#ListenToAllSurvivors 5: Some Conversations Are Best Left as “In Group” Conversations

by admin  - October 5, 2021

Powerful organizations and advocates wielding power unethically has contributed to violence and bullying even between survivors. This is harmful, unethical, and exploitative, and is a big part of the reason we only hear from survivors who agree with the existing narratives. This movement is not safe when survivors are pitted against each other, and many survivors who don’t fit the mold leave the anti-human trafficking movement to work in other anti-violence and harm reduction fields. Sometimes they are pushed out of the movement by bullying, harassment, and being talked over repeatedly. Other times they avoid even connecting with the movement because it is so dysfunctional.

Image Description: Professor is walking away from the survivors. Sarah, a blonde-haired woman in a skirt and sweater passes him.
Sarah thinks, “Researchers often make it too complicated. I might not be a survivor myself, but I know the ones I've seen took forever to even understand how they were being exploited.”
Still walking, Sarah thinks to herself, “This is why I've dedicated my life every day to rescuing people. Somebody has to be a voice for the voiceless until they figure out they're victims!”
“Somebody needs to DO SOMETHING about human trafficking!” Sarah thinks as she arrives to where the survivors are hanging out.
“Hey guys! So I heard you talking and wanted to say that what survivors need is to be a-” Sarah begins, before she is cut off by the exasperated survivors.
“Go!” says Alisha, pointing.
As Sarah walks away, dejected, Talia says, “I mean, I really want researchers and advocates to help us end trafficking, don't get me wrong. But I want them to take a step back. We aren't voiceless unless we're silenced or ignored.”
Sam agrees. “Yeah, and sometimes it's a lot harder for us to have authentic conversations about our points of disagreement if there are researchers and well-funded organizations we rely on for our livelihoods throwing fuel on some of the flames.”
Nolan adds, “That's definitely true. Sometimes it's hard for me to speak openly about what I really think about things like LGBTQ issues, immigration policy, or sex work because I'm worried that I'll be attacked or lose consulting income.”
Nolan continues: “I mean, I had an anonymous Twitter account for years so I could follow who I wanted, ask what I wanted, without worrying that someone would attack me for disagreeing with them.”
Survivors who don’t agree with the narratives dominant within the anti-human trafficking movement may do things like create anonymous “sock puppet” accounts on social media, not to do harm but to be able to engage with other folks without worrying that it will lose them their income. They regularly reach out to other anti-violence and harm reduction professionals secretly because even association can bring consequences.
Alisha says, “The bullying in this movement is out of control. I'm a survivor of human trafficking, and just because I've also done consensual sex work and know there's a difference I've been called the "Pimp Lobby!"”
The other three survivors have similar experiences. Talia says she’s been told she’s not a real survivor. Nolan says he’s been told his voice doesn’t count. Sam says hes been told he must be a buyer instead of a survivor.
P.S. “Pimp lobby,” “not a real survivor,” “you must be a buyer not a survivor,” “why are you protecting the rights of buyers and traffickers” in response to someone advocating for safety of people trading sex, and “your voice doesn’t count because you lack X marginalization” are all smoke and mirrors misdirections, red flags for bullying, and a sign that you’re not working with a survivor leader who leaves room for genuine dialogue.
Talia is upset. She says, “At this point, I'm not surprised when "advocates" and spokespeople do this to us. But it stings in a different way when it's other survivors doing the attacking.”
Alisha replies, “I get it, though. I used to be friends with this other survivor until she started speaking more and more. And then because she needed the stable income, her story started changing more and more the more well-known she became.”
Alisha continues: “She knew she was dependent on these organizations to keep bringing her to the table and paying her to tell her stories, so she told the story she knew would keep getting her gigs, even though it made her uncomfortable, and even though she didn't agree with many of the organizations' practices.”
This dynamic is exacerbated when survivors build their incomes on telling their stories, or when they create their own survivor empowerment initiatives that rely on their brand. It is also exacerbated when newer survivor leaders who have been mentored by powerful survivor leaders feel loyalty and are afraid to question someone who they know believed in them when they were struggling.
Nolan responds: “I can see how that would be hard. And I can also see how that would make other survivors who aren't telling the "right" story a threat!”
Talia reminds the group how it reflects greater challenges with how people think about oppression and freedom. “Also, I think there's an element of that twisted logic where anyone who won't let you advocate for harm to others is oppressing you. "Why won't you let me spread myths about people like you or promote messaging and policies that oppress you? That's a personal attack on my freedom and voice!"”
Being asked not to abuse others is not itself abuse. Check out DARVO for more information on this.
Sam, frustrated, adds: “Honestly, the system is set up this way. Sometimes I feel like survivor leadership is fetishized in a way that promotes this kind of in-group violence, which is why survivor-only dialogue spaces are so important. And why having ground rules for dialogue between people with different perspectives is essential.”
Alisha agrees, but remains unconvinced that things can change. “But do you think that will ever really happen as long as these well-funded organizations keep pitting us against each other, like powerful folks throwing their gladiators in the ring, or unethical people betting on their own dogs in a fight when they've raised us to be scared of each other, of ourselves?”
Sam adds, “Or as long as survivors themselves are willing to throw other survivors under the bus to preserve their position and power?”
Talia shares her wisdom: “All I know is that this system is not sustainable. This nonsense won't end trafficking.” Nolan agrees: “It just hurts survivors more, and honestly we deserve better.”

If you are a survivor of human trafficking looking for a workbook to reflect on your role in this movement, check out The 6 C’s of Becoming an Advocate.

And if you’re someone who has experienced force, fraud, or coercion in any form of labor (including the sex trades), or someone who began trading sex as a minor, your voice is just as valid as any other survivor. Don’t think you fit in? You’re not alone. We need your voice. Those of us who get it will have your back.

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