The Sound of Freedom and Antitrafficking Pop Culture
By now conversation about the film Sound of Freedom, the “movie of the moment,” that loosely depicts the leader of an antitrafficking organization that sponsors extraction type military operations to rescue trafficked children in foreign lands, has probably reached your neighborhood chit chat and social media networks.
My concern about this film is twofold: One: media with sensational representations of human trafficking diverts attention and resources from organizations and initiatives that provide intervention where trafficking is occurring, and Two: that trafficked survivors who are not represented in such films remain invisible and unhelped.
It is right and good to demand justice for innocent children who are sexualized and sold to turn a profit. It ought to grieve and move us to action. That there are victims and perpetrators of child sex trafficking is lamentable and should draw out all natural feelings of anguish and anger. But if we are moved to action, what action? If we do not possess accurate and reliable information about the problem, any solutions will be misguided as well, especially when they are founded on the shifting sands of Americanized hero worship.
Antitrafficking experts and others have heavily critiqued Sound of Freedom for its documentary-style genre that exaggerates the moral superiority of a man who fabricates accounts of overseas rescues of children. Some of these operations have put children at further risk and further commercializes children by including pay to play donors that get to take part in the adrenaline pumping extraction operations:
“People who participated in and witnessed OUR (Operation Underground Railroad) operations overseas recounted blundering missions—carried out in part by real estate agents and high-level donors—that seemed aimed mainly at generating exciting video footage and that, in their view, potentially created demand for trafficking victims….Meanwhile, OUR’s overseas operations, and the “jump team” it says conducts them, are the jewel in its crown: the subject of innumerable fundraising emails, interviews with Ballard, two documentaries, and Sound of Freedom…” —Inside a Massive Anti-Trafficking Charity’s Blundering Overseas Missions
The film romanticizes and memorializes what seems to be a money making and proselytizing enterprise of one man who benefits from a very loyal following of white suburban women. The film is marketed as a game changer, but it offers no real solutions besides financing the organization.
While there is documented evidence of children trafficked outside of the US borders, there is plenty of evidence that child trafficking exists here as well. The victims of these crimes cut across every demographic, but most at risk for experiencing trafficking are those living in on the margins of society’s care and concern: black, brown and indigenous communities, gender minorities and those living with developmental and intellectual disabilities. These children are not honestly represented in the popular stories we hear and share about human trafficking.
Films that play on our emotions without offering any real solutions lead us in circles:Anger unfortunately leads to scapegoating political sides and ideologies. Moral panic and outrage can urge us to just do something even when that “something” is performative or helpful to no one. Calls to “get involved” sometimes means donating to causes and campaigns with no proven transparency or track record for helping trafficked victims. And it leaves us vulnerable to those who take advantage of our empathy and sense of justice.
These films also take our money. If one man can rescue all these kids, then we need to keep him in business. If one man is moved by child trafficking in such a way that he risks everything to save them, then we need to keep up the donations. We cannot call feeding a superego antitrafficking work! Everyday families and advocates and churches and communities take care of those who have suffered abuse. They also agonize. They also give up and risk and wear themselves out with no applause, no big paycheck, and no celebrity status. Survivors are asked to show up at conferences, interviews, and retell their trauma for free so that antitrafficking organizations can fundraise and build their careers from exploiting the very people they claim to care about. We should no longer call this antitrafficking work.
What shall we call it?
ANTITRAFFICKING POP CULTURE
Pop culture is a thing or idea with broad appeal and mass produced. Pop culture is mass produced, consumable, commodified and easy to digest. It is an important place for generational “markers” and art forms, but it can’t carry topics that require complexity and nuance. Antitrafficking pop culture is what happens when we use a popular idea like stranger danger, or the superhero rescue genre and mass produce it via social media or the entertainment industry.
Antitrafficking pop culture includes generalized narratives about child trafficking with a general acceptance and predictable impact: mile wide and inch deep. You have all probably heard some version of a mom who was convinced someone almost trafficked her child in Target and how Wayfair secretly sells children via coded product names. It would be funny if people didn’t clog up crisis lines in a mass panic.
