TRIGGER WARNING: This article, or pages it links to, contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors.
From Staff Exploitation to Survivor Porn: Understanding Just How Deep Exploitation Goes
Amy Costello hosts a Tiny Spark podcast interview. In this episode, she seeks to investigate exploitation, specifically as it takes place within the realm of nonprofit organizations.
Costello interviews Sophie Otiende, a Program Consultant of HAART of Kenya. Otiende shares her insights on the unspoken impacts of using a survivor of trafficking solely for their story. Often, organizations do this to raise awareness on trafficking, but Otiende calls this retelling survivor porn. She ultimately argues organizational institutions’ use of survivors is unethical and exploitative in itself.
Supporting Victims of Trauma: A Supportless Job
Sophie Otiende is an anti-trafficking activist, and also a survivor of trafficking herself. Otiende describes her work as grueling. She feels, at times, she is under appreciated and unsupported. Otiende, however, is firm that she’s not alone in this sentiment.
Working with victims of trauma is emotionally tolling for staff as they engage with trauma day in and day out. And, while the staff are there to support those in need, Otiende poses a question, one that’s often unasked: who is there to support the staff?
Otiende further explains the terrain of this work, and states that many inevitably get burnt out. Which, is an obvious sign that organizations are not adequately supporting staff’s mental, emotional, and physical health needs. Needs that are certain to arise.
Making the stakes perfectly clear, Otiende makes a comparison to a metal factory. At a metal factory, it is a priority that workers have safety gloves, steel toed boots, helmets, etc.
Simply put, it is a priority that employers maintain healthy employees who can effectively complete their work.
What’s more, it would be negligent for any company to not have safety standards such as these.
Yet, moving back to nonprofits, the same concerns and standards are not present. Thus, listeners are brought back to Otiende’s question: who is supporting the staff?
Why are the same concerns and protections not in place for those who support victim’s of trauma? Measures like therapy or self care resources that could prevent the common worker burn out. Ultimately, security that ensures that staff have the adequate support they need is not considered a priority.
In an ideal world, one would assume that these provisions would undoubtedly be in place. However, it’s obvious they are not. Well, not as widely as they should be, at least.
Otiende states that there are in fact organizations that do have such support in place. But, it is not donor funding that establishes these programs. Rather it is organizational efforts to raise and collect money that make it possible to implement such staff support.
In reality, as Otiende makes clear, funding for staff support is just not there. Otiende elaborates further stating that most grassroots organizations prioritize having a professionalized staff. However, many times these organizations cannot afford to pay such a staff once they find them.
Listeners thus learn that the issue of funding runs deep. Otiende argues that if you are going to pay for a victim’s care, then you should be able to fund the care of that of the caregiver.
As the interviewer, Amy Costello, points out, work that Otiende and others do is applaudable and admirable to many. However, in the same vein, many believe the compensation stops there–at applause, a pat on the back. Trauma support staff do good work and they are viewed as good people, but, to some, it is work that should be done for free.
Costello quotes Otiende herself on the topic, reciting
“We can’t say that we are anti-exploitation, when our foundation itself is built on exploitation…it’s wrong to exploit people for work, expose them to extreme trauma, and not even bother to take care of them, so that when they go home they are better [than] when they left. This, again, is a global problem.”Sophie Otiende
Otiende’s argument highlights the exploitative nature that takes place in the role of being a caregiver. Or, more broadly, in the very realm that claims to combat the very same exploitation that it perpetuates.
But, if we think hard, most jobs are characterized by this exploitation, or some form of it. For more on exploitation, labor, and neoliberalism, I highly recommend that you check out Jasbir Puar’s essay The Cost of Getting Better: Ability and Debility.
Under neo-liberalism, those at the top of the food chain profit in abundance, while those at the bottom work to secure the CEO’s profit, and retain little to none of the benefit.
Exploitation, however, does not stop at staff, but trickles down to the very communities organizations seek to help.
Labor Without Compensation
Otiende describes various survivors who’ve told their personal experiences, but with an emphasis on the personal.
When organizations ask survivors to share their story, they are often asking them to elaborate and share on the emotional hook of their story, to share with strangers their most intimate, private, and traumatic experiences.
What organizations are really asking for is survivor porn.
And, should a survivor be willing to share these experiences, they are often left underpaid, or even, unpaid. Leaving survivors with the message that their labor and effort isn’t worthy of compensation. A message sent from the organizations claiming to help them.
Organizations ask for these very detailed accounts under the notion that this will spread awareness on trafficking. That survivors can act as real life examples of the effects of trafficking and why it is bad.
Yet, these efforts are uncompensated or under appreciated. Otiende shares experiences of survivors speaking for organizations that refused to pay their cab fare, did not take care of them, and outright refusing to pay for their labor.
Making the injustice clear, Otiende describes conferences where survivors have been asked to speak. However, out of everyone in the room, they are the only one not paid to be there.
Nonetheless, despite compensation, or lack thereof, the survivor is the main event. A speaker that is “paraded” about, Otiende states. Organizations utilize survivors as a tool to showcase the horrors of trafficking. In this way, the very organizations fighting exploitation are exploiting the very people they say they help.
