The Non-Ideal Victim: Attacking the Biases Around Human Trafficking


“In order to convey the condition of abuse perpetuated by traffickers, the campaigns resort to the visual metaphor of the doll … the lifeless body, the cords and the “invisible” third party all invite viewers to associate a victim of trafficking with a puppet.” – Rutvica Andrijasevic

When people think of human trafficking, the problem that comes to mind is the trafficking itself. What is never considered is our current response to this trafficking. The current conversation around human trafficking, both in the law and in popular media, serves to idealize certain trafficking survivors while deeming those that don’t fit the stereotype as nonideal and illegal. These stereotypes manifest in things like immigration policy, where trafficking survivors who don’t fit the ideal victim are deported and sent back, furthering their abuse.

Personal Interest

Patrick Warren and David Spencer (Buford)

As an avid consumer of late-night news shows and media, something that really interests me is how certain topics are portrayed and shown – many images and coverages are one-sided in order to garner more sympathy for a specific cause. I came across this topic specifically when reading a story about two boys, Patrick Warren and David Spencer, who were from poorer backgrounds and went missing. Their stories were not shown in the media or talked about, in contrast to many other high-profile cases with more well-off victims. There are many people right now who feel that the US anti-trafficking efforts are amazing, but the conversation around human trafficking is a racist problem that is always pushed to the backburner.

Click here to read more about why I chose this topic

Historical Background – The Mann Act

1875 cartoon criticizing anti-immigrant “white slave” rhetoric (Davies)

By the late 19th century, a new age of industrialism modernized much of the American workforce. Male dominance of many factory and industrial jobs forced many women to find another way of making ends meet – that led to the creation of the sex work industry in America (Shelton). With the birth of this industry came a birth in protests, as sex work was seen as morally wrong and prostitutes were impure. At the same time, a rise in immigration levels was met with mass backlash that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As anti-prostitution and anti-immigrant rhetoric grew at the same time, a narrative was painted that combined these views – young white girls were “white slaves,” victims of trafficking cartels run by immigrants (Weiner). As a result, the Mann Act of 1910 was passed to combat the problems of interstate trafficking and prostitution. The Mann Act was officially known as the “White Slave Traffic Act” (Chacón) because it was rooted in the idea of white victims being trafficked by non-white men.

Jack Johnson with his wife Lucille Cameron (Burns)

To many, this was the perfect way to solve both of the problems mentioned above – prostitution and immigration (Mcclellan). Under the guise of stopping trafficking, the Mann Act gave the government the ability to police a woman’s sexuality and arrest voluntary sex workers. Only certain girls were seen as good, while non-white girls were seen as impure prostitutes, as “a girl’s race, age, and perceived sexual purity determined whether she would be viewed as worthy of the Bureau’s protection” (Reilly).

On top of this, the Mann Act and its idea of “white slavery” was weaponized against non-white Americans and immigrants. The focus was put on criminalizing the non-white trafficker rather than helping the true victim (Chuang). One example of this was Heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was controversial with many white Americans because of his race and the fact that he was the son of former slaves. He was engaged in a relationship with a white woman, and because of the wording of the Mann Act, this gave the government grounds to criminalize and prosecute him. Rock icon Chuck Berry was also convicted under the Mann Act for a crime he didn’t commit as this law was weaponized by the government.

Click here to read more about why the Mann Act was harmful

Present Day – Trafficking Victims Protection Act

The “Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act,” known as the TVPA, was signed into law by President Clinton in 2000. To qualify for protection under the TVPA, trafficking survivors had to testify in court and prove their victimhood. As well, prove they were the victim of a “severe form of trafficking”:

“Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age” – TVPA


The first problem is the repeated phrase “force, fraud, or coercion” – it has created a binary in trafficking law between forced and voluntary sex work and victimized willing women. Victimization, which comes up again in other parts of the T-Visa process, creates a “politics of pity” (Aradau) in which all sex workers are deemed to be weak and passive victims. This prevents survivors from externalizing their agency as a part of the political – they are trapped in the identity of the victim and nothing more. (Aradau) As well, this politics of pity allows the government to criminalize prostitution and justifying it as “‘for the worker’s own good.’”. (Chapkis).

Ideal Victim

Trafficking can take so many different forms, but most don’t fit the stereotype and are not seen as “severe” enough (Zimmerman)

The next issue with the TVPA is the word ‘severe,’ and the idea of only certain trafficking crimes being ‘severe’ enough to warrant a visa. The government and immigration courts have free reign in determining which trafficking cases they deem as severe, and this lack of clarity allows discrimination against nonideal trafficking survivors while only ideal survivors – young, white female victims of sex trafficking – are allowed to remain in the country (Chacón). This leads to both being demonized as an illegal immigrant and the re-trafficking of nonideal trafficking survivors and bein (Chapkis).

