Challenging the Human Trafficking Narrative: Victims, Villains, and Heroes, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Challenging the Human Trafficking Narrative

Victims, Villains, and Heroes, 1st Edition

By Erin O'Brien


170 pages

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What is the moral of the human trafficking story, and how can the narrative be shaped and evolved? Stories of human trafficking are prolific in the public domain, proving immensely powerful in guiding our understandings of trafficking, and offering something tangible on which to base policy and action. Yet these stories also misrepresent the problem, establishing a dominant narrative that stifles other stories and fails to capture the complexity of human trafficking.

This book deconstructs the human trafficking narrative in public discourse, examining the victims, villains, and heroes of trafficking stories. Sex slaves, exploited workers, mobsters, pimps and johns, consumers, governments, and anti-trafficking activists are all characters in the story, serving to illustrate who is to blame for the problem of trafficking, and how that problem might be solved. Erin O’Brien argues that a constrained narrative of ideal victims, foreign villains, and western heroes dominates the discourse, underpinned by cultural assumptions about gender and ethnicity, and wider narratives of border security, consumerism, and western exceptionalism.

Drawing on depictions of trafficking in entertainment and news media, awareness campaigns, and government reports in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, this book will be of interest to criminologists, political scientists, sociologists, and those engaged with human rights activism and the politics of international justice


"A powerful analysis of dominant narratives about human trafficking, revealing how these stories produce problematic, narrow images of a range of actors – women, migrants, governments, NGOs, consumers, corporations, activists, etc - while all too often conflating sex work and trafficking. O’Brien deftly illuminates how global positioning, race, ethnicity and gender work to construct simplistic ideas about the ideal victim as a passive young woman, the villain as the foreign, and the hero as western, and argues convincingly for a diversification of these images and the production of counter-narratives that can render more realistic and accurate depictions. A highly accessible book that urges us to think carefully about matters of agency, complicity, and social responsibility – a must-read for any student or activist concerned about human trafficking."

- Kamala Kempadoo, Professor of Social Science, York University, Canada

"In this enthralling book, Erin O'Brien creates a compelling analysis of the most common stories about human trafficking as told by Western governments, NGOs and through media and entertainment channels. These stories feature blameless victims, evil traffickers and heroic Western actors, but through O'Brien's expert dissection she enables us to see clearly the limits of such uncomplicated tellings and to question the policy approaches and activism which emerge in their wake."

- Gillian Wylie, Assistant Professor, International Peace Studies, Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: The Narrative Code

2. Telling Trafficking Stories

3. From Sex Slaves to Migrant Men

4. Ideal and Invisible Victims

5. Pimps, Johns, and Mobsters

6. Heroic Consumers

7. Everyday Activists and Action Heroes

8. Government Heroes and Villains

9. Conclusion: Narrative Evolution


About the Author

Erin O’Brien is Senior Lecturer in the School of Justice, Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology, Australia. Dr O’Brien’s current research examines political activism and policy making on irregular migration, labour exploitation, and sex work. She is the author of The Politics of Sex Trafficking, and co-editor of Crime, Justice, and Social Democracy.

About the Series

Victims, Culture and Society

Concerns about victimisation have multiplied over the last fifty years. Victims, Culture and Society explores the major concepts, debates and controversies that this concern has generated across a range of disciplines but particularly within criminology and victimology. As the impact of globalisation, the movement of peoples, the divergences between the global north and the global south have become ever more apparent, this series provides an authoritative space for original contributions in making sense of these far reaching changes on individuals, localities and nationalities. These issues in their very nature demand an interdisciplinary approach and an interdisciplinary voice outside conventional conceptual boundaries. Victims, Culture and Society offers the space for that voice.

Each author will adopt a strong personal view and offer a lively and agenda setting treatment of their subject matter. The monographs will encompass a transnational, global or comparative approach to the issues they address. Examining new areas of both empirical and theoretical inquiry the series offers the opportunity for innovative and progressing thinking about the relationship between victims, culture and society. The books will be useful and thought provoking resources for the international community of undergraduates, post-graduates, researchers and policy makers working within the broad field of victimisation.

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Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Criminology