What Ashton Kutcher represents for me, as a trafficking survivor, is exactly the problem with the global anti-trafficking movement today: paternalism and the trafficking savior complex.
by Laura LeMoon
(Content warning: child sexual assault, trafficking)
With tears brimming his eyes and a quiver in his voice, Ashton Kutcher testified in February at a hearing before the senate foreign relations committee in Washington, D.C. on child sex trafficking.
He discussed, ominously, how he had recently seen a video of a 7-year-old girl in Cambodia being raped. Search for his speech online, and shockingly, no one seems to have one word of criticism for the actor-turned-crusader. Kutcher, who has been championing the fight against sex trafficking for years now, has received little blowback over this speech — despite the fact that he was caught contradicting himself by (allegedly) coming out of a Thai massage parlor in December of 2015. And, according to his own admission, is somehow getting ahold of and watching what is essentially child snuff porn — and then crying about it to the senate, where he’s praised for his compassion.
Unlike Kutcher, I am a trafficking survivor. I have also come to the sex industry at various points of my own choosing and have worked as an escort, adult film performer and street-based sex worker. My identities and ties to the sex industries are neither cohesive nor straightforward. They are complex and non-binary.
What Kutcher represents for me, as a survivor, is exactly the problem with the global anti-trafficking movement today: paternalism and the trafficking savior complex. As a trafficking survivor attending multiple community based anti-trafficking task force meetings, coalition meetings and conferences on a regular basis, it has become abundantly clear to me that there might be — at most — one other trafficking survivor among potentially hundreds of people at these events. This is precisely why Kutcher is problematic.
If there is anything that third-wave, intersectional feminism has taught us, it is that representation matters. Why does it matter? Because without representation, access and inclusion, we are only reinforcing white male patriarchal supremacy. The key to dismantling these hegemonic systems of oppression when you are an ally to the cause and not a survivor is to step aside. Give up your platform and be willing to challenge your personal relationship to power and privilege as someone who has not experienced sexual exploitation.
Being a good ally on the issue of human trafficking means listening, not talking. Survivors are not some abstract notion; we exist. We are not a story for you to rest your ego upon. We are more than just the stereotype and commonly used trope of the Asian massage parlor worker who has no education and speaks no English. In the U.S. it is often English-speaking, educated U.S. citizens who may have been coerced or forced into exploitation by a boyfriend or a parent, or may have been an easy target for sexual exploitation because they are homeless, a runaway youth or a child in the foster care system.
Domestic realities, however, rarely get discussed in anti-trafficking circles in America because white people saving white people is not as sexy and compelling as white people getting to further exercise their savior complex through the racist stereotype of the submissive, obedient Asian sex slave. The savior complex that activists and “allies” typically display is particularly important to be examined through the lens of the white savior complex. It is no coincidence that most of these so-called allies are, in my experience, upper-class white people who seem to continually distance the realities of sex slavery from themselves and reward their egos through the integration of racist stereotypes that they often promulgate as justification for their domination and supremacy in the movement.
Survivors are not mythical creatures, fables or symbols for you, Mr. Kutcher, through which to exercise your savior complex. To talk about me as a survivor without including me in that dialogue is to erase my existence. Good ally-ship to support trafficking survivors is about putting your opinions, your thoughts and your values in the back seat while you allow the survivor to tell YOU what is true and what is real. That truth is what really needs to lead our anti-trafficking movement. Not the intellectual masturbation of a wealthy Hollywood actor who is NOT a survivor.
Therefore, you may be asking yourself, “well, if the anti-trafficking movement needs to be survivor-lead, than what specific steps can I take to aid this effort without erasing the agency of survivors?” Good question.
America is obsessed with fetishizing sex trafficking, even though, statistically, labor trafficking is far more common globally. Arguably, this skewed focus that America has on sex trafficking is because of the puritanical “values” of the religious fanatics who invaded this country in 1492 — and the fact that in America, sex is still all about morality, and morality is a huge catalyst for the “justification” these saviors use when getting involved with this cause.
It’s important to keep in mind that sex trafficking intersects with many other social justice issues like homelessness, oppression, institutional racism, economic instability, intimate partner violence and familial abuse and instability. It does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it something that can be — or should be — reduced to a pamphlet. Beware of anyone who says trafficking is either all this or all of that. Given how deeply rooted sex trafficking can be in these other social issues, it cannot easily be dismantled. That must be acknowledged.
If you as an ally want to help survivors of trafficking, that’s great. However, “help” can no longer mean using the backs of actual survivors and their stories as a springboard to stroke your ego and your savior complex. Particularly if you are a heterosexual white cisgender man. Your job is specifically NOT to help by doing, but by undoing.
The difficulty for many in being a responsible and ethical ally to a survivor-lead anti-trafficking movement is that an ally should be personally gaining NOTHING through their activism. In fact, if you are an ally, you should be losing things through your activism; space, voice, recognition, validation, identity and ego. This is precisely why, in the current non-survivor-dominated anti-trafficking movement, I have yet to meet anyone who is not using this cause as a catalyst to obtain more power and privilege for themselves.
It is really up to us as survivors to take back our task forces, coalitions and conferences for ourselves and fight our way back into the center of our own movement. The author of the Anarchist Cookbook, William Powell, has summarized the mission for all of us trafficking survivors moving forward when he says, “power is not a material possession that can be given, it is the ability to act. Power must be taken, it is never given.”
Laura LeMoon is a queer, disabled sex worker, trafficking survivor and writer. She lives in Seattle with her service dog and best bud, Little Bear.