Monday, May 4, 2015

Addressing Sexual Exploitation: Definitions

I have felt the need to post about important terms within this field for a long time. It is extremely important that my definitions for the various components of addressing sexual exploitation are clear before I go on to describe my key conclusions. Bear with me - there is a lot of information packed in here. Hopefully this visual will help piece it all together:

It is important to understand that the above diagram is what addressing sexual exploitation would look like in an ideal situation. Unfortunately, mismatched responsibilities fall to some entities, due to lack of resources or organization. Furthermore, groups addressing sexual exploitation do not always operate in a framework that is most effective for the problem at hand. I will discuss this more in the final part of this series.

*Just a quick note before I go on - the diagrams that I will use for the next two weeks are my own. I am still working to perfect these and hope to one day use them in a more academic platform. Please do not reproduce or redistribute these while they are still in this working phase. I simply want to use visuals to help communicate all that I have learned on this journey.

Defining the Terms

The most important term to clarify is "sexual exploitation" itself. Many people use the words "trafficking," "sexual abuse," or "gender-based violence" as synonyms for this term. I once did as well. However, during this project I have chosen to use what I believe is the more accurate description of what is actually being discussed in these conversations.

The term trafficking is a legal one. While many cases of sexual exploitation are, indeed, trafficking, it is very dangerous to use this term too broadly. Take Somaly Mam's mistake as an example. Furthermore, there are many forms of trafficking beyond those involving sexual exploitation. Bonded labor is a huge problem in today's world, and I hope that my focus on a particular type of exploitation does not diminish the urgency for addressing other forms.

Sexual abuse, by my definition, always accompanies sexual exploitation. However, the opposite is not always true. Sexual abuse is not always exploitative, but sexual exploitation is nearly always abusive in some form. I have used these interchangably in some blog posts, but for this series I will only use the term "sexual exploitation."

On the other hand, gender-based violence as a term is far too broad. Many other violent acts are encompassed in this - genital cutting, domestic violence, and sex-selective abortions. These are not, however, cases of sexual exploitation. Originally my project's title used the term "gender-based violence," but I quickly responded to a need for a more narrow topic by focusing sexual exploitation in order to make the best use of my limited time frame.

So now that I've described what sexual exploitation is not, let me explain what it is:

Sexual exploitation is any sexual act that takes advantage of an individual's vulnerability in order to satisfy a more powerful individual's desires, whether sexual or not. This can include rape, prostitution, or sex trafficking. I want to note here that my project has focused on women - as most organizations are working with women. However, there is a massive and growing problem that involves the sexual exploitation of men. Once again, I hope my narrow focus does not communicate a narrow victim demographic. On that note, I highly recommend that all of you take the time to read this blog post by a dear friend of mine about this very topic.

So why does defining this so clearly matter? Aftercare must be tailored to the individual, and if the same care is delivered to all survivors lumped into a category of "traumatized" or "trafficked," we are doing them yet another injustice. Even within the category of sexual exploitation, casework is highly variable. More on that later.

One final general clarification - it may seem that I use survivor and victim interchangeably. There are many ongoing debates about using the word victim for those who have survived sexual exploitation. I personally think it is important to recognize that these individuals were often a victim of a crime. However, I try to use the term survivor more often - particularly when talking about restoration outside of a legal context.

Now that all that is clear (I hope) - on to the rest of the pyramid:

Types of Entities:

  • Agencies: these groups act as the "front-man" for the work against sexual exploitation - elevating the cause, conducting research, and forming policies; example: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
  • Organizations: do the necessary work of fundraising and information-gathering so that teams on the ground can focus on their cases and projects; example: Terres de Homes
  • Teams: take on projects and individual cases in order to prevent, intervene in, or restore after incidents of sexual exploitation; example: Herzwerk

It is important to note here that these entities cross all sectors. They can be government-run departments, privately funded NGO's, social enterprises, or anything in beween. In my travels, I have discovered that the best method for addressing sexual exploitation is to make use of the strengths within these various sectors. More on that in my final post of this series.


These frameworks will be discussed in much more detail for the coming three days, but here is a short introduction.

  • Justice: agencies promoting the work to fight sexual exploitation must have a clear understanding of what justice looks like and who has the responsibility to pursue it
  • Context: organizations that are creating goals and supervising projects must be aware of the contextual factors that will play a role in these projects
  • Individuals: teams on the ground must prioritize the individual's well-being when addressing sexual exploitation - otherwise the overall pursuit of human rights has been completely missed

Areas of Focus for Teams:

Prevention - "Addressing the Whole Picture"

Obviously, I have not spent a great deal of time developing my thoughts on prevention, since this project is focused on aftercare. However, many of the organizations also have prevention projects, and the most successful ones :address the whole picture" by doing all of the following:

  • Understand culture and history of the target population
  • Protect the target population from poverty and violence
  • Promote awareness and empowerment among the target population

Intervention - "Two Sides of the Same Coin"

This is a tricky one, and once again I haven't spent a great deal of time piecing together my conclusions. In my experiences, though, I have found there are two prevailing philosophies regarding intervention in cases of sexual exploitation:

  • Individual initiative to exit
  • Force of law to rescue

Part of the debate is quantity versus quality - you can rescue more people in larger numbers when you conduct raids. However, the organizations that empower individuals to leave these exploitative situations by their own initiative see more long-term success in restoration. The rest of the debate has to do with differing priorities.

My opinion: these are two sides to the same coin. There are situations that require the force of law, and there are times where this would be damaging for all involved. As long as teams, organizations, and agencies operating with either method make the individual their priority, assess the context, and pursue justice, I believe that these two methodologies can coexist and bring about positive change.

Restoration - "Looking through the Diamond"

Next week I will cover all of the following things in great detail, but as an overview, here are the four necessary dimensions of aftercare for survivors of sexual exploitation:

  • Economic
  • Legal
  • Clinical
  • Social

Looking Ahead

For the remaining four parts of this series, I will describe in more detail each of the three frameworks that I have introduced here and conclude with a discussion of the challenges faced by all of these entities. Next week, I will feature teams that are working on the restoration piece - as this has been the focus of my project this year.

Once again, thank you for your understanding in not reproducing or redistributing this information. Feel free to share the link to my blog with others you feel may be interested, though!



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