The Traffik Report

EP1: Herstory of trafficking: 120 years of regulating sex, morality and women's bodies

October 14, 2021 Elvira Truglia & Fay Faraday
The Traffik Report
EP1: Herstory of trafficking: 120 years of regulating sex, morality and women's bodies
Show Notes Transcript

This season of The Traffik Report is all about busting myths that people have about what trafficking is, where it happens and who it affects. We kick the season off by asking, why do we even refer to the economic and sexual exploitation of women and gender diverse people as “trafficking”? Where does that word come from? What assumptions are built into it? Elvira Truglia interviews Fay Faraday about the word’s origins, steeped in colonial race fears and sexual panic, and how that narrative continues to shape legal and policy responses to this day.

Hosted by Elvira Truglia and Fay Faraday

Click on the 'Transcript' tab to read the show transcript.


Here is a link to Fay’s 2019 report, Deconstructing ‘Trafficking’ that is discussed on the show. 

This community-based research, prepared for the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic’s Migrant Women’s Rights Project, highlights the gaps between women’s lived experiences and dominant labour and sex trafficking approaches. Have a look at it and join the conversation to advance legal rights and design responsive service delivery for migrant women’s rights! 

This week’s episode looks at how trafficking is framed in international law and policy. Here's a link to the Palermo Protocol under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime that is the key document in international law addressing human trafficking.

The International Organization on Migration (IOM) works to promote international cooperation on migration issues. In 2017, the IOM organized the Global Compact on Migration to discuss various challenges related to global migration. For insight on how trafficking issues are framed in today’s international context, take a look at the IOM’s thematic paper on Combatting Trafficking in Persons and Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

To find out more about the range of issues and perspectives about human trafficking, see the annotated bibliography on human trafficking by the Refugee Research Network, commissioned by the Canadian Council for Refugees. The bibliography provides an overview of relevant literature on labour trafficking, forced labour, sex trafficking, forced marriage, child trafficking, violence against women, and issues that impact temporary foreign workers, non-status/undocumented workers, Indigenous women, and other groups.

Join the conversation

We’re interested in your feedback and how the podcast can help build mutual aid and communities of practice.

In this episode, we launched a ‘name challenge’. Can you think of a better term for ‘human traffcking’? Write to us, post on Facebook or tag us @TraffikReport with your suggestions!

Contact us:

Twitter: @TraffikReport



Credits: This podcast is produced by Elvira Truglia and Fay Faraday. We thank the Canadian Women’s Foundation for their financial support which has made this work possible.

For all those listening to the podcast from coast to coast to coast on Turtle Island, we acknowledge that we are creating this work on the ancestral and unceded territory of all the Inuit, Metis, and First Nations people

The Traffik Report
EP1: The Herstory of Trafficking 

NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the audio before quoting in print.

Elvira Truglia  00:46

Welcome to The Traffik Report, a podcast that navigates sex and labour trafficking in Canada. I'm Elvira Truglia. If you're wondering if trafficking really happens in Canada, what it looks like and how prevalent it is, you'll want to tune into our first season. It's all about busting myths, and closing the gap between the image and the reality of trafficking. In this episode of The Traffik Report, I speak to my co-host Fay Faraday, about how the concept of trafficking has been written into law and policy over the last 120 years. Fay is a social justice lawyer, professor, and advocate. And in a recent research paper, Fay reflects on the word trafficking, she finds a problematic term steeped in colonial history and racism. But it's also a necessary evil in order for survivors to access services and legal remedies. We'll be talking about this dilemma. But first...


So what is the first thing that you think of when you hear human trafficking?


That's a loaded question. That's literally the first thing that comes to mind. It's a loaded question.


Just that it's a horrific situation, and a horrible tragedy. It's nothing but but disturbing thoughts. 


Generally, I'm imagining like Asian countries, even though I know that's a stereotype.


I guess I just think about slavery.


Obviously, like usually little girls taken away and sold off for prostitution.


I pictured kids in container trucks, 


people shoved into the cargo on boats,


people huddled into a van being smuggled across the border in the middle of the night. 