We need to be honest about the reality that Antitrafficking pop culture is harmful to survivors and creates barriers to those trying to help. The following are some of these examples:
- Misinformation that is harmful and exploitative. We in the field sometimes call these “myths” or even “misinformation” when the narratives are intentionally misleading to further a cause. Human trafficking stories can be manipulated to further a cause or ideology. This is one of the reasons the moral panic around human trafficking has been fertile ground for groups like Q-Anon and white supremacist organizations.
- Confirmation Bias. Popular narratives perpetuate the “perfect victim” myth that doesn’t challenge strongly held biases not rooted in evidence. It doesn’t tell the whole truth, only the truth we want to see.
- It platforms unexamined sentimental feel good stories with just enough drama, danger and daring for audience consumption. And boy, do we love a hero—not just any hero, but the one who stands out, above and alone: muscled, masculine and American on a backdrop of military might reminiscent of the “good old days” when we were the good guys fighting the bad guys on foreign soil. And what is more morally superior than rescuing children who have been snatched and violated in all the worst ways?
- It Lets Us Off the Hook. There is something that pleases the dominant culture’s sense of equilibrium that the violence is “over there” and “we” are the heroes. Even though we are frustrated at not being able to kick traffickers in the face at least we can fund a superhero to do it for us.
- It reduces a complex human rights issue to soundbites and talking points (see below). It shouldn’t be difficult to understand that the reality of human trafficking is vastly more nuanced and expansive than what is represented in mass media.
Here are some examples of real-life stories that antitrafficking pop culture cannot carry:
- The incarcerated woman who says her mother was her first trafficker.
- Kids who are kicked out of their homes who depend on trading sex to meet their daily needs.
- The foster parent who “homeschools” their children and makes them work 18-hour days.
- The hometown hero who creates and trades sexual images of local boys
- The minister who grooms minors at his inner-city ministry and pays them with alcohol and weed to have sex.
These children are here in our midst: in our classroom, youth clubs, and Sunday schools along with many other children who are victims of sexual and physical violence, existing in isolation. Would we recognize them? Is anyone trying to rescue them? There are the ones that the message of Sound of Freedom cannot reach.
I conclude with some words of wisdom from the folks at My Life My Choice who want to set the story straight:
“Some may believe that any dialogue about human trafficking raises awareness and builds the movement, and therefore “Sound of Freedom” has an important role to play. We disagree. This film takes attention and investment away from the true work of supporting survivors and shifting the circumstances that makes CSEC possible.”
The good news is there ARE reliable sources that accurately reflect the problem and provide evidence and survivor informed solutions. The things that move us to respond and prevent violence against children won’t be found in popular culture, but it is found in trusted individuals and organizations not in it to make a name for themselves. They are the heroes nobody knows about except the children they help. And for many, that is enough.
- 2023 Trafficking in Persons Report – United States Department of State
- Executive Summary | Human Trafficking Institute
- Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program | Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
- National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
- National Children’s Advocacy Center
- National Runaway Safeline
- National Survivor Network
- The Trevor Project
- Take Action Against Trafficking of Black Girls | Youth Collaboratory
- Love146 – 10 Facts about Child Trafficking
- strongheartshelpline.org : Deconstructing the Myths About Victims
Antitrafficking Pop Culture Talking Points with Responses
- It can literally happen to anyone.
- While this is true it is also true that some people and groups experience greater risk for being trafficked.
- The border crisis is creating more victims of human trafficking.
- Anything that creates greater vulnerability for exploitation of any kind is a “driver “of human trafficking.
- These stories may be exaggerated but at least they are getting the word out.
- Misinformation must be replaced with reliable information which does not always happen.
- It’s the fault of (insert political party or politician).
- Victims and perpetrators of trafficking are not aligned with one political party. Bad policies that result in more poverty, unemployment, food and housing insecurity and less access to health care are contributors to human trafficking.
- We need to teach our children to keep themselves safe from traffickers.
- Adults are responsible for keeping children safe.
- We need to do something!
- YES! And learn from survivors/those in the field what the “somethings” are.
Thanks for reading!
Human Trafficking Program Coordinator, NCCASA