On Trafficking, and Why I'm Participating in Dressember

Dressember Challenge, Trafficking Facts
One of this year's Dressember Dresses produced in collaboration with Elegantees.

If your Instagram feed is filled with social enterprises and fair trade bloggers like mine is, you've likely heard about Dressember.

Founded in 2013 by Blythe Hill (I followed her personal style blog when I was in college), the Dressember Foundation is a fundraising nonprofit that benefits anti-trafficking agencies.

But it's markedly different from most fundraising agencies in that it centers around an unusual challenge: wear a dress every day in December. 

Like marathons and charity walks, the idea is that you pledge to follow the guidelines of the challenge and, in return, friends and family donate to the cause on your behalf. 

Now, I like a sundress when the weather is warm, but I shove all my dresses to the dark corners of my closet as soon as it gets nippy outside. I could layer leggings and sweaters and long sleeve shirts over, under, and around my dresses, but it takes a lot of pre-planning to end up with something that resembles an actual outfit, so I lean heavily on jeans in the fall and winter. 

In my case, then, the Dressember Challenge is appropriately named. I didn't get involved for the last couple of years in part because I was still trying to learn how to dress for real winters and I thought I would die of hypothermia if I had to throw dresses into the mix. This year, I'm ready to take it on, and beyond that, I strongly support the work of International Justice Mission, one of the charities Dressember benefits.

According to IJM...

  • There are over 45 million people enslaved today.
  • Children as young as 4 are exploited.
  • People are exploited in both labor and sex industries, with some crossover.
  • Key Industries: internet sexual exploitation, brick kilns, brothels, mines and quarries, tree-cutting facilities, and fishing boats.

Additional Data:

  • Children are heavily exploited in the chocolate industry. Nestle even admitted to it.
  • High demand for steel by the auto industry has increased labor trafficking in Brazil and destroyed parts of the Amazon Rainforest.
  • Trafficking is hard to track because many cases go unreported, but every country, even the US, is affected by it.
  • Trafficking is a 32 billion dollar a year industry. 
  • Approximately 20% of reported trafficking cases relate to labor trafficking (with labor trafficking primarily affecting men) and 80% relate to sex trafficking (with sex trafficking primarily affecting women).
  • The New York Times reported that wage slavery is rampant in the nail salon industry.

I often feel uneasy talking about trafficking because it's been highly politicized and tied into other ideologies, like American Evangelicalism, which can make it hard to get real answers and determine best practices outside of these hyper-biased frameworks. If you're not familiar with typical Christian trafficking rhetoric, it's often tied to "traditional" (read patriarchal) ideas about male and female roles and sexual purity culture, juxtaposing the feminine ideal of chastity with the jarring violation of women's bodies in the sex trafficking industry. In my mind, this rhetoric only further objectifies women, because in both cases, women are merely bodies who do or do not have sex, bodies that need to be protected by "savior" men, bodies that have value only in their relationship to men's needs. 

A more ethical approach to the trafficking conversation would speak to a broader ideal of women's equality and freedom that doesn't seek to shame them for the sex they are or aren't having, and in what context they're having it. 

Women don't need to be "rescued" from trafficking because trafficking makes them impure. They need to be brought out of trafficking because they are humans, and slavery is an egregious human rights violation. 

I was initially on edge about getting involved with Dressember because I didn't want to perpetuate this idea that trafficking must be linked to femininity. Trafficking has nothing to do with being pretty and wearing dresses. It has to do with power and money and moral degradation and systemic failures that cause a sort of societal hemorrhaging. But I decided that the best way forward is to use this unifying and relatively simple challenge to have a conversation about words while also supporting the good work of anti-trafficking agencies.

Because no matter what I think about the language of the movement, it's just a fact that if we consume things, our lives touch on slavery and those enslaved. We eat slave-produced chocolate, wear slave-produced clothing, drive cars made with slave-produced steel, and likely engage with people - at nail salons, food banks, airports, social service agencies, schools, and stores - who are enslaved by the labor and sex trafficking industries. 

So, all that to say that I'm excited about the sartorial and personal challenge of the Dressember Challenge and hope you will find ways to have hard conversations about trafficking this month, whether you choose to participate or not. 

I'll be posting outfits on Instagram as often as possible, so follow along there

Additional Reading from StyleWise:


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6 movies on female exploitation to watch instead of Nefarious: Merchant of Souls

sex trafficking solutions and a review of nefarious

I was recently invited to a viewing of Nefarious: Merchant of Souls at a nearby church and enthusiastically accepted the offer to watch another film about the sex trafficking industry. Though I know more than the average joe about trafficking simply due to the fact that you can't talk about fair trade very long without running into exploitation, I wanted to see if I could gain new insight.

The film starts with the booming, bass-heavy music one typically associates with a crime thriller...