I actually don't know that much other than the movie taken with Liam Neeson where his daughter gets kidnapped for a human trafficking ring, and he saves her. 


It's so close to home there, it happens in our neighborhood, these people are taking advantage of them because of maybe a bad situation they're in. It's kind of crazy thinking about how they might even get out of it. 

Elvira Truglia  03:15

So in the voice clips we just heard, the dominant image of trafficking is the sex trafficking of women by people in organized crime. This image is the starting point for today's conversation with Fay. And it's why we're both doing this podcast and why you Fay and other advocates have been working to deconstruct the term trafficking, can you walk me through why the dominant image of trafficking is so problematic?

Fay Faraday  03:40

So absolutely, Elvira, I'll be happy to walk through that. And there's a number of different levels at which the image is problematic. But before I get into that, I really want to make clear that I am not in any way, discounting the fact that that is a reality for a number of women that they are abducted by organized crime gangs, and are forced into the sex trade. But that's not the totality of the experience. And it simplifies the nature of economic coercion and sexual coercion of women. At one level, the image is really problematic because it presents the problem as being of naive young women, typically white women who have been misled or duped into dangerous relationships. And it denies that women have agency, it denies that often women end up in coercive relationships not because of their naivete, but because of systemic poverty and gender discrimination which prevents them from having economic security and safer options. So we have to have a much more complicated conversation about what are the experiences of gender discrimination and economic coercion that are a core part of our economy that put women in positions where they become exploited. And at another level, the dominant image is problematic, because it drives the way that law and policy are shaped. If law and policy are shaped around this stereotype that's incomplete, then it doesn't deliver the kind of protection that women actually need on the ground. And in some cases, it makes them even more vulnerable.

Elvira Truglia  05:49

Can I just follow up on that Fay, you're referring to how constrained and how narrow the definition of trafficking is, and you're referring to how this connects to the experience of women? Is there anyone that's left out of the conversation around trafficking?

Fay Faraday  06:04

There are so many people who are left out of this image. First of all, it's not exclusively women who are subject to trafficking, it is absolutely gender diverse people, trans folks and men. The way that economic coercion happens for different populations are different, but there are very distinct gender dynamics to it. And we can talk about that. But the label of trafficking is also incomplete. Because by focusing in the way that this stereotypical image does on sex trafficking, it ignores the fact that there are many different forms of economic coercion that are trafficking. And it doesn't examine how that economic coercion becomes the foundation from which to exert even greater coercion through sexual needs. When I say that there are different kinds of behaviors that are captured under an experience of trafficking, there are absolutely migrant workers who are coming across borders in official documented channels, who through the structure of the law are driven into work relationships that are absolutely predictably coercive and exploitative. There are undocumented people who, because of the gendered and racial restrictions on their mobility have to pay people to get them across borders. There are forced marriages where women are brought into Canada. So trafficking isn't just about sex trafficking. There are all different forms of economic coercion, that are also captured under that umbrella. And to the extent that there's a disproportionate focus on sex, we miss all the other ways in which coercion happens, whether it's through migrant labour, whether that work is documented or undocumented, whether it's international students who are being exploited, whether it's through forced marriages, whether it's because the hardening of immigration laws means that for some women, the only way to get across borders is to pay someone to take them across borders, there are many other experiences of trafficking that are left out. And by creating this really simple image of what the problem is, it prevents us from getting at the root causes of what makes women and gender diverse people exploitable in these ways.

Elvira Truglia  09:03

Thanks for that Fay. And you also critique in your paper, the fact that legal responses to trafficking are framed within the criminal justice system. And we know that this system focuses on an individual predator or predators who need to be punished for crimes against victims who don't have agency. So really, it's this crime, punishment, rescue framework that's being used. Can you just expand on that a little bit, really, what's wrong with that picture, or using that framework?

