I’ve been involved in the anti-trafficking world for about five years now, and I’m still uncomfortable with that phrase: anti-trafficking.
Don’t get me wrong. I am 100% against human trafficking in every way, shape, and form. In my first few years of service, though, I started realizing how exhausting it is to focus on being against something … when it would be so much more life-giving to be for something.
Fighting against human trafficking is important, but speaking about it in combative terms is problematic. To be in opposition to something naturally creates an “us” versus “them” relationship.“We” are the “good guys” (the activists, the criminal justice lawyers, the non-profit or social workers) and “they” are the traffickers. The pimps. The buyers. They are the problem.
This was my initial posture towards human trafficking when I first entered the field. Constructing this dichotomy meant I became angry and cynical towards the “bad guys” pretty quickly.
But anger gets draining. And cynicism becomes debilitating.
Let’s look outside of human trafficking for a moment. If you examine the news from this past week about the racial profiling and fatal shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, it would be pretty easy to declare “I’m anti-racism” or “I’m against police brutalities” or “I’m going to fight against the NRA”. And those are all appropriate things. We should be against racism. We should be against assaults by police officers. We should be against gun violence.
But what often happens when we’re only against something and not for something? We divide the “good guys” from the “bad guys” and then channel our rage towards the latter. And sometimes, we end up seeing extreme cases—like the sniper in Dallas who shot 12 police officers and two civilians because he was "upset with white people” and “wanted to kill white people, especially white officers."
I’m okay with the suspect being upset. He had a right to be. It’s been another heartbreaking week, reminding us that we still haven’t quite figured out racism yet. But retaliation is never the solution. Fighting fire with fire rarely works. Responding to killing with killing only worsens the problem.
Justice is being against racially-motivated killing—but that on its own is incomplete. Justice goes deeper than that. Justice is being for—not just against.
If we’re only standing against something, we’ll never be for the things that matter, the things that actually address the root of the problem. The real change happens when we stand for good – for things like building peaceful and functional communities. Or addressing the deeper problems behind violence, like abuse or trauma, community breakdown, and mental health issues. Or restructuring our expectations of masculinity that otherwise normalizes aggression, reinforces violence, and represses healthy emotional expression.
Yes, I’m against racism and police brutalities. But I’m also for peace—and that’s where I choose to invest my energy.
That’s why I work full-time for the Set Free Movement, a non-profit organization addressing human trafficking. We champion the work of others who are working to criminalize traffickers and buyers. We believe rescuing victims and punishing exploiters are crucial interventions. But that’s not our focus. We spend more time on preventing human trafficking instead of reacting to it. We devote most of our efforts in equipping local leaders to build healthy communities where slavery will eventually have no place.
So, these days, I see myself less as fighting against human trafficking and more as standing for freedom. Sure, sometimes I use the “anti-trafficking” language as a convention, especially when I speak to donors or to a broad audience. But the core of my work has shifted from being against to being for.
I’m for restoration of survivors. I’m for creating viable and dignified job opportunities. I’m for mentoring youth and creating safe spaces for them. I’m for mobilizing communities to address the ways their community can better respond to slavery in their own backyard.
And you know what? I think the world is better off when I funnel my energy into standing for good things—and my personal wellbeing is certainly better off, too.