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When the phrase ‘sex trafficking’ is uttered, the image that’s conjured up is one of dilapidated dwellings, dirty mattresses, and helpless victims held against their will by violent strangers: cross-border trafficking where women or children are smuggled from one country to another and forced into sex slavery.

Although sex trafficking is a major global issue, with an estimated 27 million people being trafficked worldwide, such an image of sex trafficking is not quite accurate. And it definitely doesn't capture what sex trafficking looks like in New Zealand.

Recent research by social worker Dr Natalie Thorburn has examined sex trafficking here and it’s pretty clear that we’ve got our head in the sand as a county when it comes to recognising that sex trafficking is something that happens in NZ. “We have this image of New Zealand as clean, green and not corrupt,” says Thorburn, “but we need to face the fact that we have a hidden and ongoing sex trafficking problem.”

The type of sex trafficking we see in NZ doesn’t fit the stereotype. It’s not cross-border or international trafficking. It involves intimate partners or family members forcing or coercing young girls or young women into sex work and then taking their earnings.

It's called domestic sex trafficking and Thorburn says it’s much more prevalent than we realise. “We’re just not asking the right questions. When victims do present to various services, they’re not picking up that this person is showing signs of being trafficked.” This is mainly due to issues of definition, which are murky and create confusion with frontline service providers who might come into contact with trafficked persons.

Thorburn’s research involved interviews with 16 survivors as well as surveying social workers and health practitioners. Most of the victims were underage, with some as young as 10 when first trafficked. Although two were abducted, most were forced into sex work by their much older male partner. These girls came from fraught or unstable backgrounds and would find solace in older adult men who promised to provide them with affection and stability – what Thorburn calls the “love-illusion”. Once trust was established, these men would then opportunistically start forcing the girls into sex work in order to cash into “easy money”.

“The girls did not see any of the money, nor did they know where it was going, sometimes it was to fund drugs or seemed to be going to gangs.” says Thorburn. As one 15-year-old girl noted: “He controlled everything, I just worked [as a sex worker], I don’t spend and never get to see it. He wanted to make more money and not work.”

All the girls knew the situation was not right, but they either did not question it as they hoped things would get better, or “if they did refuse they were met with violence that kept them in line” says Thorburn.

Another 15-year-old participant in the study noted: “After…six months or so of doing it I did make an attempt to stick up for myself… [They] broke my cheek bone on the left side, snapped one of my teeth in half, four broken ribs and I had black eyes on both eyes.”The sad irony is that our anti-trafficking law is actually pretty robust, but it’s just not being applied. When police are presented with cases of domestic trafficking, they tend to prosecute under sexual violence laws, rather than the anti-trafficking ones, which gives the illusion that the problem does not exist. “It’s just not on their radar as trafficking, it’s downgraded to a lesser offence which minimises the issue,” says Thorburn.

She argues that the trafficking we see in New Zealand is an extension of gender-based violence where “power and control is exerted over girls who have a lack of social resources or other reliable intimate connections”. The girls end up trapped in dire situations of violence and sexual servitude without many viable options of escape: “I knew he would kill me if I left… Because he would put a gun in my mouth a couple of times,” says Kate, 20.

Thorburn says the way to address the issue needs to be top down: “the government needs to provide some definitional clarity and make it a policy focus”.

Although we currently have a national plan of action on trafficking, there is nothing on domestic trafficking – which she says is a huge oversight. When trafficking is not documented by frontline services, it goes under the radar—and then, without figures to go by, it becomes hard to campaign for change. Thorburn says it’s time for us to take a serious look at trafficking and realise that the perpetrators are home-grown, and so are the victims.


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When it comes to sexual politics, we are witnessing history in the making - the #MeToo movement is sweeping the globe.

As part of this conversation, I want to provide some background for the global movement, to better contextualise why it's desperately needed – here and abroad. I also want to address what the movement signals for us, as a society, at this historic juncture.

The phrase "Me Too" was first used in 2006 by North American activist Tarana Burke on Myspace as part of a grassroots campaign. Its aim was to promote "empowerment through empathy" among women of colour in low-income communities who had been sexually abused, assaulted, or exploited.

