By Alexandra McDevitt, Summer Intern Connecticut College, Class of 2017
“We have all seen films that portray the dark and lurid world of human trafficking, depictions that seem sensationalized and exaggerated for cinematic effect. The victims are usually young women forced into an underground sex-trafficking ring, kept on permanent drug high, and forced to prostitute. Although the plot is horrifying, it is just a story to us - or perhaps it is something that happens in some other part of the world but surely would never occur where we live.”
Stephanie Hepburn, Human Trafficking Around the World Hidden in Plain Sight
I frequently find myself wondering, how is it possible that people are so misinformed about the realities of domestic sex trafficking in the United States? The answer lies in the media representation of this issue. The mainstream media is inundated with misleading language, like ‘teen prostitute,’ and false realities. The mass media capitalist culture that we live in today allows the media to distort, censor and sensationalize the truth in hopes of earning a greater profit.
I recently watched the Hollywood film “Taken.” This film is extremely popular due to its fierce killing scenes, famous cast and PG-13 depiction of sex trafficking. The main character, a 17 year old American teen traveling in Europe, is kidnapped by a stranger in Paris and forced into a high-end international sex trafficking ring. Luckily, her father is an ex-CIA agent who specializes in top secret missions and is able to rescue her after she is auctioned off for $250,000 in diamonds. This extremely simple and sensationalized depiction of sex trafficking improperly educates viewers about where trafficking is happening, how it is happening and who it is happening to. Viewers are left with the impression that sex trafficking only happens abroad and operates in an underground world of organized international crime. In reality, there is a trafficking epidemic right here in our own communities, which is typically perpetuated through Backpage.com and local hotels.
In addition, the glamorized and thrilling rescue narrative allows for viewers to create an unrealistic belief that sex trafficking can be easily reversed with little or no lasting effects on the trafficked individual. This is simply not true. If someone were to “rescue” a child from trafficking, meaning take them out of a situation by force and think that the work is over, they would be horribly mistaken. Yes, you may be taking them away from the immediate danger and abuse but you are bringing them back to the original situation in which they were vulnerable to trafficking without working to sever the binding bond of fear and love that may exist between the exploiter and child. Filmmakers and other media producers often hide this truth because it will be unpleasing to the audience who would rather walk away from the theater content that the character has been saved. The reality of sex trafficking in the United States is certainty not glamorous and it is misleading to sensationalize this horrific crime.
The media, including Hollywood filmmakers, hopefully will join in the fight to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children and responsibly represent this issue making sure to not further exploit victims for monetary gain.