Rethinking “Modern Day Slavery”

December 5, 2020

Rethinking “Modern Day Slavery” - Don’t Disregard the Role of Race & Racism in the Anti-Human Trafficking Movement


In 2019, an anti-human trafficking advocate spoke at a livestreamed hearing. After describing some of her outreach work, she produced a pair of sparkly platform shoes with a stiletto heel. She told a story about a woman she had reached out to online, and how that woman gave her those shoes after exiting the sex trades, telling her “these are the former shackles of former slavery.” Holding the shoes up, the woman repeated, “these are shackles,” before giving one final, teary plea as her voice shook.

Immediately, social media erupted with commentary. Some anti-trafficking advocates found her words to be powerful and the story to be moving. Other advocates found the image of a white woman whose ancestors did not experience chattel slavery in the United States invoking the memory of chattel slavery as a rhetorical device to be exploitative. Conversations on one side emphasized the listener’s feelings of empathy at hearing such a touching story; conversations on the other side emphasized the woman’s lack of racial sensitivity. In both cases, conversations focused on the spectacle and sensationalism, and decentered the actual needs and lived experiences of survivors of human trafficking and other people in the sex trades.

Human trafficking includes a broad range of activities. It can include one person manipulated into commercial sex for a few hours through threats of outing as LGBTQ, or another person enduring years of constant physical violence to keep them in a frightening situation. While all forms of slavery fit the definition of human trafficking, not all forms of human trafficking fit the definition of slavery, and certainly not in the historical context of chattel slavery in the United States. Chattel slavery was generational and race-based, with sexual violence strategically used to denigrate enslaved people while growing the unpaid labor force. Chattel slavery was state-sanctioned and legal, with enslaved humans offered to banks as collateral on loans and repossessed if slave holders went into default.

For people whose ancestors experienced chattel slavery, whose families still bear disproportionate access to safety and empathy, who worry about their children being attacked for being children, conflation of human trafficking with slavery may feel dismissive. When this conflation is done by people whose ancestors did not experience that harm, or in the absence of a strong commitment to racial justice, it may feel like an attempt to rewrite or ignore history.

Human trafficking is horrific. This is not in question. Recruiting or holding someone in labor through force, fraud, or coercion is an unthinkable violation of human rights and source of trauma. And… we can convey that message through clear language that doesn’t dismiss the concerns some African American anti-trafficking advocates have with calling it “slavery.”

At NCCASA, we have avoided using the language of slavery to describe human trafficking. Our staff have written on the differences between human trafficking the chattel slavery in articles for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and in our Human Trafficking Prevention Toolkit. Last year, less than a month after the shoes-as-shackles debate wound its way through Twitter, our Associate Director and Prevention Education Program Manager presented a session on “Human Trafficking in the Historical Context of US Slavery” at the SAFE Coalition for Human Rights Global Conference on Human Trafficking near Chicago. Many of the people doing anti-trafficking work in the US were grateful for the dialogue. One woman had clearly never considered this distinction, and seemed bothered. “How was slavery just about Black people?” she asked. “What about what happened to the Irish? My ancestors were slaves, too. It’s the same thing. The Irish were slaves too!”

It’s not the same.

But the kind of debt bondage experienced by Irish and other immigrant populations is similar to the experiences of many modern-day victims of human trafficking.

And if the “Irish slaves” debt bondage narrative has been used historically to minimize the horrors of slavery for racist purposes (in ways that current Irish-American descendants might not even realize), then an inclusive human trafficking movement will strive not to replicate that error of conflation.

We can fight human trafficking without co-opting the language of slavery. “Modern day slavery,” “abolition,” and “sex slave” have no place in our common language to refer uncritically to trafficking experiences. Using “shackles” as a metaphor obscures a harsh history that included actual shackles, physical torture, and state-sanctioned abuse, and ignores the complicated racial history of the anti-human trafficking movement itself.

Recommendations for agencies engaging in anti-human trafficking outreach, awareness, and prevention include:

  • Be thoughtful about your language. A little extra time to proofread your content for words that suggest chattel slavery can help your message be more inclusive.
  • Words you might want to avoid include: abolition, abolitionist, slavery, modern-day slavery, underground railroad, shackles, captivity, and sex slave. Words that might be used exploitatively depending on the context include: liberation, freedom, and rescue.
  • Avoiding sensationalized or hypersexualized imagery is always a good idea in anti-trafficking work. Avoiding imagery that invokes comparisons to chattel slavery (chains, shackles, etc.) may also lead to a more inclusive message.
  • Check out The Irina Project for information about representations of human trafficking in our language and imagery.

See the companion blog post to this one here: Human Trafficking, Chattel Slavery, and Structural Racism: What Journalists Need to Know

For more information about NCCASA’s extensive work on human trafficking or to request technical assistance in developing your Human Trafficking Awareness Month campaigns, contact NCCASA’s Anti-Human Trafficking Specialist, Courtney Dunkerton.