Storytelling to End Sex Trafficking

Updated: Dec 6, 2019

The aim of this paper is to capture not only the impact that storytelling has on our understanding and development of self, but how film and advertising gives insight into our relationship to social issues.

By first describing the capacities stories hold in uniting the human condition, I will emphasize literature’s impact in individual connection and the development of empathy. Additionally, I will discuss how deconstructing the culture[1] of sex trafficking begins with an awareness of the media we choose to accept as a society. In doing this, I hope to begin to answer the question of why we have produced a demand[2] for trafficking, and what we—at an individual level—are capable of doing to change this. Drawing from an initial research paper that sought to examine how words give us an ability to create a conception of self, the application of this paper goes beyond identity to see how the stories that we are taking part in are developing a culture that sustains a demand for trafficked people.

Literature as it Guides Identity

Human connection can be understood in the yearning to be validated as individuals. Stories resonate with readers because they arrange scenarios and conflicts that highlight varying dynamics of the human experience. Reading stories affirms identities by articulating—both indirect and directly—emotions that others have experienced. If a story does not directly relate to a given reader’s life, it, at the very least, begins to let them image what it would be like to experience the life—and emotions—of the character. One way this connection occurs is by the naming of complex emotions. Writer John Koenig illustrates the important role emotional articulation has in our lives by claiming that the words we use are a product of the times that we are in, and the language that we have inherited shapes the way that we are able to talk about ourselves and others[3]. An organization of the human experience is possible because words are the force that allow us to talk about, process, and reach a means of understanding who we are and what we feel. And because we have such an organization, a connectedness across the human condition emerges. This sense of belonging, to ourselves and the rest of the world, establishes a sense of empathy to others as we realize that we are not alone in our experiences, and the vastness of struggle that other’s face.

As it shapes identity, literature navigates empathy. Research in the correlation between storytelling and medicine has begun to shape how doctors and residency programs are implementing empathy development in their training—through the reading of stories. Gavin Francis[4] describes the relationship between the writer and the clinician:

What does the writer do but name and articulate patterns and archetypes of experience, and offer them to the reader to be recognized? And what does the clinician do but offer recognition to the patient’s story – to say ‘your suffering has a name’, and in its naming, attempt to tame it?[5]

In Francis’s practice, as well as the medical staff at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, regular readings and group discussion of a variety of literature have improved patient evaluations of residents by encouraging contentiousness and intentionality, all of which can be contributed to the analysis of literature in the programs.[6]

Storytelling in Film and Media

It’s important to emphasize that while the traditional sense of a story would be a written work, stories more widely represent the narratives we are fed through advertising and film. Stories are the reframing and retelling of experience paired with imagination. They take on the difficulties of life and portray characters that we are able to see ourselves as in order to relate to them. Taking on elements of real life with the potential of ‘what if’s’ stories provide us a wide view of considerations and possibilities. With the development of language, storytelling has moved from pictorial representations and verbal traditions, to written works, and digitalized forms. The results of this development are important both in respect to how far reaching the same themes and messages will go, as well as the repercussions of how these shape interpretations. Homer’s The Iliad, for example, was recited and improvised for hundreds of years.[7] The process of this revision was catered to meet the needs of the orator telling the story, so including or excluding certain characters or storylines was on the agenda of those telling the story, and with regard to its listeners. With the development of film, the permanence—or lack of fluidity in storytelling means that the messages they are telling cannot be so easily altered.[8] A film watched 10 years ago will remain the same ten years from today. It will convey the same message; the same actors will appear, and the same dialogue will be exchanged. As a result, the experience of emotional responses and empathy for these characters will remain the same.

Storytelling permeates everyday life at both a local and universal level. The brands that we buy tell a story that appeals to us. The people that we choose to associate with have stories that are of interest to us. In a visual sense, consumers are the new readers. By watching shows, attending plays, seeing movies, and being exposed to advertising, we are consumers of the stories that brands, marketers, writers, and directors want to tell. We are analyzing, however conscious or unconsciously, stories all around us. If relatability is a key element in storytelling, as I have identified it to be, the narratives conveyed through advertisements and other media need to provoke or stir something in the consumer that relates to their own life. Often, this is seen in appeals to basic human needs and attributes: hunger, intimacy, or sexuality: think of Snickers “You’re not you when you’re hungry” or any cologne commercial. While these manipulations of relatability are quite obvious, consumers’ focus is not necessarily on the aspects of relatability, but on the appeal to need[9] for whatever product or service is being offered to fulfill these desires. If the story an ad or film is pointing to is unfamiliar or has not been experienced by its reader, the tone and point of view—the way it’s constructed—tells us how to feel about its subject matter and gives us the sense that we need this product. After all, other’s need it, so don’t I?

