Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Truthiness" and Domestic Trafficking Shelters

In 2005 Steve Cobert used a new term "truthiness" during his satirical report on Comedy Central. The term was defined to mean "truth that comes from the gut, not books." "We're not talking about truth, we're talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist," he explained. Something that seems like the truth - this is the air of honesty occurring within the human trafficking world.

In 2007, there were large questions surrounding the statistics being thrown around, with very wide variances. International victims in the United States has a margin of error, somewhere between 17, 500 and 50,000, without any explanation of the origin or methodology of these numbers. In SE Asia, there have been studies that put children in Cambodia being sexually exploited at anywhere from a meager 10,000 up to a sensational 100,000! Why such disparity? Well, there are probably many reasons. One, organizations seeking to get donors attention have felt the need to 'pad' the numbers to get a more urgent fiscal response. On the other hand, naysayers have wanted to quell the issue by throwing cold water disparity on the issue, taking a lower number to minimize the urgency.

Yet, on large - we really don't know. I feel fairly confident that the FBI's number of 300,000 domestically trafficked children is close. This number was extrapolated using numbers from homeless and runaway youth, youth agencies encountering unsafe youth, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). But, there is more at stake than just some inflated numbers.

Working in the United States, we are working carefully to approach domestic trafficking in an honest, intellectual, and non-sensational way. We have done this to our best ability in Cambodia and it has paid off. Intellectual engagement is really all there needs to be to communicate the horrors of sex trafficking. We don't need tear-filled eyes and dramatic images to get the point.

This means, we don't get to exaggerate, use suggestive marketing, and make outrageous claims. We need to work hard to respect our supporters and the public with the dignity and integrity of the actual work being done. There is no reason to make untrue claims on the basis that we think they will be true in the future. We have all heard the saying, "say what you mean and mean what you say."

So, what is going on with all of the sensationalism? One organization in California claims that they have shelters "located throughout the US...", but they haven't build a single thing - in a recent television interview the executive director said they are still in the 'dream phase'. On the website, they have a picture of a home, but its not the shelter they are claiming. So, why the deceptive language on the website? Well, truthiness - its the truth they want to exist. Another organization on the East Coast claims that they work in 12 countries (including Cambodia, but no one has ever heard of them), have a domestic trafficking shelter (described with photographs), but their most recent 990 says that their total income was around $90,000 dollars. For a point of reference, a quality aftercare program in Cambodia for 20 girls runs a little over $200,000. So what is going on?

Well, domestic trafficking is a flashy topic. It is inviting a large number of people to move quickly to get involved in establishing domestic trafficking shelters without any idea of what it will take to be successful. Look at a quality program like GEMS in New York and you will see that it is not about glitz and glamor or big dollars. It is about some very difficult and challenging work. Work that requires a lot more than great intentions and good ideas. This is a field in need of experienced organizations to take on this type of work.

But, we also need some truth in advertising. We, as organizations, are asking the American public to 'buy in' and help to provide the needed funds and support to establish shelter services for children being exploited in the commercial sex trade. As non-profit organizations, we need to understand the integrity of public trust. We have to be truthful and honest - eliminating 'truthiness' from our communication styles to allow the reality of sex trafficking and the need for shelter services to speak without clouding the issue.

1 comment:

  1. The GEMS organization is doing some pretty fantastic work. The documentary that covered their program was excellent in that it showed the complex relationships between these young girls and the men who were manipulating them and how difficult it is for them to remove that label once they try to leave the sex trafficking world. This labeling can cause them to go back to the streets believing it is the only way they can make a living. A vicious cycle.