From Rescue to Rights: Framing the Problem of Human Trafficking

June 7, 2016

Communication shapes how we view and experience our world. Activists engaged in the fight against human trafficking learned early that how we talk about the problem of human trafficking shapes the ways in which we are motivated to act. For example, for many years, minors who were forced, duped, or influenced to engage in commercial sex were dubbed “child prostitutes” and arrested as criminals, even though in non-commercial contexts, sex with a minor is statutory rape—something for which the adult participant would be held criminally responsible. As experts pressured legislators and law enforcement officers to change the law, they realized that linguistic change was also needed and began referring to minors involved in commercial sex as the victims of commercial sex exploitation. This framing underscores the inherently exploitative nature of commercial sex and places the onus of responsibility on those who are perpetuating and/or profiting from the activity.

The issue of framing is an important one and does not only apply to the terms we use for victims, survivors, perpetrators, and profiteers. Scholars have identified two common frames employed by experts, politicians, law enforcement personnel, and citizens: the “neo-abolitionist” framework and the “human rights” framework.

Neo-Abolitionist Perspective

The primary difference between historical slavery and contemporary human trafficking is that, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, slavery was legally and socially sanctioned in much of the United States and in many European countries. The original abolition movement focused on 1) eradicating the transatlantic slave trade, 2) overturning laws that made chattel slavery legal, and 3) emancipating those held in slavery. For much of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, citizens of Western democracies considered slavery to have been successfully abolished and credited themselves with its abolition. The prevailing view held that modern slavery existed only in underdeveloped, non-Western societies. This perspective obscured the structural exploitation that persisted after legal slavery was abolished. It also turned a blind eye to the deleterious effects globalization had wrought on workers worldwide, and to the ways in which vulnerable populations were exploited for labor and sex in wealthy democracies.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, a transatlantic sex trade emerged, with young women and girls from eastern European countries trafficked by organized crime to customers residing in wealthy western European and North American countries. A coalition of women’s rights and faith-based activists formed and called on the world to eradicate slavery once more.

Rescue to Rights web

The neo-abolitionist framework presents human trafficking as “modern-day slavery”—a crime that wealthy governments and law enforcement agencies can prosecute and eradicate. Neo-abolitionism also posits that people with economic and political privilege are duty-bound to rescue those being victimized by traffickers.

Human Rights Perspective

The human rights perspective asserts that labor and sexual exploitation is a systemic problem—an outgrowth of poverty, misogyny, globalization, and technological change. Those operating from this perspective assert that policy responses to the problem of trafficking must correct systemic injustices in ways that respect the dignity and autonomy of individuals.

Advocates of the human rights perspective prioritize social, political, and economic transformations that recognize individual rights and promote personal autonomy and agency. This perspective also acknowledges that people vulnerable to being trafficked are sometimes responding rationally to very limited and equally undesirable choices. Minors trafficked into sex work in exchange for housing, for example, may have been driven to the streets by abuse at home. Undocumented workers in the United States may accept exploitative employment if non-exploitative employment is unavailable both in the United States and in their country of origin. Removing people from their immediate trafficking situations without addressing the sources of their vulnerability to traffickers does nothing to solve the problem of human trafficking in the long term. Finally, the human rights framework also presents labor and sex trafficking as equally significant, and sometimes deeply connected, forms of exploitation.

Removing people from their immediate trafficking situations without addressing the sources of… Click To Tweet

Not Mutually Exclusive

Distinguishing between the neo-abolitionist and human rights perspectives is not meant to suggest that “modern-day abolitionists” are unconcerned with human rights. Historically and contemporarily, abolitionists have been passionately committed to the rights and welfare of those they are seeking to help, and much good has come out of their efforts. What the distinction is meant to illuminate, however, is a difference of emphasis regarding the nature, cause(s), and scope of human trafficking and the sometimes divergent solutions that are proposed as a result of this difference in perspective.


How we frame the problem of human trafficking impacts how we respond to it as individuals and as a society. If we think of human trafficking primarily as a law enforcement problem, we will prioritize responses that prosecute perpetrators, control borders, and ensure that employers comply with labor laws. Enforcing the law is a laudable goal, but if responses to human trafficking fail to take a victim- centered approach, individuals may be doubly violated by being forced to testify against their traffickers against their will, or being returned to the desperate and dangerous situations that made them vulnerable to trafficking in the first place.

When human trafficking is understood as a global human rights issue, the responsibility for its eradication is shared. Individuals are responsible not only for upholding anti-trafficking laws; they also are encouraged to reflect on how consumer choices, attitudes about sex and gender, poverty and income disparity, and changes in the labor market make people vulnerable to being trafficked.

Moreover, since human rights are those rights accorded to all individuals regardless of their citizenship status, a human rights approach does not privilege the rights of citizens over those of non-citizens.

Finally, the language we use to frame the issue of human trafficking affects our understanding of victims/survivors. Viewing trafficked individuals as people in need of “rescue” by those with political, economic, or gender privilege obscures the fact that what trafficked individuals need in the long term is the ability to have control over their own lives. Moving from rescue to rights means fostering political and economic systems that promote the autonomy and dignity of all human beings.

Moving from rescue to rights means fostering political and economic systems that promote the… Click To Tweet

AndersonKarrin Vasby Anderson, PhD (@KVAnderson) is Professor of Communication Studies at Colorado State University. This post was adapted from her article, “Hillary Rodham Clinton, ‘Remarks on the Release of the 10 th Annual Trafficking in Persons Report’ (14 June 2010).” Voices of Democracy 10 (2015): 1-19. The full article may be found online at Anderson-Clinton.pdf .

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