Problems of Human Trafficking in the United States

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The exploitation of human kind for profit is nothing new to human race. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, international leaders began to advocate for ways to controlling the human exploitation phenomenon, and the public became increasingly concerned about the risks of exploitation entail in labor migration and commercial sex. In 2000, the United States government passed an act called the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), which clearly defined a human trafficking as a crime and also put it on the watchlist of the law enforcement agencies to look out for and respond to the ill-treatment. At the peak of TVPA discourse come the U.S media interest in human trafficking as a crime that increased steadily through framing of the problem, its cause, and its solutions that keep changing over time. Media coverage of human trafficking hit wider media coverage around 2005 and has risen consistently since that time to date. Since 2005, human trafficking has become a burning issue in debates and conference. The subject on human trafficking involves investigating journalism, film and television shows that became medium in helping to create awareness. However, media treatment of the human trafficking crime tends to be mispresented since it focuses exclusively on certain aspects of the problem and downplay the rest. “Research on human trafficking frames in media reveals that human trafficking are for the most part oversimplified and inaccurate in terms of human trafficking victims being portrayed as innocent white female victims needing to be rescued from nefarious traffickers” (Rachel Austin and Amy Farrell: Crime, Media, and Popular Culture, 2017).

Depictions of human trafficking in movies, documentaries, and television episodes in the United States and around the world have long been following the rescue narrative, where innocent victims, mainly women, saved from harmful powerful man. Another controversial depiction in the media is the framing of men as the traffickers and the victim as women who would need another powerful man to rescue her. Additionally, the traffickers are most often portrayed in the media as part of larger organized criminal gang, despite empirical evidence to the contrary.

The effect of incorrect framing of human trafficking in the popular media could have a long-lasting consequence on the policies enacted by the policymakers and legislators to come up with less helpful measures that could challenge traffickers, especially responses that stressed on criminal justice solutions. Media is a powerful tool that could create an everlasting memory in people. The stories emerging from the media are likely to be consumed by many audiences without censoring or analyzing the content and the motives of the producer.

Therefore, in this essay, I will focus on the role of media in the fight against human trafficking in the United States of America.

Antitrafficking Effort

The exploitation of human beings for commercial purpose (profit) is nothing new in the world, but the reality in today’s world, including the effect of globalization and massive rise in poverty level, accelerates victimization. In the effort to combat the growing rate of human trafficking, both international and domestic level for sex and labor, the United States federal government passed the Victims Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act (TVPA) in 2000. This act defined the following forms of trafficking:

  1. The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age; and
  2. The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or service, through the use of forced, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subject to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

Despite the considerate discussion on the topic of how human trafficking would be characterized in the federal law (Stolz, 2007), the final decision by the legislator outlined that force, fraud, and coercion were significant components of human trafficking. Commercial sex working (prostitution) was included in the law to identify sex trafficking of adult not imposed by force, fraud, or coercion, but the TVPA did not capture this form of trafficking to be a serious form that needs attention (Austin and Farrell, 2017). Only the severe forms of trafficking could be countered by law enforcement and public policy decision. Following the orders of the federal law, all the states in the US have criminalized some forms of human trafficking (Bouche, Farrell, & Wittmer, 2016).

Despite the constant increase in awareness creation on human trafficking by federal and state governments, there is little understanding about the real statistics on human trafficking in the United States. Human trafficking is widely considered to be underestimated and underreported by the law enforcements officials. However, to mitigate these challenges, governments and bodies concern would have to work with other organizations such as International Labor Organization (ILO) and share data that are driven from their research on the human trafficking phenomenon.

Media Cover of Human Trafficking

The media houses in the United States started focusing on problem of human trafficking after the congressional hearing that led to the enforcement of TVPA in 2000 (Farrell & Fahy, 2009). After that period, the coverage of human trafficking continues to grow in printed media around the country (US). The mass production of the human trafficking content in media creates awareness of the crime and also educate the public on measure to prevent themselves from such atrocities. For example, in 2004 The New York Times magazine published an article by Landesman (2004) titled “Girl Next Door,” which depicts the horrors attached to sex trafficking in the United States (Austin and Farrell, 2017). The New York Times among other popular media houses took up the campaign to sensitize the public on human trafficking.