Labor and Retraumatization
This retelling can be a traumatizing experience, she elaborates. To not only relive one’s trauma, but to share it with an audience full of strangers can be terrifying.
Otiende herself, an experienced researcher who has done extended work in the anti-trafficking field, has trouble telling her story at times. Otiende states she could be re-triggered by an event or component that she has not yet processed.
What’s more, responses from the audience are not always positive. Otiende cites a few of the times she has been abused after retelling her own story. At one point, being called “used goods.”
Requiring a survivor to share their story puts them in a position to be re-traumatized. Considering that organizations do not compensate fairly neither monetarily or emotionally for this labor, it is undoubtedly a form of exploitation.
Raising Awareness: Prevention with Context and Intent
Prevention and Intent: Awareness or Survivor Porn?
Refusing to compensate survivors for retelling their story, for their labor, is exploitation by nature. Otiende goes on to state that an exploitative relationship is present, whether the labor is paid or not. Exploitation exists if a survivor is put in a position where they must tell their stories.
Otiende also highlights the unique power dynamic that exists between organizations and survivors. She states that organizations that have provided help to survivors hold a certain level of power within that relationship, and, with this power, exploitation can and has been conceived.
“Think about the power that organization holds over this victim. And then think about consent. Think about whether that victim—that survivor—would actually be able to give proper consent about telling their stor[y].”Sophhie Otiende
Otiende then presents listeners with another question, is it even ethical to ask a survivor to share their story?
Can a survivor give consent considering the pressure they might feel to say yes, if the organization has helped them? What if they say no? Will help stop? Will attitudes towards them change?
These are all questions that are often left unspoken when it comes to asking a survivor to share their story.
Not just their story, but to expose the hardships and trauma of their story, to essentially make their experience fit the mold of survivor porn.
As Otiende states, our empathy levels must be so low that we need to see physical proof and representation of trauma in order to be able to empathize and want to do something about it.
This critique centers on the obsession to expose the most graphic and abhorrent details of a survivor’s experience as a form of prevention through awareness.
Otiende raises the question does this really serve as raising awareness? After an audience has heard the intimate details of a survivor’s experience, what do they do next? What does the organization do next?
Otiende answers for listeners: they forget about the survivor and move onto the next one.
Prevention and Context: Awareness as the First Step
The notion of raising awareness as a form of prevention is further problematized as many believe that this is the only step to be taken to eradicate trafficking. Otiende shares a personal experience of conducting anti-trafficking work in Kenya as an illustration that awareness is simply not the first and final step.
In Kenya, while conducting a Safe Migration Workshop for women who travel to the Middle East for domestic work, Otiende began to discuss rape with the women present.
While defining rape, the women at the workshop began to laugh and explained that according to Otiende’s definition they had been raped for majority of their lives.
Otiende utilizes this anecdote to illustrate the importance of context.
It is negligent to assume that awareness will end trafficking because this notion hinges on the idea that individuals are not aware of the risks they are putting themselves into. Which is simply not true.
The women at the workshop were well aware of the risks of their choices. Yet, they still made these choices as it was the most logical choice for them under their circumstances.
The women at the workshop further explained that, yes, they may be raped once or twice while they are in the Middle East, and they may not even receive all of the money they earn, but at least they will receive a portion of it.
Otiende quotes these women and states, if they were to stay in Kenya their chances of finding a sustainable job are zero to none. Their children will never have an education. They will be raped if they stay in Kenya and they might be raped in the Middle East, but at least in the Middle East they will earn a wage.
Thus, it does no good to just simply raise awareness to trafficking. As the women in Otiende’s workshop illustrate, many are well informed on the risks. However, it is lack of opportunity, poverty, and other factors that push people into dangerous situations where trafficking may occur.
Raising awareness can be the first step, but the next step must absolutely be taking action to address these push factors.
Ethical story telling then goes hand in hand with this. Survivor porn is not truly raising awareness. We should not need intimate details of someone’s life to believe that trafficking needs to be stopped. On the other hand, we must speak on the true factors that pose as vulnerabilities to trafficking: push factors.
Ethical story telling doesn’t exploit one’s experience, nor does it minimize one’s experience to one box, one cause, one solution. Ethical story telling sheds light on the many moving parts that come together to shape an experience.
For more on ethical story telling, or the absence of it, click here.
Throughout the interview, Otiende highlights the numerous ways that nonprofits perpetuate exploitation. She also highlights much of the work that still needs to be done in order to more effectively serve the communities they are intending to help: fair compensation, adequate support for caregivers and staff, ethical storytelling, and raising awareness while understanding contextual factors.
All of these things, Otiende argues, can be done if “everyone did their job right.” If teachers taught the right way, if the media told the right stories, “if everyone did what was expected of them it’d be easier to address the issue.”
These answers seem vague and difficult to implement, but they truly aren’t.
If we take a survivor centered approach to our actions then the answers are clear: do what is best for the survivor, what meets their needs in that moment of time.