With Human Trafficking, Words Make a Difference

– By Mitzi Perdue

It’s almost impossible to state the importance of the language we use. Language establishes the way we look at things and it deeply influences the decisions we make and the images we have of ourselves.

In a moment we’ll get into how this relates to human trafficking, and we’ll be talking with Amy Rahe, Director of North America at the Freedom Fund. But first, a brief story impact of the words we choose.  It has to do with my niece, a pulmonary physician.

A Brief Digression on the Importance of Words

In my niece’s case, the words she uses literally have the power of life and death. In her more than 30-year career treating people with pulmonary diseases, she has many times come across cases where sadly, a patient is terminal.

Often the patient’s family faces an agonizing decision: do they continue treatment, or do they make the emotionally difficult decision to stop using heroic measures and “pull the plug.”

My niece learned that, like it or not, she can determine the family’s decision 100% of the time, and the choice is determined by which words she chooses.  If she explains the patient’s condition and then asks the family, “Would you like me to do everything I can?”, the answer is invariably an urgent, heartfelt, plea: “Yes, everything!”

On the other hand, if my niece explains the patient’s prognosis and then gently says to the family, “Unfortunately, that’s the situation we’re in.  Shall we do what we can to make your loved one comfortable and let Nature take its course?”, the answer without exception is a sad and resigned, “Yes, that’s what we want.  Let Nature take its course.”

Words and Trafficking

I’ve just given an example of the importance of words and how they are used to frame our attitudes.  How does this apply to trafficking?

Amy Rahe works for the Freedom Fund, but she also has lived-it experience as someone who was trafficked.  She understands firsthand how important the words we use are.

Let’s start with the word, “rescue.”  On the one hand, rescuing another person indicates a particular power dynamic between the rescued and rescuer.  It can create a feeling of importance and power in the rescuer and contribute to a sense of being a savior for they have ‘saved’ someone.

But there’s another side to this. As Rahe explains, “The ‘rescued’ person can end up feeling less powerful and experience diminished agency.”

Rahe recommends using less freighted words. As an example, instead of talking about “rescuing 500 children,” members of an organization could talk about, “We’ve supported 500 children exit situations of exploitation.”

Another word that has huge implications is the word, “victim.”  As Rahe points out, “It’s disempowering to call someone a victim once they are no longer victim to a crime.  When someone is on the other side of exploitation, being called victim can influence people to think of themselves as a victim which becomes not only disempowering, but dehumanizing.”

Even the word “survivor,” has become a debated term. “Yes, we have survived a horrendous situation,” says Rahe, “and the word does describe that we survived something awful.”  But as Rahe goes on to say, “The goal isn’t just to be identified as that, we want to do more than survive. We want to thrive as members of society.”

Ideally, a person at some point isn’t solely identified or introduced as being a survivor – ideally they are asked how they want to be identified if at all. If the individual comes closer to having a life that feels more normal or stable, the person’s identity can become broader than being a survivor.

As a thriving member of society, someone with lived experience of trafficking may rather first  think of themselves as, for example, “I’m a speaker,” or “I code,” or “I’m an administrative assistant,” or something else that means that they’re thriving in their new life.

To learn more about more about Freedom Fund, go to freedomfund.org  It’s a great website, packed with inspiring information.

About The Author

Mitzi Perdue is a businesswoman, author, and Founder of Win This Fight, Stop Human Trafficking Now. She holds a B.A. degree with honors from Harvard University and a Master's from George Washington University. She's a past president of the 40,000 member American Agri-Women, and she was a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi. She was also a Commissioner for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Her Scripps Howard column, The Environment and You, was for years the most widely syndicated environmental column in the U.S.

She is the founder and president of “Win This Fight! Stop Human Trafficking Now,” an organization that raises funds and awareness for other anti-trafficking initiatives.