Advertising and Film: Beyond Objectification

Films transform our interpretation of seemingly foreign things or people by bringing them close and guiding our perceptions of these unforeseen worlds. At times, the results are positive. In the 2016 film Lion, India’s poverty and exploitation of trafficked children was brought to our local movie theaters, home TV’s, laptops, phones, and even social media apps. We were reminded of realities of trafficked children through the story of Saroo, and as a result, raised over $250,000 for vulnerable children in India[10]. Because the story reached such broad audiences, it brought the reality of Saroo’s—and many children like him—experiences psychologically and emotionally closer. The results of this do not stop at just understanding a different world, but a development of empathy over the course of the film. An explanation of the empathy that literature allows us to imagine is described in Emmanuel Levinas’s Face to Face Interaction Theory, which claims that once victims are humanized[11], outsiders are able to—in a metaphorical sense—come face to face with them. As a result, the perception of oneself—in relation to the victim is impacted. In film, this theory extends from the metaphorical sense into a physical one. We are learning from characters in a movie as much—potentially more—as we are from characters in books by actually facing them and experiencing in real time their suffering, and even bouts of joy. With a physical embodiment of characters, our reaction and ability to perceive the stories and situations are shaped by the paths directors and actors guide us on. As the imaginary is presented to us, facing character’s realities brings us closer to them emotionally. We do not have to guess how they feel; our brains are attempting to close the gap and experience that feeling itself. While we may not converse with actors, we are observing them process the story that they are a part of, and biologically, our brains attempt to not only understand the things that we are watching, but at some psychological level, experience that same feeling ourselves. It’s not the fact there is an orphan that causes us to empathize with them, it’s the story and images we are given about their life. It’s the specific facial reactions, moments of sorrow, and ones of confusion, that are catered to bring empathy forth in us. While our encounters with actors do not include dialogue, the purpose of the stories told in movies and advertisements are to draw us in and make us feel immersed in the world created. We are watching characters process the story that they are a part of, and biologically, our brains are attempting to not only understand the things that we are watching, but at some psychological level, experience that same feeling ourselves. Research regarding Mirror Neurons[12] shows that the visualization of people and their emotional responses is not changing people simply in thought. If biologically, our brains are wired with neurons that mimic or mirror perceived action, what we watch affects how we approach these same experiences and occurrences. While observing someone get hit by a frisbee, for example, we have a sense of what they are feeling because neurons fire and provide an inner imitation of what that hit may feel like. Likewise, when observing a character cry, our emotional response is afflicted as our brains compensate—or reach toward—feeling this experience. What we are consuming on screens teaches us how to feel about these subjects. What we take away from face to face observations shapes how we approach these themes and subject matter as it re-wires our brains into attempting to feel what the characters are feeling.

The consequences of these results can also be negative. In the blockbuster movie 50 Shades of Grey, image 1 was advertised in anticipation for the trilogy’s second release. When examining this ad and watching this film, the lessons of the visuals are deeper than merely depictions of a sexual encounter. The woman is bound, and an object of pleasure, but, as the film and this image in particular suggests, the encounter is consensual; both are enjoying one another. More notably, the fact that each addition to the trilogy has been released on valentine’s day is suggestive of the casual attitudes about this kind of storyline: our culture likes this aggression and is scandalized by an idea of ownership. When examining this film as a story, and applying our understanding of stories to complex issues, the conclusions drawn and questions that emerge are startling. Knowing that mirror neurons are coding and rewiring our brains—teaching us how to feel about the material that we are consuming based on the characters we are watching, and seeing images such as this one are what we are being re-wired by, it is easy to begin to understand what kind of culture justifies the selling and degradation of other humans, how we have developed a demand for trafficking, and how it has become accepted as a part of society.

