Mariah was previously the Program Manager of End Slavery Now. She graduated from the University of Cincinnati's DAAP program with a degree in Digital Design.
In my recent blog Visual Stereotypes I went over some of the main reasons why sensational images of human trafficking are harmful and ignore other types of labor exploitation. In light of a recent trending topic on social media, I wanted to address sensationalism and empathy.
About a month ago, a woman by the name of Zola wrote a story in the form of 148 tweets about her experience and part in a sex trafficking situation. WARNING: it is very graphic and is not suitable for all viewers. But that isn’t how she set the story; Zola crafted it as a gripping narrative with humor and character development. Moreover, her storytelling perfectly captured how blurry and confusing the lines can get for people when it comes to sex trafficking.
You can read the story for yourself, but for a short recap, it starts with Zola meeting a young woman named Jessica at Hooters. They both sideline as strippers and eventually travel to Florida together to make some money. Zola soon realizes that Jessica has a pimp (trafficker) whose name is “Z”. He takes the money that she makes as “her rent,” and Zola, at some point, posts sex ads for Jessica on Backpage. The story gets really out of hand, and it ends with “Z” being arrested and charged with sex trafficking.
The internet loved it. People raved about the craziness of the characters. Individuals dressed up as the story for Halloween, and celebrities tweeted about how captivating it was. People wanted a studio to pick up the story and turn it into a movie.
It was definitely a story you had to finish, but through the thousands of shares and favorites for each tweet, Zola's captive audience missed a significant point.
Now, I don’t think this is because people are okay with what happened to Jessica. Rather, I think that our world is so saturated with images and stories fighting for two seconds of our time that, at some point, our empathy runs dry.
Zola admitted to Rolling Stone that she exaggerated parts of her story to make it more entertaining. She says she had posted the story a couple times before, and no one cared; so, in order to get people to care, she spiced it up. And she got exactly what she set out for. "I made people who probably wouldn't want to hear a sex trafficking story want to be a part of it," she says, "because it was entertaining."
We live in a world where there are so many causes you can fight for and care about. We also have constant access to screens and information, and they're all competing for our attention. For anything to stand out, it has to be more graphic, more scandalous and more outrageous than anything else. Because then and only then will we care. That’s what Zola did with her story to get people to care about sex trafficking, and that is what others are doing when they stage gruesome and violent scenes to depict human trafficking. Ultimately, Zola and anti-trafficking activists just want to catch your eye and get you to give their cause a chance.
Many have resorted to packaging a trafficked person's experience and trauma into a single photograph or a dramatic headline because anything more would go unnoticed. If we don't entertain the reader with grisly details, eloquent prose or relatable vernacular then we're lost in a stream of posts. I get the value of quality writing and powerful storytelling - both are necessary to create lasting impact and move people to act. I also respect authors, victims or survivors' need to tell their own stories the way they want to; that means that they must have the space to talk about everything that happened to them - even the parts that are extremely brutal. But these ways of storytelling are extremely distinct from those just aiming for entertainment and shock value: they seek to expose truth and to reinforce that the exploitation of others is unacceptable.
Sadly, as an audience, we miss those two points or are uncomfortable about thinking about the larger implications of stories like Zola's. The problem is, when people only engage with extravagant stories, the natural response is to produce the same type of content. In doing so, we run the risk of desensitizing the public so much that, in the future, even sensational stories like Zola's Twitter saga would barely get a glance. I am not sure what the solution to this is. I just know that we are all trying to fight for the public to care about our cause, and we employ every tool possible to get an emotion other than indifference.
Sewing New Futures helps sex trafficking survivors earn a living through selling hand-sewn products.