Moreover, as the topic became a burning issue in printed news lines and social media, human trafficking began to capture the interest of the film industries and television shows too. For example, in the film “Taken (2009), which is themed around combating an international organized crime network that specialize in the act of sext trafficking. In this film, the main actor, Liam Neeson, is introduced as a powerful man and well-built that has to come and rescue his daughter by the use of physical force. This was not the first of its kind and surely would not be the last one too. In the year 2018, a BBC documentary was released on slave labor that is practices on immigrants that are on the verge of migrating to Europe through Libya. Some organized groups in Libya are accused of exploiting slave labor or even putting the captives into prostitutions for economic gain. The images that emerged from Libya forced various governments to react by flying their countrypersons from such inhumanly conditions and return them to their home countries.

Human trafficking has also become an interesting topic in the entertainment media. A list of celebrities is embarking on the topic to capture the public eye. As much as these celebrities are funding and creating awareness, their contribution in the struggle is opening more doors to their careers. One could argue that not all those involved in anti-human trafficking campaign are genuine and are solely doing it for humanity. For example, celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore have become popular for been the spokespersons for human trafficking (Haynes, 2014).

Media Framing of Human Trafficking

The amplification and representation of various crimes on mass media has created an opportunity for the public to access information on those crimes and also come up with better mechanisms to manage it, if not completely control it. The power of mass media cannot be underestimated, especially in the areas of awareness campaigns. The representations o media are often characterized or called frames, that shape how the public consumes social problem (Altheide, 1997). There are three main types of frames that serve to support specific interpretation to an issue. The Diagnostic frame which define the problem; prognostic frames propose solutions to the problem based on the description by diagnostic frames; and motivational frames which promote collective mechanism to the problem by implanting a sense of urgency (Snoe & Benford, 1988; Benford & Snow, 2000; Entman, 1993). Frames tend to be way successful in identifying problems, proposing solutions and motivating actions when they match with the current social climate, when they reinforce cultural belief, and when they aresstraight forward and easy to understand (Snow & Benford, 1988). This in turn determines how the public likewise the policymakers comprehend and interpret social issues (Altheide, 1997; Entman, 1993; Scheufele, 2000).

Diagnostic Frames of Trafficking

The media plays a common role by simplifying the problem of human trafficking and interchanging sex trafficking with prostitution (Chuang, 2014; Jahic & Finckenauer, 2005; Stolz, 2001). The conflation of human trafficking with sex trafficking in public space and congressional debates has led media’s focus on sex trafficking while downplaying labor trafficking as a less relevant problem in the US societies. Farrell and Fahy (2009) argue that in each stage of collecting human trafficking account as social problem, the one that tend to be focused on by the public is sex trafficking, whereas, labor trafficking is unconsciously or consciously ignored. Wilson and O’Brien (2016) conclude that more sex trafficking cases are reported than other forms of trafficking such as domestic labor, agricultural labor, child begging, and child soldiers. Content analysis of human trafficking in media both in the United States and international level limits themselves mainly to sex trafficking, even though the scope is wider than sex trafficking, which is just a component of the whole concept (Denton, 2010; Kinney, 2015; Sobel, 2014; Szorenyi & Eate, 2014).

The overemphasizing of sex trafficking in the mainstream media is the reflection of the dominant policy debates about the discourse of prostitution as it relates to the TVPA. In addition to the debates focus on the topic, sex trafficking tends to dominate in media representation of human trafficking because its victim category, which are minors and women. Essentially, the world’s campaign on women empowerment and protection for children has its influence on the discourse of human trafficking too. Furthermore, sex trafficking tends to be easier to cover on news because it provides a clear and simple violation of the law, on the other hand, labor trafficking is a much complex issue, and often debates as civil suits. Whatever the specific reason for media bias, labor trafficking remains invisible to the public because of its underrepresentation in the mainstream media.

The common problems of human trafficking in the United States is that: human trafficking was first considered as a human rights issues until TVPA pushed it to become criminal justice frames in the media (Farrell & Fashy, 2009). Research on the dominant topics on human trafficking issues examines that the act is analyzed by printed media as a crime rather than human rights, public health or activist awareness issues ((Charnysh, Lloyd, & Simmons, 2015; Farrell & Fahy, 2009; Gulati, 2011; Johnston, Friedman, & Shafer, 2014; Johnston, Friedman, & Sobel, 2015). Johnston. Friedman, and Shafer’s (2004) assess that sex trafficking alone is suggested to be 30 percent of printed media articles and broadcasts with the view to tie sex trafficking to the larger social problems other than crime, whereas other forms of human traffickings are less attracted. Interestingly, crime frames are highly captured in international laws and international media than the United States as a nation (Gallagher, 2010).


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Problems of Human Trafficking in the United States. (2020, Oct 31). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/problems-of-human-trafficking-in-the-united-states/

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