Why anti-sex trafficking campaigns need a makeover

[This essay is also posted on Medium and it was originally submitted as an assignment for the course Communication, Culture and Media Analysis of the Master of Communication for Development of Malmö University. Feel free to clap!]

This essay will focus on the international art project A Penny for Your Thoughts. We will start by contextualizing this project within the area of anti-trafficking communication and we will then explore the potential of A Penny for Your Thoughts for social change.

The problem of traditional anti-trafficking campaigns

A picture of a traditional anti-trafficking campaign by the NGO Unchained Love. Notice the rope around her neck and the barcode stamped on her forehead. The model is beautiful and is wearing make-up. We understand this woman had been sold and is trapped somehow, but what exactly we are supposed to take from this in unclear.

Traditional campaigns by anti-trafficking NGOs and projects regarding trafficking for sexual exploitation usually rely on stereotypical images of women-as-victims, as such, people tend to picture sex trafficking victims as women chained to bedposts in their underwear.

The imagery is sensationalist to the extreme, causing trafficking to become “a battle between good and evil, monstrosity and innocence, replete with heavy-handed imagery of chains, ropes, and cuffs to signify enslavement and descriptors such as nefarious, wicked, villainous, and iniquitous” (Smith and Mac, 2018). It creates a false dichotomy between supposedly “real” and “fake” victims, associating stereotypical pictures of innocence with trafficking victims. These campaigns do not accurately reflect the experiences of trafficked women and instead rely on the shock value of seeing (usually) sexualized white innocent looking young women in chains, thereby preventing non-stereotypical victims from coming forward and being provided with support. It is also ineffective, because once the general population is aware of the real experiences of trafficking victims (that some victims can move somewhat freely, can keep some of their earnings and, in fact, were often aware that they were crossing borders to be in prostitution) they are no longer considered to be victims, but willing participants.

This is not a surprising sentiment, considering how the media often glamorizes the sex trade, ignoring the structural inequality between men and women that allows it to thrive. The media sensationalizes the empowerment of women through sexual objectification and thus imposes a kind of “symbolic violence” that legitimizes the unequal power relations between women and men. These unequal power relations are the ones determining who is being bought and who is buying, and they manifest in the sex trade as “a means of reproducing gendered hierarchies, of reinforcing gender orders that privilege men and masculinity, and casting women as less than human, without coercion or physical force” (Coy, Wakeling and Garner, 2011).

Most organizations — especially those lacking a feminist perspective — opt for the easy way out and create materials that do not challenge those gendered hierarchies and instead feature “abject victims, trafficked into hopeless sexual slavery, in need of rescue and the 21st century version of Victorian uplift rehabilitation” (Cornwall, 2016), playing into gendered stereotypes of “fallen women” in need of aid. However, as Cornwall indicated, the few organizations offering a different narrative are those of sex workers’ rights. These organizations also do not reflect the stand or advocate for policies many survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation defend. In addition, because self-described sex workers are more willing to speak in public, they tend to overshadow survivors of sex trafficking, sexual exploitation and prostitution with opposing views, such as the survivors who founded SPACE International or Kwanele (South Africa).

Although in communication and media “it is often assumed that inclusive community participation will result in consensus over what to do” (Martin, 2014), the opposing views of self-described sex workers or self-described survivors of the sex trade offer differing power structures and definitions of what constitutes the “oppressors” and the “oppressed”, and those differences extend to what constitutes a trafficker and a trafficking victim.

Therefore, campaigners and advocacy groups combating sex trafficking face a double challenge when portraying the victims of this human rights abuse: on one hand, they cannot rely on victimhood stereotypes that deny women their agency and perpetuate an ineffective “rescue industry”. On the other hand, they cannot glamorize the sex trade through the mainstream sex workers’ rights narrative, which is criticized by many survivors’ advocacy groups and whose categorization of what is and is not trafficking is not always in accordance with international human rights law[1].

A stock image used by dozens of news sites for articles about sex trafficking. Notice how the young, white girl remains at the center. She seems innocent and unwilling, but she lacks any kind of agency. The presence of a third party is only hinted at by an anonymous hand.