It was inspired by an interaction Burke had with a 13-year-old girl in 1997 who had been sexually abused. As the girl spoke about her experiences, Burke is reported as saying "I didn't have a response or a way to help her in that moment, and I couldn't even say 'me too.'"

Fast-forward to 2017. As the accusations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced in Hollywood, actress Alyssa Milano encouraged the use of the hashtag #MeToo in an attempt to capture the breadth and depth of the problem. Since then, the Me Too Movement has spread virally and rapidly across the globe, demonstrating the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment, abuse and assault – especially in the workplace, but also beyond.

Questions of power, gender-based violence, various forms of privilege, harassment and long-standing forms of sexual misconduct started being publicly revealed, debated and condemned. And this wasn't just about a few high profile "perverts" or "predators". It was about highlighting the spectrum of sexual misconduct that (mainly, but not only) women experience.

This spans everyday sexism, to the mundane sexist joke, to conscious and unconscious gender bias, to treating men and women differently at the office, to verbal harassment, to unsolicited touch, to sexual coercion, to forced sex, to rape.

The rapid surge of the movement speaks to something. It speaks to a specific time and place in history where we are witnessing a seismic shift in mass consciousness. It speaks to progress. It speaks to hope. It speaks to change.

It's a time in which everyday sexism and tired gender norms are being questioned, once again. Those who seek to maintain the status quo are being held to task.

It's a time in which we are seeing greater gender and sexual fluidity, set among a growing frustration with rigid gender norms and sexual expectations.

It's a time in which the subtleties of power relations between two sexual actors (of different ages, genders, economic status or professional position) are being interrogated openly.

And the experiences of victims are being addressed publicly.

We live in a context where issues of power, harassment and abuse are often structurally stacked against the victims/survivors. When it comes to sexual misconduct, our culture hasn't been able to fully shed the prevalence of "rape myths" or "victim blaming". In an attempt to be fair, our justice system is set up in way that makes it very hard for victims at every stage, and difficult for police to get successful convictions. If you have been a victim of sexual assault, there can be great shame that goes along with that. It can be easier not to speak up. It can be easier not to take on that "victim" status.

If survivors are freely choosing to share their stories with Mau's team, it's not our place to judge that decision. For each of those who speak up, there are many who prefer to remain silent.

The wisdom behind the Me Too campaign is to give voice to those who feel they have had no voice. No one to talk to. No one who will listen. It's a desire to be taken seriously. To feel supported. To have safety in numbers. It's for those who have had no options when it comes to reporting the abuse. No way of getting justice when it is reported.

It's about highlighting the power imbalance between victims and perpetrators. The power imbalance between victims and the police. The power imbalance between victims and the justice system.

It's about renouncing a culture where sexual harassment, assault and violence are both deplored yet widespread and hence normalised.

It's about dismantling an enduring culture of sexism that positions men and women as inherently different, especially when it comes to sex.

It's about reworking the very mundane and taken for granted "norms" of sexuality that create a cultural climate ripe for sexual harassment, abuse and assault.

This campaign is not only sorely needed, but it speaks to widespread acknowledgement that as a society, we want things to change. It's a sign that not only is this change overdue, but those in charge have done too little, so far.

In the absence of adequate policies and legal changes, the media is being used not only to raise awareness, but to help create the impetus for the social and structural change that's urgently needed. A sexual revolution, of sorts. Now that's a movement I want to get behind, rather than try to stifle.


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Are Kiwis racist? That is the (age-old and recently hotly-debated) question.

Amid all the recent discussions following Taika Waititi's comments, I wonder if the psychology of prejudice can offer some insight.

Racism is a form a prejudice involving negative attitudes, feelings or behaviours towards members of a specific ethnic, "racial" or cultural group.

At its core, it is based on the idea that a) we belong to different social groups, based on physical features, geographic location, ethnic identity or cultural practices and that b) our own group is somehow better than the other groups.

The word prejudice is derived from the Latin words prae and judicium, which translates to pre-judgement.