Fay Faraday  09:32

By thinking about this problem exclusively through the criminal law lens, or even predominantly through the criminal law lens, it frames the problem as one that is somehow an aberration to what happens in our society, generally. It frames it as abnormal behavior that is being perpetrated by bad people. Who are acting outside of social norms. That's not exclusively the case, when we think about what the root causes are of trafficking, it's often deeply rooted in the way that gender discrimination and racial discrimination, create structures and systemic poverty for people and limited options for mobility. So thinking about that through the criminal law lens doesn't enable you to get at root causes. And it allows our society to have this real, privileged innocence around what the problem is. Because if it's just a few bad people who are acting in bad ways, we don't ever have to interrogate how our economic system actually works. So that's one issue, it also creates this image of who is the deserving victim. That means it has to be a woman who has been duped who has been gone into this situation with an innocence, where she's been misled and subject to fraud. And that's also not often the case. I mean, it's not always the case, it's that women have agency they know oftentimes that they are going into risky, dangerous relationships. But as our friend Susan Berthiaume says, they're selecting options off the world's shittiest buffet. When you only have really constrained options for action, and you're facing extreme poverty, then the options you choose are an exercise of agency, and they don't enable you to meet that image of the woman who's been defrauded. You know, like I said, with some situations of migration, the only way that women can leave their country and reach someplace where they can pursue economic survival requires that they pay someone to take them across borders. So by applying the criminal law and looking at this through the criminal law, we completely lose sight of the way that power operates in our society. And by focusing so specifically on sex trafficking, it embeds the entire discussion about human trafficking within a polarized debate about commercial sexual activity. So it makes it even more difficult to engage in a complex, nuanced conversation about what needs to be done to actually respond to the experiences of the women going through this form of coercion. You know, the last thing that I will add on that in terms of the criminal law frame is that for many migrant women who are experiencing relationships of economic and gender coercion, for them reaching out to the police, can be much more dangerous than anything else, because the activities in which they are engaged, may render them out of compliance with their work permits, or if they are undocumented, then going to the police will often lead to their detention and deportation rather than seeking assistance. And even if they go to seek support for criminal assaults against them, rape or sexual assault, then they're still at risk of being detained and deported, rather than having their circumstances of harm addressed.

Elvira Truglia  14:00

You know, I'm hearing your response to why this is rooted in the criminal justice system. And the question that comes to mind is really how did this happen? It didn't just happen overnight. And you referenced Susan, who was a member of The Traffik Report Collective who really has a knack for keeping it real and just zooming in on "the world's shittiest buffet", like how do we get to a place of having "the world's shittiest buffet"? And I think your your research paper answers that question, you zoom back into how trafficking is rooted in colonial history, and an effort to regulate morality and women's bodies and you're really talking about white European women in particular. So for the sake of our listeners who haven't had the chance to read the paper yet, can you take us back to the turn of the 20th century to explain this phenomenon? How did this come about?

Fay Faraday  14:52

This really did all begin at the end of the 19th century, and into the turn of the 20th century. You know, at that time, there were some really big shifts happening in society that flowed from industrialization, the move of people to the city, the ability of women to earn independent incomes. And when I'm talking about women in that context, I'm talking about middle class women, because working class women have always worked. But you have this shift among the so called respectable classes, where women have more freedom, to move into urban settings, to work on their own. And that was perceived as a really profound threat to both the sexual norms and the social norms of the society at the time. Simultaneously, there was a rise in immigration from places that were not white dominant. So having waves of immigration into Europe that were movements of racialized people added to that moral and sexual panic. And what emerged was this driving concern about the white slave trade. That is what they called it at the time. And it was a fear that white women's sexual virtue was at risk from predatory male sexuality, particularly of racialized male immigrants. So you know, that framing comes from a very particular time in history and a very particular location based in Western Europe. That panic around the white slave trade was taken up by evangelical social gospel movements, and it gave rise to vigilance societies that sought to monitor women and to create protections for them. All of that translated into a number of international conferences by lawmakers in Europe, trying to figure out how to protect women in this context. And so the first piece of law at the international level to address this came out in 1904, and was called the international agreement for the suppression of the white slave trade, you've got that framing right at the beginning of this movement. It was a very deliberate framing around both race and sex. While at the time there was a bit of disagreement around that dominant position. Let me read you a quote that came out of that initial conference, which showed that the intention was never to protect all women equally, it was about protecting white European women. The report from the 1902 Commission that gave rise to that agreement expressly stated that the harm they were trying to address was "the victim procured in a northern country, conveyed across a central country who's been delivered up in a southern country." That's how they imagined the social ill. And that framing was replicated in a number of subsequent international agreements. There was one in 1910, another International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade, the League of Nations had two further agreements in 1921 and in 1933, which were framed as being Conventions for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children. And then in 1949, it was consolidated even further by the United Nations, which introduced the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic of Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others. So completely embedded in this frame of a moral discourse around commercial sexual activity, gender norms, and race fears. And along with that at the international level, at the national and local levels, we saw a transformation of commercial sexual activity from being a low level nuisance offence to a serious criminal offense. So those things were all happening together. 