Given the difficulties in adequately portraying the victims, the real question we should be asking is: why should the victims of sex trafficking always be the only ones portrayed? Who are the other actors involved in sex trafficking and how are they portrayed? Traffickers, for example, are only used as a boggey man thatis often only personified by a hand or a shadow. The vast majority of anti-trafficking campaigns fail to present trafficking as the organized commercial system that it is and completely ignore the fact that these women are not only being sold, but they are being bought. As illustrated by the Scelles Foundation:

“The customer, one of the pillars of the system, goes unmentioned nine times out of ten: he is the link in the chain which up until now has been ignored. Is this not the expression of a collective subconscious which refuses to allocate a significant share of the responsibility to the ‘consumer’ for whom the market is actually organized?” (Scelles Foundation, 2004).

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Whether discussing prostitution, sex trafficking or sex work, the target audience remains unchanged — sex buyers, most of which are male. The men driving the demand for women selling sex (regardless of the circumstances) are the consumers and, in a patriarchal capitalist system ruled by supply and demand, (male) consumers dictate how much of the product is needed. If there is a strong market for women selling sex, do sex entrepreneurs (the ones who own the brothels, the apartments, the bars and the clubs) have any kind of incentive to hire only willing and “legal” (in both age and migration status) women to sell sex? Is there such a thing as a strong market for “ethical sex buyers”, as there is for sustainable fashion or organic food?

The originality of A Penny for Your Thoughts, an international art project created by Dutch artist Marian van der Zwaan, is precisely the focus on the buyer, the consumer, as a key protagonist in sex trafficking, exposing the myth of the “ethical sex buyer” that can help to prevent trafficking. A Penny for Your Thoughts engaged the general public and used their “thoughts” as the concept for the project, revealing “the genuine interaction of people who are looking for a prostitute and finding out the girl they want to speak with was abused and trafficked” (A Penny For Your Thoughts). The artist developed the project along with the Samilia Foundation, and with field partners from the six cities in which the project was implemented.

Posters featuring the sexualized silhouettes of women were placed in several public spaces in those six European cities, along with a phone number. These silhouettes were not real depictions of trafficked women, nor were they made up — instead, they were the silhouette of the body of the artist herself.

Still images of the project video. The first one is showing the posters and the second one is a summary of all the calls that were received in the six cities and the duration of the project.

When people called the number on the posters, they would hear the story of a trafficking victim. They could then leave their own voice mails. As such, the public was automatically a part of the project once they called the phone number. After the silhouettes were on display in the European cities, a short film was produced featuring some of the victim’s stories and the real voicemails left by the public.

Most of the victims describe stories of horror, involving kidnapping, slavery and violence, and they call out the traffickers for their actions, warning the public about the existence of more women in the same situation: “Do not help traffickers get rich by selling women as commodities.” pleaded “Anca” in Bucharest; “My name is Marilyn and there are many more Marilyns out there who are sold and raped on a daily basis” warned “Marilyn”, in Lisbon.

The stories were narrated by the survivors themselves, except in two cases: in Dublin, an actress was hired to read a fictional story; in Paris, people calling would not hear someone speaking on the first person, but rather someone recounting the real story of ”Stella”, a young girl who was found murdered in Paris, probably by a sex buyer or a pimp. Like Stella, most of these women are migrants and their origin is clear in the video. Although this reflects the general trends of sex trafficking in Europe — most are women (93%) and most are migrants (78%) (European Commission, 2018) — it downplays the domestic dimension of human trafficking and the existence of male victims. This illustrates the difficulties in accurately portraying the diversity of sex trafficking victims and their experiences.

The kind of voice mails left by callers mirror the various reactions of the public when confronted with sex trafficking victims. From those who do not consider it any kind of abuse, given the financial incentive (“There are people who work 8 hours a day to gain 50€ while you on 15 minutes get paid 45€, isn’t it?”) to people who remained interested in the “product” despite knowing the woman being advertised was a trafficking victim (“Yes hello you slut, I am interested in your services”), people who wanted to know how to help (“What can we do for all the Tatianas that exist in this world?”) and, finally, people who had gone through the same experiences (“My name is Amber and I have also been in prostitution”).

