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Commodification and Its Relationship to Human Trafficking


This presentation will serve to establish a connection between the specific issue of human trafficking and the broader phenomena of human commodification. It is assumed that listeners and readers have a grasp of the concept of human trafficking, but may be less familiar with the term commodification. A concise definition will be provided. This will be followed by a summary of the remedies proposed by LATO. These include providing a foundation for strategies that seek to prevent and eliminate the spread of trafficking, paving the way for the creation of communities of support and networks for those victimized by trafficking, their families, service providers and other stakeholders.

This is distilled into two basic concerns: 1) the urgent need to raise awareness concerning the existence, nature and scope of trafficking in American communities and around the world. Then, based upon this understanding, 2) beginning to identify and mobilize the tools, strategies and other resources that would serve as an effective response to this challenge.

What is human commodification?

Commodifying usually involves a process where something that cannot be owned or is normally accessible to everyone is treated like a product that can be bought or sold. An example of the latter would be to trademark a color. In terms of the former we can speak to how humans are reduced to being treated as things that are then commercialized. In our society, the term ‘priceless’ implies that all people and some things are so precious that a value cannot be determined. Therefore commercialization represents a significant paradigm jump.

A human being or a great work of art cannot (rightfully) be reduced to a price. But the issue is forced, and often effectively so throughout our culture. The most obvious example would be slavery. The sex trade easily fits the construct as well. The Dred Scott Supreme Court decision in the 19th Century was, at its root, a showdown over whether property rights (a person as thing) could trump human rights. The decision came down in favor of the property construct. Martin Luther King Jr. lamented in a number of his speeches about America being a “thing oriented society”.

It is important to establish that the commodifying and ‘thinging’ of life is a widespread feature, some might say a ‘disease’, of our culture. Context is critical in the proper framing of problems and their solutions. It is one thing, for example, to be confronted with a problem with mosquitoes in a ‘normal’ environment, quite another if you happen to reside in a swamp. The conditions in the swamp are so favorable for the breeding of mosquitoes that the only possible remedies would either involve a radical transformation of the environment, that is, draining the swamp, or escape.

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere have revealed that issues that at first glance appeared to be anomalies, such as the misconduct of individual police officers (a few random mosquitoes) are manifestations of systemic patterns and institutional policies (a swamp) that require a very different kind of response in order to be effectively addressed.

Human Trafficking

In the spring of my freshman year at Temple University, my friend David and I took the C bus to a movie theater on Cheltenham Avenue to watch the Academy Award-winning movie “Patton”. A central and significant event depicted in the film is when General Patton confronted one of his soldiers in a military hospital who was suffering from what was termed as ‘combat fatigue’ in those days. Today we would label the condition as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Patton, considered by many to be one of America’s greatest warriors was enraged by the soldier’s presence among the ‘honorably’ wounded, accused him of cowardice and, finally, slapped the soldier, an act which had a negative impact upon the general’s military career.

A few months later Dave accepted an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Twenty-five years later having served as an officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, we talked about how many of the soldiers under his command, who had suffered few physical casualties, were deeply affected by the carnage that they had witnessed on the battlefield.

For many of us, like General Patton, the causes and consequences of emotional trauma are underestimated and mysterious. Trafficking, more so than many other forms of commodification, results in a particularly toxic manifestation of trauma. There is no separation from the labor performed by the body and the body itself. Not only does the individual suffer the devaluation from human being to commodity, but also eventually rejection even as an object of commercial value. She has no place in either the ‘legitimate’ society that she attempts to re-enter, or the subterranean subculture that has also rejected her. Denied even the backhanded nobility of victimhood, if not labeled a moral miscreant and the orchestrator of her own degradation, her predicament is to be ‘disappeared’ by a community that either denies its existence altogether or trivializes it by way of inadequate responses. Her wounds are largely unrecognized and untreated in any meaningful way.

Raising awareness

It is tempting, in fact, comforting to think of the trafficking of mostly women and girls for sex work as an anomaly, but the evidence suggests otherwise. In his 2014 book “A Call To Action”, President Jimmy Carter outlines the state of modern slavery.

Slavery is not, as many might assume, an obsolete relic of the past. It is a global industry that generates $32 billion dollars in profits through the forced labor and bodies of tens of millions of human beings each year. The U.S. State Department estimates that 800,000 people are traded across international borders each year, 80 percent of whom are women and girls and three quarters of which are intended for the sex trade. The Carter Center reported that, each month, between two and three hundred children are flown in and out of Atlanta, Georgia to be sold. Over 40 percent of the buying of sex slaves in Atlanta occurred in the most affluent areas of the community.

When we became aware of the data concerning the situation in Atlanta, our reaction and that of those with whom we shared this information was often one of astonishment. How could this be, and, if true, how could we not know? The answers are critical to being able to understand and effectively respond to the challenges posed by human trafficking in the 21st Century.