In classic social psychology, prejudice is seen as having three components:

1. Cognitive or thinking - specific beliefs about a particular group, usually based on stereotypes, misinformation, or lack of information.

2. Affective or emotional – strong feelings that are usually negative about a specific group of people and the characteristics or behaviours they are thought to possess.

3. Conative or intentional – the intention to behave in certain ways towards a particular group.

We can add a fourth component which turns prejudice into discrimination.

A behavioural component is harmful words, actions or behaviours directed at certain groups, usually due to stereotypes and negative feelings.

Racism happens on a continuum.

It can range from the least invasive (unconscious bias or negative thoughts), to public displays (negative talk or aggressive actions), to structural or institutional inequalities, dehumanisation, and in the most extreme cases, to the systematic extermination of a particular group (or genocide).

Obviously, in Aotearoa, we are not dealing with dehumanisation (hopefully), or genocide.

We don't have state-imposed segregation, and racially motivated violent attacks are rare.

That's because, in contemporary society, overt acts of racism are generally no longer acceptable.

The way in which certain groups have been treated historically (think slavery, segregation, violence), is not something we put up with.

We also don't put up with one race overtly stating their superiority over other races. These actions are what social psychology calls hostile or old-fashioned prejudice – and they are no longer widespread or socially acceptable.

But this does not mean racism has disappeared. Research has robustly demonstrated that hostile racism has now been replaced by what's called new or modern racism. That is, the subtle thoughts, unconscious bias, or acts of micro-aggression we engage in when thinking about, reading about or being in the presence of those from a different culture or ethnic background. Modern racism is not based on blatant claims of "racial superiority", but is subtly mobilised in various ways.

For example, avoiding eye contact, crossing the road, being ever so slightly disrespectful when crossing paths with people from a different ethnic background, not taking someone as seriously because they have an accent or look different.

It can happen in our talk about people from different cultures. We might critique their way of doing things or question their world view.

We tend to unconsciously favour those who look, act and sound similar to us, while being critical, judgemental or avoidant of those who don't. Modern racism also happens when we claim that the reason various ethnic minorities or indigenous people are now over-represented in negative statistics, is solely based on their choices and actions. This view draws on a form of historical amnesia that seeks to erase the adverse effects that histories of colonisation or hostile racism have created. Another form of related modern racism is opposing affirmative action policies that seek to redress such historic injustices. The recent public disagreements about whether racism exists here or not, seems to be talking across each other about these two different models of racism. But, just because hostile racism is less prevalent, it does not mean that racism does not exist. And if we break it down, I think we will see that the cognitive, affective and behavioural components are still widespread. Think about this example. You're in a dimly lit carpark walking to your car one night, and you see a dark-skinned youngish man across the way in casual clothes – what is the immediate thought that pops into your head?

No matter how critically minded or enlightened you are, our society has conditioned you to think you might be in some kind of danger, which can lead to you feeling worried or apprehensive.

This might lead you to behave in a particular way, which you may not have if that person looked different. Perhaps you rush, avert eye contact, cross the car park as to not walk directly past this person.

You are unlikely to be verbally abusive or physically aggressively but those thoughts, feelings and actions – however mild or motivated by risk-aversion or self-preservation – are based solely on how someone looks or the colour of their skin. And the stereotypes associated with specific groups.

Another example is when employers get CVs from unusual sounding names – what is the immediate internal reaction? The almost unconscious reaction?

What about seeing a woman wearing a headscarf? What's the immediate reaction?

Split second negative judgements on all of the above are acts of racism. And, we all do it. As a nation, we need to acknowledge all forms of racism that may occur across our country and make it one of our national goals to "unlearn" the forms of stereotyping and prejudice that leads to racism and discrimination, however subtle. In of the most well-known classic social psychology experiments educator Jane Elliott demonstrated that racism is not inevitable. It is learnt. It is an irrational class system that can be based purely on arbitrary factors (such as eye colour, in her experiment).

We need to continue to cultivate real tolerance and understanding. We need to re-train our minds to not jump to conclusions about people just based on the way they look.

At the end of the day, we are all part of the human "race" – and while there is diversity, we are all much more similar than we are different.


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