When we talk about human trafficking, the word re-exploitation sometimes comes up. In a multi-part series over the course of February and March, I am going to cover what it is, what it looks like, why it happens, how to spot when it is potentially occurring, and -- most importantly -- how to avoid it. For now, I just want to start a conversation that includes the ethics of my position as a survivor leader with The Wild Hope and, simultaneously, give you some guidance on what it means to consume ethical media during Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
At its core, re-exploitation is a practice that happens most often when organizations or news agencies are not acting with intentionality in regards to having survivors share their histories. Often, well-intentioned organizations are looking for an emotional hook to attract interest, trying to bring in donors or viewers, even give survivors a voice, ... and at the same time are unintentionally exploiting the same survivors they try to serve. Re-exploitation most often looks like an organization asking a survivor to share their traumatic history in public, not for the benefit of the survivor-- but for the benefit of the organization. In truth, I believe that so many of these organizations are well intentioned, and they likely have no idea that what they are doing can be harmful.
What does this look like in practice? Primarily, re-exploitative content is engendered to be shocking, to be alarming, and to be provocative so that it generates the most interest possible. It’s an unethical way of pushing someone to share their trauma in a public sphere, often linked to their real identity, far before they are ready and with very little consideration given to the survivor’s physical and mental well-being before, during, and after. I want you to keep this in mind as you view various types of content relating to Human Trafficking Awareness Month throughout January.
During February and March, I will do a much deeper dive into many of the topics relating to re-exploitation, but first I would like to give an overview of what has been happening behind the scenes as I have transitioned into a survivor leader role with the help of The Wild Hope. Firstly, I want to say that I am not being re-exploited-- my words here are my own, at all times I am in full control of what is published under my name, and I decide what is or is not shared. We will cover why each of the pieces I’m mentioning here are so important later, but for now I want to describe the process of having this happen in a safe and supported way.
There are some incredibly vital differences between what I am doing with The Wild Hope and accidental re-exploitation. I am at a point in my life where I have been out of trafficking for eight years, and through collaboration with third parties (who have no relation to The Wild Hope), we have all come to the conclusion that I am in a place where I can safely share in a way that is healthy for me. My life is very stable right now, and I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor Associate. I have been actively involved in my own healing for quite some time, and I am many years free from self-destructive patterns of behavior. I will also state, categorically, The Wild Hope has never asked for anything from me-- everything that is happening here has been at my suggestion (and prodding!! if we’re being totally blunt,) with the Founder, Vanessa Schmidt, continually asking every single step of the way whether or not I am sure.
I’ve been encouraged to talk about each suggestion I’ve made for ways I can be involved and deliberate each step with every other support in my life. We have discussed the long-term ramifications of being in the public eye as a survivor, both personally and professionally. We have both set boundaries that we mutually respect for what I am going to share. I may disclose small anecdotes from my life, but The Wild Hope has never and will never ask me to publicly discuss traumas I’ve endured in trafficking--- and this isn’t even a boundary that I had to set. The Wild Hope insisted on it before I could even get through a full sentence that included the words “I want to have a more public presence with--”
For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure to meet Vanessa in person, let me tell you -- there is no single person I have ever met that has been more protective of the survivors she knows, even those who are not involved with TWH. Her deep and abiding concern over never accidentally engaging in re-exploitation-- even just the hours we’ve spent talking about how to do this ethically-- are what has prompted me to put together an entire series detailing all of the aspects of avoiding re-exploitation that I can think of. From a personal perspective, I will say that I have seen what happens when organizations do not act with the deep intention of putting survivor care first, and what I have experienced with The Wild Hope could not be further from that.
Thank you for reading and I am looking forward to sharing more with you over the upcoming months about the topic of re-exploitation.
Sarah Hall is an emerging leader in the field of human trafficking and began consulting with The Wild Hope in 2020. As a trafficking survivor herself, Sarah is passionate about equipping anti-trafficking organizations to provide quality care and develop best practices through consulting, writing, and training. Sarah’s degrees include an M.A. in Professional Counseling, a B.Sc. in Mathematics, a B.A. in Anthropology, and a B.A. in Government. She is currently a Licensed Professional Counselor Associate in the State of Texas. In her spare time, Sarah is an avid reader, a compassionate animal enthusiast, and a food science devotee.