Like films of this type, advertising supports a dehumanizing of subjects in order to appeal to some basic kind of sensuality in people. This promotes a culture of sex trafficking by normalizing people as objects, not humans. In image two, another advertisement, the woman is surrounded by men: one that is aggressively looking through her, one grazing her arm, but peering off, and two lingering above her. This body language alone is suggestive of attitudes disconnected from her humanity. Physically, she is positioned defenselessly. Eyes disassociated, she appears dead, or unresponsive at the very least. She is wearing shoes that would make it difficult to move quickly. She is turned into an object of desire in order to sell a brand. The key element of sex-trafficking that we see reproduced in images of this kind is supply and demand. If we (in this case, Dolce and Gabana) want people to buy our product, we create a demand for it; sex trafficking is an industry that has a supply synonymous with it’s demand. Humans are supplying the pleasure, and other humans fueling the demand for sale. As evident in this image, this woman is not selling Dolce and Gabana, the brand is literally selling itself based off the disconnected humanity and degradation of her body. Jeane Kilourne claims that “turning a human being into a thing is almost always he first step towards justifying violence against that person”[13] this idea is manifested perfectly in image two. While passively accepting narratives of this kind of film and advertising seems harmless, the implications are widespread. If we can justify this level of objectivity in popular culture and influential branding, how can we be horrified with the existence of sex-trafficking? It is impossible to deny a correlation between these negative images in film and advertising and the demand and industry of sex trafficking in our society. While trafficking is just one of many social issues that we face, the larger issues at play are the narratives that we are approving of taking in, and most importantly allowing to harmfully change, at even the smallest of levels, our interpretation of how to treat people humanely. If this is how we entertain ourselves and engage in marketing, how can we honestly condemn the selling of other humans? If we are not consciously questioning the stories we are being told, we are allowing them to mold and shape how we approach so many other areas of our lives. This will affect us—at individual levels—more profoundly than we realize, and with regard to survivors of trafficking, effect their recovery. Asking what in our culture is harmful to survivors and seeking to explore if we are willing to continue normalizing these things in the name of our own interests, but at the expense of the full vindication for victims is a major aim of this piece.

I am asking what it would mean to come face to face with survivors and hear their experiences? What would we take away from these narratives and consequentially learn about our culture in light of rescued people? Understanding this recovery and examining what they are entering into after rescue is vital in our effort to abolishing slavery, as well as shifting how we think about one another as human beings, not objects.



[1] Culture meaning both the supply and, arguably more importantly, the demand our society has for buying and exploiting individuals.

[2] Demand at even the most subliminal or unconscious capacities.

[3] John Koenig, Deciphering the Language of Emotion, TEDx, 2016. Creator of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Koenig aims to create new words that give us language to articulate and navigate difficult, unnamed emotions.

[4] Gavin Francis, Medicine and Literature: Two Treatments of the Human Condition, 2016. Aeon. Francis is a doctor and writer who has worked with veterans and explores how medicine and literature are complementary in the “treatments for being human.”

[5] These practices bring to life what written works have done all along; give a sense of self that now is able to jump off the page into discussion and in the action of life.

[6] Pauline Chen, Stories in the Service of Making a Better Doctor, The New York Times, 2008.

[7] Homer, The Iliad: Translated by Robert Fagles. (New York: Penguin Books, 1990) pp 15-17. The process of this revision was explored by American scholar Milman Parry, and heavily discussed in Fagles introduction as an understanding of this epic is was developed and “new every time it [was] performed” meaning the literary work showed “reflections of contemporary reality.” This is important to the nature of my paper as I am claiming that literary works are shaping who we are potentially more than ever before. Instead of creating pieces that cater to our audiences, the far reaching implications of the stories we consume today are informing us on how to feel about the varying subject matter.

[8] While stories are constantly being reproduced and altered, what has already been put out into the world, and inevitably will be watched again and again holds more permanence than stories told in the oral tradition in varying ways.

[9] Need is significant because it directly relates to the demand that is necessary for trafficking to even exist.

[10] Simon Thompson, “BAFTA-winning ‘Lion’ And The $250 Thousand Raised to Help India’s Vulnerable Children” Forbes, 2017.

[11] That is, once their story is told.

[12] Lea Winerman, “The Mind’s Mirror” American Psychological Association, 2005. this research is making connections between mirror neurons in monkeys, and the similar mirror systems of humans. Icaboni and other researchers are trying to look beyond the same mirror neurons firing when doing an action as when watching someone else do an action, to the “mirroring” of emotions, such as disgust. This neuron helps us understand mimicry and empathy.

[13] Jean Kilbourne, “Killing Us Softly” (Challenging Media, 2012).

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