Another issue with the rhetoric of the “severe” victim is that the TVPA shapes media and public attention towards trafficking cases (Austin and Farrell). While there is generally a media response and public outrage over a sex trafficking case involving the ideal victim, cases that aren’t deemed “severe” enough – particularly labor trafficking victims, foreign victims, and male victims – are either portrayed as criminal or not shown at all. There has been clear evidence that the media imitates trafficking narratives in the TVPA, as it “mirrors dominant policy responses focused on combating sex trafficking,” prostitution, and illegal immigration (Austin and Farrell).

Burden of Proof

Finally, the last major problem with the TVPA is the mandatory testification requirement. There are quite a few problems with forcing human trafficking survivors to go to court and testify:

1) Survivors have just escaped a traumatic experience they probably don’t want to relive

2) Survivors are faced with traffickers threatening to murder their families if they testify

3) Survivors are technically illegal and are being forced to engage the immigration courts

4) Survivors literally have no way to provide proof of their testimonies (the vast majority of trafficking survivors don’t have access to cameras while they’re tied up and chained in captivity),

For a system that’s focused on prosecuting the evil foreign criminal instead of helping trafficking survivors, mandatory testification causes a lot of problems (Pollock and Hollier).

Click here to read more about the issues with the TVPA

Call to Action

These issues do not usually come up in discussions about trafficking, which is why I wanted to bring them to attention. As a result, there is no large grassroots organization to just donate money to, and there isn’t a bill that you can just sign your name on.


On an individual level, one of the most important steps is to be cognizant of media biases in representing human trafficking. The solution isn’t as simple as not watching “fake news,” as news coverage of trafficking cases is generally true, just only a small part of the bigger picture. Addressing the ideal victim standard requires understanding that there’s always more to the problem than is shown on TV, and many of the images we take in are both one-sided and exaggerated. There are always more complex stories that can be found by digging deeper, and those are the ones we have to look for.


On an individual level, addressing these issues involve changing our own orientations towards these ideas – something as simple as using the term “survivor” instead of “victim,” would reframe the victim narrative that both leads to victim-blaming and reducing humans to dolls. Another change is thinking of human trafficking as more than just “sex slavery” that’s just a bunch of horrible brown people enslaving white girls – there are so many different forms of trafficking that this reduction is what fuels the ideal victim standard. All of these issues stem from the same sorts of biases that govern many other problems such as racial bias in the criminal justice system — addressing these biases is hard but possible, as it requires paying attention to how we view the world.

Legal Change

Some sort of legal change is necessary to stop the literal deportations of non-white trafficking survivors – the most important first step is to alleviate this material violence. The easiest suggested solution would be to:

1) Eliminate the “severe form of trafficking standard” in the TVPA

2) Eliminate the requirement of proof in the TVPA

3) Eliminate mandatory cooperation with law enforcement in the TVPA

Discarding these requirements would remove much of the subjective bias in immigration courts and force judges to grant status to all survivors of trafficking no matter their backgrounds or stories. As well, it would remove the necessity to testify in court and prove one was trafficked – that solves many of the problems with forcing survivors to testify and be forced to relive their trauma. (Sangalis). And while under the Trump administration, a broader reform to make immigration policy less racist would never be possible, something small like this proposal (that only changes the wording of a current law) would likely not be pushed back against too much – past changes to the TVPA have been bipartisan, and Trump has been committed to the fight against trafficking (Fish).

Click here to read further about my proposed solutions

Works Cited

Share this project
  1. April 25, 2019 by Leo.Patch

    Wow. I am so moved by your page! You put so much work into this project and it really shows! I feel so informed after reading this! I also read your proposed solutions google doc, and I think you make a really powerful call to action on addressing and working to fix our biases surrounding human trafficking. I watched this documentary that I found really striking called “I Am Jane Doe” that is about the effects of the internet on human trafficking. Its a bit of a different lens from your project, but I thought you might find it interesting!

  2. April 26, 2019 by Cole.Wogan


  3. April 29, 2019 by Taylor Wong

    Vikram, your page was super interesting. I actually read an argument about human trafficking, specifically relating to immigration, in policy debate this year, but your page made me much more informed about the topic. My only question for you is this: do you think trafficking happening in the US is as big of a problem as it is at the border, and if so, are there any macro changes that could help curb that problem?

  4. April 29, 2019 by Lauren.Elvrum

    This is such an interesting project! I had never thought to look at human trafficking from this perspective, and the information you’ve laid out here is very well-organized and thought-provoking.

  5. April 29, 2019 by Hanan Sherka

    This was a very interesting and important project, and I’m really happy I came upon it. I rarely think of ways that some people’s attempt at addressing an issue like human trafficking can have selective benefit and sometimes cause even more damage. Extremely eyeopening!

  6. April 29, 2019 by Brandon.Byrd

    Wow, very nice! Does this mean that the usage of “modern day slavery” is inherently harmful as well because it propagates the same narrative about qualifying for the severe victim standard?

  7. April 30, 2019 by Morgan.Reece

    The angle you decided to take on your topic is very interesting and eye-opening. I learned more about trafficking though your presentation than I’ve ever known. Thank you for bringing awareness to this issue!

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