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UW-Madison professor explains how misconceptions around human trafficking can prevent systemic change

Sara McKinnon, Associate Professor UW-Madison
College of Letters & Science | Department of Communication Arts
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Sara McKinnon, Associate Professor UW-Madison

There are many misconceptions about what human trafficking looks like and who can be a victim. Those preconceptions can not only be harmful to trafficking survivors, but it can also prevent effective systemic change that could protect people going forward.

Dr. Sara McKinnon is an associate professor in rhetoric, politics and culture at UW-Madison. She’s an expert on immigration and refugee issues, gender-based violence, and international global politics and will also be one of two keynote speakers for this year’s EmPower Luncheon on April 26 hosted by The Women’s Center of Waukesha.

McKinnon notes that some of the earliest immigration laws were designed to prevent the trafficking of white women in and out of the U.S. — known as the white slavery laws. According to McKinnon, a common misconception regarding human trafficking is that the primary perpetrators are men, but women are also frequently involved. It's also commonly believed that trafficking primarily occurs over international borders when much occurs within a nation's borders.

McKinnon adds that trafficking isn't always started through abduction or kidnapping. "The reality is that most traffickers groom their trafficking victims... it could even be someone that someone knows for a while in terms of the dynamic," she explains.

Much of the attention associated with trafficking is often related to sexual abuse, says McKinnon, but "while sex trafficking is an important component of the landscape of trafficking, it's certainly not the only reason why trafficking happens." And its those specific attention points that can take the focus off of the lesser-known sides of trafficking, like the trafficking of adult men or children for labor. McKinnon is also adamant about clarifying the difference between smuggling and trafficking.

"Trafficking happens when someone is ... forced [into a] work situation, so there's a lack of consent to that. That context of consent is really important. The force is really important. Smuggling happens when someone pays an individual to move them across. Borders and smuggling is typically in the context of across international borders," she explains.

McKinnon also notes that many women fleeing abusive relationships and marriages by traveling to the United States under the current law tend to be refused asylum.

She believes one component of what's holding us back in addressing gender-based violence is that before we can properly address it, we would have to hold the mirror turned back on the national context. "It's sticky because U.S. policy makers, U.S. officials cannot say that gender-based violence doesn't happen in this country when one in four women are sexually assaulted and will experience intimate violence at some point in their lives," says McKinnon.

If you or anyone you know is in need of support by the Women's Center, their 24-hour hotline number is 262-542-3828.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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