Elvira Truglia  19:38

How does that connect to today both sort of on the international scene but also on a national scene? Where are we at in terms of the legislation?

Fay Faraday  19:46

Well, the legislation that sets the frame at the international level is the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which was introduced in, or adopted in the year 2000. So the entire discussion of trafficking falls under that same frame of organized crime. And you know, that language of trafficking that's usually used for trafficking in illicit goods like drugs or weapons, right, gets applied to women, as well, right, to people. The document that specifically addresses trafficking is the Palermo Protocol, which is attached to that Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. Its name is the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. It defines trafficking in persons as being that sort of recruitment and harboring of people by means of threat, use of force, or other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, or the abuse of power. It focuses specifically on the exploitation of those people for the purposes of prostitution, or other forms of sexual exploitation, but also includes forced labour or services, slavery, and similar practices. And it continues that model of rescue because it explicitly says that the consent of a victim of trafficking is irrelevant. It is still a crime. You know, so that really carries forward and creates the foundation for that image, you know, the one that people refer to all the time, like in the film "Taken", you know, some of the the voices at the beginning referenced. For Canada, Canada ratified that UN Convention in 2002. And just a few years after that all of that language was incorporated into Canada's Criminal Code. So that is the foundation of our current law on trafficking. Trafficking is also recognized under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. But there's a lot of baggage attached to how we think about the problem. And you know, how people can squeeze themselves into boxes in order to get the remedies.

Elvira Truglia  22:14

So back full circle, you've really done a great job of illustrating really how this problematic term that's inscribed into law and policy is something that we're facing, that we live with. And you ask in your article, this really provocative question, like, can the notion of trafficking be rehabilitated, or do we need new language? So I wanted to ask you, if you could, you know, share your response with us? Do we need new language? 

Fay Faraday  22:41

You know, I think we're at the very early stages of this conversation. And I think it's why it's so valuable for us to take the time to explore it in the depth that requires through the podcast. There's learning that needs to happen at different levels. The first one is that there has to be a much more complex, nuanced understanding of what coercion is, and how it operates in an economic system to prey on the poverty that is driven by race and sex discrimination. We have to locate our understanding of what coercion means in that reality, because the forms of coercion are completely opportunistic. What I mean by that is that people will always exploit others for profit. And the way that they do that is to locate the vulnerabilities and find the ways that they can get around laws. So if, for example, there's strict regulation of transnational recruiting of migrant workers, then what we've seen is that people shift their exploitation to exploiting international students instead. You know, so if we look at the manifestations of harm, rather than the root causes that facilitate it, we're not examining the problem in its full context. You know, you ask the question, do we need new language? That's really tricky. The way that legal remedies are framed is through the language of trafficking. So on the one hand, in order to make sure that people can access legal remedies, advocates have been arguing for an expansive interpretation of what the word trafficking means. But I've been working with the term "gendered economic coercion". And yeah, I know it doesn't roll off the tongue so nicely. But what it signifies is that, you know, what's at the base of all of this is economic coercion, and that the ways that economic coercion happens are deeply gendered. So for example, when men are subject to trafficking and forced labour, the way that that is manifest is through their coercion into hard physical labour. When women, gender diverse, and trans people are subject to economic coercion, that often involves the sexual component. And in the current framing, there's really no attention to the underlying economic conditions that make the sexual coercion possible. It's like, people only care when the sex starts, as opposed to recognizing it as part of this continuum of a way in which they are being coerced, that has a very gendered manifestation.