Consciousness is a battleground in the war against trafficking

Some things need darkness to survive and thrive. It is difficult to believe that the public would tolerate the trafficking of children in Atlanta if this fact were widely known and understood. There may be some truth to the notion that Americans suffer from a degree of bankruptcy in terms of civic education and general community awareness; however it would be inaccurate and dangerous to attribute the general ignorance of the public to negligence on their part. Something more insidious is likely afoot. While legal statutes play an important role in the regulation of behavior and community standards, a more important factor involves agreements that community members make informally, and sometimes unconsciously that determine what laws to obey or ignore, as well as general community comportment as it relates to what is understood to be acceptable conduct.

In our view, it is inconceivable that any community would find trafficking acceptable. It is equally unlikely that the ignorance and misinformation concerning trafficking is merely a fortuitous circumstance for the trafficking industry; a happy accident. Therefore, it must be understood that raising public awareness is not an attempt to correct an informational oversight in a neutral environment, but a critical counterstrike in a campaign against those who can only successfully operate in the dark. No community can successfully defend itself if it is not aware that it is under attack.

Not in our back yard

Those who would concede the existence of slavery and trafficking will push back as to the proximity of the practice. There is an easy acceptance of these things being a problem in Asia, Africa or Latin America but certainly not the United States. Interesting in that the US owes so much of its wealth, power and reputation to the robust practice of human trafficking. Similarly, we also prefer to believe that our particular class, race or local community would not be impacted. There are several factors that make this difficult to see as a real danger (until it is too late of course), but the sense of disbelief provides trafficking with a cloak of invisibility, making effective detection problematic and prevention nearly impossible.

Personal vs. systemic dysfunction

A neoliberal magician’s trick, is to direct attention away from institutional and systemic abuses, and instead allude to the alleged lapses in personal responsibility and moral failings of those most adversely affected. Human trafficking, as well as other manifestations of commodification is a multi-billion dollar global industry. Like any large scale undertaking the relationships extend deep within the institutional structure of society. The Carter Center describes lax police intervention and weak legal penalties (in Atlanta, until recently the fine for engaging in trafficking was $50), suggesting that the industry is supported by public policy, otherwise legitimate business organizations and institutions.

Recent examples of the manifestations of these practices are the numerous instances of police abuses involving black men, women and children. We are diverted from unethical and criminal revenue collection practices, a shakedown racket disguised as law enforcement, that inevitably lead to confrontations that escalate to violence, through emphasis on the personal failings (alleged) of the victims of the abuses. Those subjected to trafficking are often ‘Trayvoned’ in this manner.

For those seeking to remedy the issue, there is also an incentive to prefer the less daunting path of emphasizing personal responsibility and failures. It provides an illusion of a problem more manageable and less troublesome for stakeholders, such as government, service organizations and other institutional actors, as it allows them to distance themselves from a sense of complicity in the creation and ongoing advancement of these problems, or having to wrestle with the intricacies and challenges of system reform.


We cannot know whether General Patton’s reaction to encountering the effects of emotional trauma was caused by a conscious or unconscious awareness of the threat that it posed to the values of military honor that defined his life. The supposed nobility of warfare becomes untenable when we are aware that many of its practitioners will experience emotional wounds of the type that for some, will never heal regardless of their ability to physically survive the trial.

In a similar vein, rescue does not provide the closure to the ordeal of being trafficked, contrary to what many would imagine or hope. The lives of these individuals, like those of their military counterparts have been permanently altered. The cost to the individual is nothing short of catastrophic. The cost to society, regardless of how it chooses to address this loss is enormous and long lasting. There are no quick and easy solutions. Indeed, to a certain extent there exist no satisfactory solutions at all.

The evolution of commodification

We have a tendency to view history as linear, where life evolves from a less desirable past, to a more desirable present, to a highly desirable future. A different model would be cyclical in nature where we are required to revisit many different things in different stages of development for all involved.

Our ability to see certain things may hinge upon breaking free of what may be antiquated constructs of a particular issue. For many, slavery will always be represented by whips and chains in a plantation slave labor camp setting. Bullying will occur in a schoolyard and the platform for sex work will be the ‘red light’ district or bus station of a town. But in a modern setting a prison can achieve the same functional results of slavery as a plantation, a website can replace the bully in the schoolyard, and sex work, from recruitment to transactions can be made via phone, pad or laptop.

If we can’t adjust to an evolving paradigm then it is possible that these practices can occur literally in front of our eyes without us being able to see them. All that is necessary is to not be able to perceive how the forms employed to achieve these ends will, like all competent enterprises, adapt to fit the resources and challenges at hand.

The path to solutions

Any effective campaign to combat human trafficking must take the following realities into account.

Human commodification and trafficking is a global, multi-billion dollar industry that is lucrative and highly profitable to a variety of stakeholders. Consequently, any strategy to confront the goals and objectives of this industry must respond in a manner that matches the daunting scope of the economic, political, legal, public health and cultural impact exerted by these stakeholders.

The effect of the traumatizing stress suffered by those impacted directly by trafficking is severe and long lasting (a lifetime) with remedies that are currently inadequate or non-existent. With that in mind prevention must be viewed as an ethical imperative and an essential solution in the short term.

The long-term solution must be a multi-faceted effort to create a two-prong infrastructure whose goals are to 1) create an environment that will eradicate trafficking and 2) provide the knowledge, methodologies and systems of support that will aid casualties, their families and communities to realize healing.


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