Help Me Help You

Being on holiday this week in Colorado has been so refreshing (the mountains! the air!), but the realities of the world have seeped in, making me want to curl up in front of the fireplace and refresh the terrible news of #endsars in Nigeria, protests in Thailand, and the runaway train of this election cycle. Also, unfortunately, this whole QAnon #savethechildren thing drags on. We have enough to worry about without conspiracies of imagined crimes. While human trafficking is very real, my friend Carter Quinley wrote an op-ed pointing out that this campaign consuming a lot of attention and energy is actually hurting real anti-trafficking efforts.

I keep trying to figure out what drives the #savethechildren folks. Sure, people want to keep kids safe from exploitation and violence. Human trafficking is horrible. But I think, in part, it also has to do with the type of victim people believe is worthy. The fact that there isn’t a similar campaign to #savethechildren of the U.S.’s detention centers, 545 of which have been taken from their parents with no effort to reunite them, shows that people are more concerned with a certain type of victim, perhaps blameless and without the stain of politics or “illegal” migration. These aren’t imagined babies in armoires; they are very real kids with cousins and missed school lessons and, now, institutional trauma from being detained. Who will save them?

Here’s something practitioners know to be true: a hypothetical victim, a faceless, voiceless amalgam of traumas, will ALWAYS be easier to help than an actual victim. In theory, it’s easy to go save imagined child trafficking victims. You just break them out of the armoire and call it a day. When you get into working with marginalized, traumatized or trafficked children and adults, it gets intense. Traumatized kids might: wet the bed, turn to drugs and alcohol, be violent, collapse in on themselves, have sex or even force sex on others. Who wants to help these children? Who wants to deal with the realities of what victimhood and emerging from it actually looks like? I think #savethechildren is so powerful because it ignites a self righteousness in people but asks very little of them. Most damaging of all, it allows people to act on behalf of others. You are a victim, I will save you. Are you a victim + politics that aren’t convenient for me? No thanks. I’m off in search of REAL victims. People seem to prefer imaginary, innocent victims to real ones with agency, with stories of generations of exploitation and the messy aftermath of assault and trauma.

I get that people prefer that because I know from experience that it’s easier to intervene one time than to tackle years of injustice or oppression. I once bought a plane ticket out of detention for a woman who was trafficked to Thailand. You guys; I did it. I saved her! Only that’s not it at all. When she got back to Uganda, she had to face her kids and her sisters who all needed tuition to go to school. She chose to go back to Asia and continue sex work, coming back to the very environment I hoped I was helping her get out of. Here’s the thing: she doesn’t owe me anything. I don’t face her consequences. I don’t have to live her life. I knew I couldn’t commit to sending her kids and her sisters to school for the rest of their lives. She made that happen for her family. She has sex with men for money to pay school fees and take care of her mom. People don’t often want to help or partner with women like this unless they trade control over their body and choices. You’re either trafficked or you’re saved. You’re either a victim in the hands of a trafficker or a victim in the hands of a benevolent donor. In reality, victims’ lives are messy, nonlinear, political (in this way, they’re just like us!). Victims are real kids in detention centers. Victims are survivors.

I think that’s why the #savethechildren campaign is so irksome to me. It holds up the innocence of imagined children as worthy and ignores the very real trauma and pain happening right now. I’ve been reading Chanel Miller’s memoir on her assault, healing and the complexities of her victimhood. In court, she had to operate within a narrow window of perfect victim behavior — not too angry (not attractive in a woman), not too happy (you said you were raped?), not someone who enjoyed drinking or sex (asked for it!). She had to perform victimhood to seek justice. If we only see victims as one thing, we risk denying justice to those who need it, those who aren’t performing our idea of victimhood. We risk overtaking their quest for justice by making it our own. This points to the more foundational truth that we aren’t really trying to save the children at all, we are trying to save ourselves.

I am gonna try to get back out there and turn off the news. I hope you are finding peace where you can.


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