Admittedly, the title turned me off. It sounds like a pirate horror movie. And the production value didn't really help change my perception. The film starts with the booming, bass-heavy music one typically associates with a crime thriller, and a reenactment of a new girl being groomed for trafficking, her abuser pushing her into a dark room full of scared, crying young women. Meanwhile, the voice-over of a "rescued" trafficking victim retells the horrors of her life imprisoned. I don't want to make light of this: I have no doubt in my mind that her experience - and the experience of a million girls, women, boys, and men - is absolutely true. But I hoped that this over-dramatized start wasn't setting the viewers up for the oversimplified narrative of a crime thriller. After all, this is real life.

Producer and director, Benjamin Nolot, was on a mission to discover the realities of trafficking for himself, so he went to Europe, Cambodia, Thailand, and the US to track down traffickers, the trafficked, and the people trying to change things for the better. He discovered that trafficking at its broadest definition was simply "exploiting the vulnerable," and that vulnerable situations ran the gamut from economic despair to childhood abuse to cultural dynamics that supported - and even endorsed - trafficking. Though I have a few bones to pick, mostly having to do with the film's total lack of nuance on policy and individual cultural conceptions (Here are a couple: 1. Sweden's prostitution laws, which are held up in the film as an example of what works, have been critiqued numerous times for having the effect of driving trafficking even further underground, making it more difficult to aid victims and, 2. human trafficking is MORE than sex trafficking!), most of the data presented rang true based on what I already knew about trafficking. And it's hard to argue with the facts.

And yet...

And yet, I couldn't help but want to yell at Mr. Nolot as he contorted his facial muscles grotesquely, listening to the heart-wrenching statistics and personal stories: "You can do better than this!" You see, Mr. Nolot and his ilk don't see that they themselves exploit the exploited by juxtaposing their stories against gaudy graphics, over-dramatic reenactments, and the faces of the do-gooder men trying to "save these girls."

"These girls'" stories are quite enough all on their own. Cut the music, cut the harsh lighting, cut the weeping. Look at them. Let them speak. They benefit from our help, sure, but they don't need us to cry over them. They need us to be strong with them.

It is as awful as it sounds. Let that be enough.

So, if you're thinking about watching Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, maybe watch these movies instead:

  • Whore's Glory - a documentary team follows prostitutes in their daily lives in several countries. Beautiful and striking in its subtlety, the story is told through the eyes and in the words of the women. (Available on Netflix.)

  • The True Cost - a larger look at labor exploitation in the global economy. Not specifically about sex trafficking, but will provide a wider lens with which to view the issue. (Available on Netflix.)

  • Very Young Girls - covers sex trafficking of young girls and women in New York City. (Available here.)

  • Hot Girls Wanted - a look into the porn industry through the eyes of young women who enter voluntarily. (Available on Netflix.)

  • The World Before Her - follows young Indian women involved in the Miss India pageant and the Hindu Nationalist party. A troubling glance at how patriarchy limits women's choices. (Available on Netflix.)

  • Girl Model - a documentary about Russian girls who enter modeling contests in the hopes of having a better life. (Available on Netflix.)

The movies above are about the exploitation of women, not just about trafficking. It strikes me that we can't keep talking about the evils of trafficking if we don't want to talk about patriarchy. Economic inequality and corruption are worth noting, but women keep getting the short end of the stick because of entrenched ideas about our worth. We need to look at the whole problem, not just at sex. Women are conditioned to constantly be thinking about our bodies, to protect and hide them or to flatter and use them as a means to get ahead. Men and women alike are complicit in encouraging us to objectify ourselves. Things are made worse when rapid social change, damage to infrastructure, and economic injustice run rampant. Some of us have more privilege than others, but none of us are free.

And if you want to do something about trafficking, there are a few things I can think of. 

  1. Commit now to stop buying products from sweatshops, non-fair trade chocolate and coffee, and new vehicles. The International Labour Organization estimates that 18.7 million people are labor trafficked globally. Of that, "14.2 million (68%) [are] in forced labour exploitation in activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing" (Anti-Slavery International).

  2. Purchase from social enterprises that support anti-trafficking programs, such as Thistle Farms.

  3. Find local organizations committed to combating trafficking in your area and see what you can do to help. Consider donating time or money. Many communities host meetings on this topic with local law enforcement, so try to attend local events.

  4. My friend, Hannah, is helping get a social enterprise up and running to provide employment to women in the Philippines who are in recovery from lives of trafficking and abuse. They hope to have their screen printing shop up and running by summertime and are currently raising money to purchase equipment and supplies. I strongly believe in Hannah and her team's mission and think they're doing a great job of helping without further exploiting the women they serve.

If you have a bit of money left over (maybe from your tax refund?), please consider donating here:

Support A Beautiful Refuge.

A final thought:

We will never change the world if we keep painting ourselves as heroes and saviors. We will never change the world by calling ourselves "change-makers." I want to change the world, so I do my small part. Context is everything and everyone is multifaceted. We do an injustice to all when we make blanket statements about who's good and who's evil. I try to see shared, equal - always equal - humanity in the face of everyone I interact with, whether they're the exploited or the powerful. And that might not change the world, but I think we want to be seen, to be acknowledged. I believe that the more we share in that, the more humane we become. That means something.