Elvira Truglia  26:04

Right. So on the one hand, there's acknowledgement that trafficking is the language of law and policy. And as you've described it, it's something that's necessary for practical reasons. On the other hand, because it's too narrow, there's this search for perhaps new language that creates space and calls out root causes. So can these tensions, and they're really significant tensions, can they be reconciled? What do you think?

Fay Faraday  26:31

I think that's what we're really struggling with right now is to figure out what is the best route to deal with having a much more mature, complex conversation about these issues. As a reality, people who are advocates need to use the language that exists because that's what exists right now. And there's a risk that in trying to make that term meaningful, we expand the definition to such an extent that it covers everything, and it has no meaning. You know, do we break things apart and actually recognize that a lot of the things that are captured under the umbrella term "trafficking" are actually already recognized elsewhere in the Criminal Code as discrete criminal offenses, like fraud, like abduction, like kidnapping. You know, the one thing that doesn't recognize is economic coercion, which can be recognized under the definition. So it's not an easy thing to work with. But I think we need to find a way through so that we're not trying to simplify any of our understanding around this. We need to have an approach that does get at the root causes, does allow us to have those difficult conversations. You know, right now, the banner of trafficking is something that is being waved by people right across the political spectrum. And they're able to do that, because that simplistic framing doesn't challenge any of the structural and systemic discrimination that lies at the root of the behavior. So we need to take away that comfort, that allows people to ignore the reality of the dynamics at the root and focus on that. But if someone can come up with a snappier term, than "gendered economic coercion", I'm happy to hear your suggestions. But I think whatever we do in whatever form we're advocating, we need to bring it back to those root dynamics, the gender discrimination, the race, discrimination, the structural imperatives that make people poor.

Elvira Truglia  29:04

Thanks so much for that call out to our listeners. That's going to be a challenge throughout this first podcast season, can you come up with a different term other than human trafficking? Thanks for that Fay. And also another thing, I'll just comment, that I really appreciated about your article is as how you you mentioned that it's not just a theoretical conversation, this conversation or debate around language, because it's actually something that impacts people. It impacts people in very deep and profound ways. And that's definitely something we're going to be exploring and digging deep into throughout the rest of the podcast season. And you've touched on so many themes and subjects today that we will be picking up during our first season. So I want to just thank you again for giving everyone a taste of what's to come. 

Fay Faraday  29:48

Well, thank you and I'm really excited to hear the conversations that will be unfolding throughout the rest of the season.

Elvira Truglia  29:56

Well, that wraps up today's episode of The Traffik Report. Join us next time for a conversation with two members of The Traffik Report collective, who share their lived experiences with sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Fay Faraday  30:19

Make sure that you subscribe to The Traffik Report wherever you get your podcasts. Also, take time to check out our website at Remember, that's traffik with a K. We'll be posting resources and links that relate to each of the episodes that we have. And we'll also be posting the transcripts from the show. So check it out, and tune in next time. My name is Fay Faraday

Elvira Truglia  30:46

And I'm Elvira Truglia. In today's episode you heard from Fay Faraday, social justice lawyer, professor and community organizer as well as co host of The Traffik Report. Special thanks to Camilla Ho at PLEA Community Services in Vancouver and to Rebecca Alexander at the Elizabeth Fry Society in Edmonton for asking people what comes to mind when they hear the word trafficking and for recording the responses.

Fay Faraday  31:11

This episode was produced by Elvira Truglia and Fay Faraday. Our theme song called "I'm Not Alone", was created by youth at the PLEA Community Services Society in British Columbia. This podcast is made possible thanks to the financial support of the Canadian Women's Foundation.

Elvira Truglia  31:29

Thanks for listening to The Traffik Report, speaking truth to power on sex and labour trafficking. Until next time.