The sexualized silhouettes also play with the preconceptions of women in the sex industry that are usually held by the public and buyers. The high heels, the lingerie, the provocative poses: all of these details are usually associated with female sexual availability and the supposed look of women in prostitution. And yet, those signifiers often conceal the lack of choice, the lack of consent and the lack of desire. They transform the woman into an object, with the underlying assumption that the subject looking at her is a potential sex buyer. Any woman could be transformed into such an object, just as the artist transformed herself into six different “call girls” using only silhouettes of her own body and those signifiers.

The initial expectations of the callers — of talking to a willing woman in prostitution — are shattered by the testimonies of the survivors, which are suddenly transformed from objects to subjects, people who have feelings, a history and background. A Penny For Your Thoughts allows for the survivors to remain unseen, portraying the anonymity of sex trafficking victims, people without a face or a last name, and who can disappear without a trace, while humanizing them at the same time.

Many recordings did not make it to the final video, but even that short selection features outrageous statements, that ignore the experiences of the women and focus exclusively on the sexual gratification of buyers. By highlighting this dimension of sex trafficking that is almost never discussed, A Penny For Your Thoughts effectively challenges the gendered hierarchies of the sex trade, in which the “consumers” are considered a fatality and not sex buyers with agency, who choose to buy sex from women that may or may not be trafficked.

Although A Penny For Your Thoughts managed to avoid many stereotypes of “victimhood” and “rescue industry” associated with anti-trafficking campaigns — but not all — the ground-breaking characteristic of the project was its focus on the buyers and on society’s perceptions of trafficking victims. On the one hand, the project sheds a light on what is often hidden by glamorous and very lucrative sex ads — the women in those ads are real people and it is impossible to tell whether they are there by choice or not (Dickinson, S., 2004). Secondly, it shows that for many sex buyers, that is irrelevant. It exposes sex trafficking as an organized predatory trade, and therefore offers a different route in portraying it. One that recognized that sexual exploitation does not exist without an exploiter, whether such exploiter is aware of his role or not.

How portraying the buyer can foster social change

If we start with the premise that representing sex buyers instead of victims properly addresses the root of the problem, there are still many questions to be answered: how can we show how sex buyers treat the women they buy? How can we portray the imbalance of power without making the woman totally passive and powerless? Should we seek out the words of sex buyers themselves (which are available at internet forums, for example) or is that too sensationalist? Should we shame the buyers and push for social censorship or encourage them to modify their behavior?

Comparison of a traditional anti-trafficking campaign poster (from the D.A. of Alameda County, CA USA) and the poster of the “Demand an End” campaign in Kansas (USA). Notice that, despite the accusatory tone of the second poster, the imagery is much less sensationalist, sexualized and objectifying than the traditional anti-trafficking campaigns.

In the case of A Penny for Your Thoughts, we could argue the art project was simultaneously aimed at sex buyers (by exposing the experiences often felt by the women they buy, hopefully dissuading them from further purchases), but also at society at large by trying to develop some kind of social censorship against buying sex from women who might be forced (by exposing the voicemails left by some sex buyers who still wanted to purchase the victims after hearing their story).

In the years following the release of A Penny for Your Thoughts, anti-trafficking NGOs across the world have devised campaigns focused on dissuading men from being sex buyers, introducing a new narrative. These campaigns include the transnational project STOP Human Trafficking!, the campaign “Demand an End” in Kansas (USA), #TackleDemand (USA), “We don’t buy it!” (Ireland), or “The Defenders” project of the American NGO Shared Hope.

The copy of the #TackleDemand campaign is an example of this alternative narrative, for it reflects a very different point of view from traditional campaigns:

“The conditions around large, commercial sporting events, such as the demographics of visitors, and a celebratory atmosphere occurring within a concentrated geographic area, create an increased demand for purchasing sex. Enticed by the potential for greater profits, this leads sex traffickers to increase the supply of sexually trafficked persons in the area. Help us stop sex trafficking associated with large sporting events by tackling the demand.”

The language is focused on the commercial and for-profit dimension of trafficking, and not in any perceived “innocence” or “suffering” of the victims. The campaign materials do not use sexualized images of trapped women nor do they reproduce stereotypes associated with sex trafficking. Instead, the campaign targets potential sex buyers and highlights their role in financing the demand. As such, it moves the stigma away from the victims, offering a new narrative that may actually lead to social change. 

