go ahead and take that task, she’s one of mine.”

“Yes, I’m familiar with her; we had her in our program.”

These are familiar statements that we hear daily. And on the surface, they seem harmless enough. But consider what some of these phrases sound like when removed from context:
  “our girls” … “she’s one of mine” …“we had her”

It sounds a lot like control. It sounds… a lot like her pimp.

Look, I get it. We pour our hearts and souls into our missions and programs and into helping individuals who have been affected by trafficking. We take it home with us. It keeps us up at night. They are often the last people think about before we go to sleep and the first people we think about when we wake up. We celebrate their successes with them and mourn any setbacks that may arise. We worry when they are missing. There is absolutely no denying that we have personal investment and so the use of possessive pronouns is only natural. Which is why, at Ascent 121, we have to put great effort into intentionally removing them from our vocabulary.

Individuals who have been trafficked and exploited have been owned by enough people. They are not ours to claim. By making this a cultural norm within our agency, it permeates through every level of interaction that we have with them. Not only is it empowering to the girl’s we serve, but it sets a boundary for our staff and volunteers. The treatment goals are not ours to claim, the girls’ choices are not ours to claim, and the outcomes are not ours to claim. We are a conduit… a support… a resource to be utilized. In this context, our availability is the end of our responsibility.

But there is another reason to stop using possessive pronouns when referring to the individuals served by you or your agency: it fuels an unhealthy sense of competition and pride. This work cannot be done in isolation. It requires collaboration on multiple levels. It is imperative that we embrace that.

Megan is Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Ascent 121. She is a licensed mental health therapist with more than 15 years of clinical and administrative experience in outpatient and residential treatment settings. She specializes in sexual trauma and has been working with human trafficking survivors since 2009. Megan provides training on human trafficking to numerous organizations including: local colleges and human service agencies, law enforcement, juvenile probation departments, the public defender’s office, child advocates, area judges, and the Department of Child Services. She has also been called to provide expert witness testimony in criminal cases.