Human trafficking: a look at gender

By Jorge Franco

The issue of human trafficking is a very heavy subject. It is an issue that many countries around the world have trouble with. For the victims, it is an extremely traumatic experience, whether they are laborers or sex workers.


However, there is a very strong narrative at play when the issue of human trafficking is brought up. It is the idea that women are the primary victims of trafficking. Now, that is not to say that women do not make up a good percentage of the victims. In fact, according to the International Labor Organization (2012), around 98% of sex-trafficking victims are women. However, when looking at labor exploitation, around 60% of the victims are men. Overall, trafficked people are comprised of 55% women and 45% men.

Why is this topic presented from the perspective that women suffer more? Ashley Greve, a member of the Human Trafficking Center, assigns some of the blame to the mainstream media. She states that it is “easier to believe that only the ‘weaker sex’ is victimized” (2014). Now, it can be argued that women have historically been a part of the lower social class compared to men, meaning that they did not have the same social value or economic status. In that case, it would be efficient to create a narrative where women are the primary victims of human trafficking in order to assure that the public is aware of what they’re going through. However, while such a view has a stronger effect on the public to search for those victims, it has an opposite effect on those that don’t fit the media’s narrative. As citizens are keeping a watchful eye on Aurora for female prostitutes, they’re ignoring the male prostitute standing right next to them. And it’s not just the general public that has that bias. Erin Drum, one of the directors for Unbound Seattle, stated that “many service providers or law enforcement aren’t looking for non-female victims” (personal communication, August 21, 2017). This means that unless male victims can make people aware of their situation, which is already difficult enough given their position, they will probably go unnoticed.

Unfortunately, there are many members of the public who do not contemplate the idea of challenging the current narrative. That is because they do not think that there is anything that needs to be challenged. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman explains this phenomenon as the result of TV becoming a myth, which Robert Barthes defines as “a way of understanding the world that is not problematic, that we are not fully conscious of, that seems, in a word, natural” (p. 79). The essential idea is that due to the frequent use of the TV since its implementation in society, everything about the TV is now passed off as common knowledge. This not only includes the physical machinations of the TV itself, but also the content that it produces. As a result, when the media pushes a certain narrative, that narrative is simply accepted as fact. In addition, with the rise of social media, the support of the narrative can now reach a wider audience in a shorter amount of time. If the media pushes the claim that women are the primary victims of human trafficking, then the public will easily take that information at face value, because they will assume it to be common sense.

As mentioned earlier, in cases such as this, victims that don’t fit the media’s narrative end up suffering while their counterparts receive more attention. In some cases, this can lead to the public outright refusing to help them. A prominent example of this would be the neighbors of Chris and Anna Smith. The Smiths are a couple who started work on The Anchor House, a shelter for sex-trafficked boys, in North Carolina in 2014. The shelter was created to help male victims rebuild their lives after surviving such a horrid ordeal. However, when the neighbors caught wind of what the Smiths were doing, they became worried that the Smiths would be taking in criminals. In fact, the neighbors were so anxious that they put up signs along Greene County saying that there was no Anchor House there, and even had “the county board of commissioners [pass] a resolution accusing the Smiths of lying” (Invisible Boys: Inside the Push to Help Unseen Victims of the Sex Trade). Because there is no mainstream narrative that presents these boys as victims, the neighbors have a difficult time treating them as such. This treatment then compounds the issue of male trafficking, as guys are disparaged from seeking help under the belief that they aren’t wanted. In turn, human traffickers are more likely to kidnap men due to the social narrative not putting an emphasis on male victims, and the cycle continues.

So what is the appropriate response to this issue? Ronald Takaki presents a possible solution in A Different Mirror. He suggests the idea of “unlearning” the past that we’ve been taught in order to substitute a more accurate history (p. 436). Obviously, while this implies introducing the counter-narratives, this does not mean to substitute them as the new master narrative; doing so would have the same outcome as before. What it means is to present all narratives. To do so will allow the public to have a clearer idea of the situation, and prevents victims from going unnoticed.


Postman, Neil (1986). The Peek-a-Boo World. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (pg. 64-80). New York: Penguin Books.

Takaki, Ronald (2008). We Will All Be Minorities. (2nd Ed.), A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (pg. 434-439). New York: Bay Back Books.

Greve, Ashley. (2014, Sept. 18). Human trafficking: What about the men and boys? [Web log]. Retrieved from

  and  (2016, Jan. 26). Invisible Boys: Inside the Push to Help Unseen Victims of the Sex Trade. NBC News. Retrieved from

International Labour Organization. (2012). [Bar graph]. Retrieved from–it/index.htm


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