The Celebritization of Human Trafficking

After working in human trafficking for more than fifteen years, I noticed a trend.  I would show up to speak at an event or a panel, or to train US government and law enforcement and I there I would find:  celebrity actors, celebrity journalists, celebrity humanitarians and the like.   Initially, I was as chuffed as the next person to rub elbows with the rich and famous.  But when after one  particular panel, a certain celebrity suggested to me that I should work on my “elevator pitch,” I began wondering what the pros and cons were to celebrity endorsers working in a field that I cared so much about.

In the article I have written, available in a draft form here, and soon to be published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, I demonstrate how  celebrities now regularly engage with human trafficking policy and practice.  In asking why this is, I articulate how human trafficking is considered a “sexy” topic, not only susceptible to alluring, fetishistic and voyeuristic narratives, but also one that plays into the celebrity-as-rescuer-of-the-victim ideal that receives excessive attention from media, policymakers and the public.  In articulating how the UN, legislators, the public, the press, financially interested NGO’s and celebrities themselves buy into this arrangement, I ascribe blame equally between parties interested in promoting their policy (and financial agendas), those who see hobnobbing with celebrities as a perk of their work, and those who view human rights activism as a convenient medium to further their own celebrity.  I conclude by finding that while some celebrities may become knowledgeable enough to give responsible advice to law and policy makers, others engaging in anti-trafficking activism are neither knowledgeable enough nor using good judgment when interacting with those who make the laws and create anti-trafficking programs.  Although we all share the blame, as celebrities have gained “in group” status in many of our lives, the responsibility must lie primarily with law and policy makers who are so slavishly devoted to using celebrity witnesses in order to satisfy their own desire to interact with celebrities that they abdicate their duties to constituents and donors by allowing celebrity activists to provide them with legal and policy advice.  The willingness of legislators to ask celebrities “what would you do if you were a legislator,”  is emblematic of the larger and more general problems with funding, narratives and the shallow level of discourse in current anti-trafficking initiatives.