How well-meaning efforts can be harmful to survivors of trauma


Written by Holly Austin Smith, author of Walking Prey.

PHILADELPHIA, April 21, 2014 — Human trafficking is one of those issues that cuts deep into the hearts of men and women across the globe, and many have vowed to take a stand against it.  As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I continue to be moved by the passion of advocates to prevent trafficking of persons and to protect victims.  Many advocates have volunteered their time, money, skills, and resources toward awareness events, educational projects, and fundraising efforts for service providers and other organizations; and I am deeply grateful for their sacrifices. However, those taking on roles of advocates must understand that survivors of trafficking and other forms of exploitation are under no obligation to do the same.

Just because a man, woman, or child has survived human trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation does not mean that this person is obligated to share that experience or sacrifice his/her time, money, expertise, or resources for the sake of raising awareness, educating or training professionals, or for any other reason even if that event or project is funded and carried out by unpaid volunteers.  Volunteers have been given the choice and opportunity to participate without pay, and survivors should be offered the same.

When a survivor is asked to share his/her story on camera or before a live audience, this person is recounting and thereby reliving that trauma again and again.  Therefore, a survivor is sacrificing not only his/her time, travel expenses, and work loss, but also he/she is potentially sacrificing his/her physical, emotional, and/or mental health.  When organizing an event or project and inviting survivors to share their stories, the organizer must, at a minimum, offer a survivor speaker/participant compensation for his/her travel expenses (and work loss, if requested); this can at least ease the difficulty of sharing such an experience.  Travel expenses include lodging, airfare, train tickets, bus passes, taxis, shuttles, parking fees, tips, car mileage, tolls, baggage fees, food, and any other fee associated with the effort to attend or participate in that event.

I must also stress to event organizers and project coordinators that survivors have more to share than just their stories; they have insight, expertise, and perspectives on the issue that need and deserve to be heard.  A survivor speaker/participant should never, ever, be pressured into telling his/her story; neither should the survivor ever be bullied into sharing more of his/her story or expertise than he/she is comfortable.  If the event organizer is paying that survivor speaker/participant for their time and expertise, then the level of participation should be negotiated according to that survivor speaker’s consulting fees and written into a contract.  This payment should not include those fees associated with travel expenses; again, travel expenses should be a mandatory minimum requirement for survivor participation.

Survivors often volunteer their time and resources in various ways to help the anti-trafficking cause as well as other causes that may not evoke as much physical, mental, and/or emotional pain or drain on them.  Nobody has the right to determine whether or not a survivor has done or is doing enough for the cause; and anyone who passes such judgment on a survivor is part of the problem.  If an advocate cannot afford to pay for a survivor’s travel expenses and work loss, then that advocate should seek other ways to bring awareness to the issue without a survivor’s story or participation.  If an advocate is seeking participation from a survivor speaker who requires consultation fees and that advocate cannot afford those fees, then that advocate should raise the money or find another way to bring survivor insight or expertise into the project.  There are books written by survivors, articles, and interviews online by survivors; survivor experts have often already sacrificed their time and resources to write down their ideas in an effort to further the anti-trafficking cause.  Advocates must be resourceful and creative in their anti-trafficking efforts.  Never, ever, bully or pressure or attempt to guilt a survivor into anything.  This is exploitation; this is exactly what we are trying to abolish.

I bring this up because, after years of working with compassionate and sensitive advocates, I have had a few limited but negative experiences in this regard.  Survivors must understand that they are not obligated to share their stories with anyone for any reason, and advocates must stand up for the rights of everyone, including survivors, even if it compromises their own anti-trafficking efforts.  Exploitation for the sake of preventing exploitation is not helpful to anyone.  Any contracts between survivor speakers and advocates should include clauses for those cases in which a survivor cannot or will not move forward with a project or event.

When it comes to collaborative projects in the state or community and any legislative efforts toward prevention of trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation and protection of victims through various services, I constantly advocate that survivors must be invited to the table – not to share their stories, but to share their perspectives and expertise for the benefit of greater society.  Without survivors, there is a very important piece of expertise missing from the conversation.  With that being said, it is often the case that survivors are employed outside this field of work and are therefore taking time unpaid from work to participate.  Survivors deserve to be paid for this time.

If the overseeing organization(s) is unable to pay survivor experts, then they should brainstorm ways in which to raise the funds.  Many community members, organizations, and agencies are willing to donate money toward anti-trafficking efforts; one way in which these funds can be used is to pay survivor experts for their participation in community, collaborative, and legislative efforts.  Again, just because a person has survived an experience of human trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation does not mean that this person is obligated to work without pay.  Be sure that, when working with survivors of any type of trauma or crime, that this relationship is collaborative, compassionate, and professional –not coercive or exploitative.