Sex trafficking is an issue for which social change is urgently needed, because it is that clear legislation by itself will not deter sex traffickers or sex buyers that consciously or unconsciously seek out trafficked women. But that social change will never be achieved while NGOs and other actors continue to rely on the woman-as-victim imagery and erasing the perspective of the demand. Instead, public awareness and prevention should invest in targeting “young men in order to prevent them from becoming consumers of commercial sex and to recognize the harms of commercial sex (…) initiatives led by men and directed to men as the primary buyers in commercial sex markets” (Smith and Vardaman, 2010).

Ultimately, the underlying theory of change of traditional anti-trafficking campaigns is unrealistic. Images that only sensationalize the experiences of trafficking victims are not effective, since the target group of such campaigns (usually, the general public and potential and current victims) are not the ones fueling sex trafficking as the organized commercial system that it is and they are also not the ones in charge of combating the criminal enterprises that are actually in control of trafficking rings. As long as the purchase of sex is either seen as a fatality, ignored or even glamorized, people will continue to be trafficked for sexual exploitation to meet growing demand.

A Penny for Your Thoughts and similar projects or campaigns offer us an alternative, one that does not rely on images of women as commodities and instead incites real social change from the only target group capable of achieving it: potential and current sex buyers. Hopefully, this shift will allow us to move away from the stereotypical depiction of trafficking victims and provide a more realistic reflection of sex trafficking as an organized for-profit system.

[1] The UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others has a much broader definition of what constitutes trafficking than most sex workers’ rights organizations:

Article 1: The Parties to the present Convention agree to punish any person who, to gratify the passions of another: (1) Procures, entices or leads away, for purposes of prostitution, another person, even with the consent of that person; (2) Exploits the prostitution of another person, even with the consent of that person.


A Penny For Your Thoughts. Retrieved from https://penny.mzwaan.pt/

Cornwall, Andrea (2016) Save us from Saviours: Disrupting Development Narratives of the Rescue and Uplift of the ‘Third World Woman’ in Hemer, Oscar and Thomas Tufte (Eds.) (2016) Voice and Matter: Communication, Development and the Cultural Return. Gothenburg: Nordicom

Carruthers, D. (2019). ‘Groundbreaking’ online ads target sex buyers, trafficking victims. London Free Press. Retrieved from https://lfpress.com/news/local-news/groundbreaking-online-ads-target-sex-buyers-trafficking-victims

Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, New York, 21st of March 1950. United Nations. Treaty Series , vol. 96, p. 271, available from https://treaties.un.org/pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=IND&mtdsg_no=VII-11-a&chapter=7&clang=_en.

Coy, M., Wakeling, J., & Garner, M. (2011). Selling sex sells: Representations of prostitution and the sex industry in sexualised popular culture as symbolic violence. Women’s Studies International Forum, 34(5), 441–448. doi: 10.1016/j.wsif.2011.05.008.

Dickinson, Sandra. (2004). Sex in the city: Mapping Commercial Sex across London. Available at:

European Commission. (2018). Data collection on trafficking in human being in the EU. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/sites/homeaffairs/files/what-we-do/policies/european-agenda-security/20181204_data-collection-study.pdf

Girls of paradise : Quand la réalité s’impose aux “clients” de la prostitution — Mouvement du Nid. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.mouvementdunid.org/Girls-of-paradise-quand-la-realite-s-impose-aux-clients-de-la-prostitution

Koranda, S. (n.d.). New Campaign Aims To Fight Human Trafficking By Cutting Demand For Prostitution. Retrieved from https://www.kcur.org/post/new-campaign-aims-fight-human-trafficking-cutting-demand-prostitution#stream/0

Scelles Foundation. (2004). The representation of prostitution in the media. Available at:


Scott, Martin (2014) “Media and Development”. London: Zed Books.

Smith, M., & Mac, J. (2018). Revolting prostitutes. London: Verso.

Smith, L., & Vardaman, S. H. (2010). The Problem of Demand in Combating Sex Trafficking. Revue Internationale De Droit Pénal, 81(3), 607. doi:10.3917/ridp.813.0607

Stop Human Trafficking. Retrieved from http://www.stoptraffick.ie/

We Don’t Buy It. Retrieved from http://wedontbuyit.eu/

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