Intersectionality and Human Trafficking Survivorship

Ascend Campaign Series
Today’s post, “Intersectionality and Human Trafficking Survivorship” by Kara Napolitano, takes a closer look at an important approach to social justice, and why it matters to survivors.  During the final week of the Ascend Campaign, we’re taking support for survivors of human trafficking to new heights! 

“There is no hierarchy of oppression.” When Audre Lorde put these words down on paper more than thirty years ago she could not have known that the silos in social justice movements that were present then would persist today. That is not to say there hasn’t been progress. But in the still nascent human trafficking movement, we have a long way to go.

What is Intersectionality?

Intersectionality, a concept coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, is used to describe the ways in which different forms of discrimination (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) can and do interact and overlap. Ultimately, these issues can not be examined or advocated for separately from one another. More simply put: Intersectionality is a description of the way multiple oppressions are experienced.  

Recently, the concept of intersectionality is increasingly being used to frame social justice issues.  For many social justice advocates, it is a way to overcome the isolation that a single-issue focus can have on trying to build a more powerful movement. As leaders across social justice issues employ this thinking, one important consideration to explore is how intersectionality matters for human trafficking survivorship.

Intersectionality and Survivorship

Survivors of human trafficking are often thought of as a singular voice, even described as an “ideal” victim. This is most commonly seen when a survivor’s experience is tokenized and leveraged by professionals in a public setting to support a popular narrative about the crime. Too often, individual survivors are asked to share and represent all human trafficking survivors the world over with their particular experience, in order to form a common “story”.

In reality, or course, victims of trafficking can and do include every race, gender, ethnicity, and age group and they have often suffered from several forms of abuse. Human trafficking professionals should acknowledge the multiple factors that impact all of our lives (not just survivors). These details effect how we work, live, love, as well as how we recover from trauma:

  • Race
  • Gender/identity
  • Sexuality
  • Nationality
  • Ability
  • Class/economics
  • Religion

A More Holistic View of Survivors

Intersectionality of different lived experiences should influence service provision so that the individuality of a survivor isn’t pigeonholed by this one experience. As Audre Lorde reminded us: “There is no such thing as single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” That means that when we work with a survivor, we must consider how all facets of their identity interact, acknowledging that each person’s story and needs are unique.

How might an intersectionality-based approach help the anti-trafficking movement? It means more programs that consider the specific needs of individual survivors instead of putting them all together and assuming they need the same services on the path to recovery. Think of an intersectional approach in victim identification, where programs are designed for survivors who are poor, young, or from rural areas for example. For some survivors, reintegration programs with educational and financial support programs might be better. For others, familial acceptance could be a prominent issue and reintegration might not be an option due to social and cultural norms. Instead, those survivors may prefer increased access to legal support.

By employing an intersectional approach to working with survivors, specific needs can be better understood, and systems of oppression can be more readily challenged.

Emboldened and Mobilized

As the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking works to inform social change that eliminates human exploitation, we can’t afford to believe that freedom and participation are the rights of only one singular victimized or vulnerable group. The intersectionality of social justice movements should embolden us to combine resources instead of competing for them, and to mobilize our bases to support one another. Recognizing intersectionality through the lived experiences of survivors of human trafficking is an important way to achieve that vision. As LCHT’s Action Plan Manager Mary Durant recently reminded us, “We can achieve this space by including, connecting, inviting, and listening to those who are true experts: survivors.”

Kara Napolitano

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