Monday, November 27, 2006

I’ve always been particularly angered by human trafficking, especially trafficking for sex, and been aware that ICTs are playing an increasing part in this trafficking. But I hadn’t considered a big dimension to the topic instigated predominantly by ICTs, highlighted in a straight-talking and accessible article available from the GenderIT website (thank you, Chris, for the pointer…) - - and that’s the trade and trafficking of images of humans. From the theft of personal home-made videos for distribution on the net, to the images of women used as advertisements for later purchase in the flesh, the images, and not only the women themselves, have become an issue. As the article points out, this raises a lot of questions, such as: where does porn end and trafficking in images begin? How can anyone be sure that the women portrayed in the porn images they view are there in the full knowledge of what is being done, are being fairly paid, or have given their full consent, for their images to be distributed, sold and viewed?

Intrinsic in this question is one bound up in many other issues concerned with sexual acts of any kind, and that is the question of consent. Whether a woman brought up in poverty, fearing violence if she objects, unaware of other possible choices (if there are any), is able to give meaningful consent applies as much to consenting to have her images trafficked as it does to having herself trafficked.

But for me, two of the most pertinent points made were regarding whether the focus on the ICTs is misplaced: are we just shooting the messenger?? When women are trafficked in the flesh, we don’t blame the trains, boats and planes that trafficked them! Although, for me, it’s significant that, unlike trains, boats and planes, one of the strengths of ICTs as the transporters, and images as the cargo, is that they are widely on view during their journey to their recipients. But nevertheless I take the point, because what that point raises is important: whether we are confusing a technical tool with the culture utilising it. What’s surely more imperative is the existence of a culture that has no problem with making money by exploiting women, and seeking the normalisation of this abuse in the process – not the means by which they go about it.

The other big issue is the social uncertainty regarding the connection between the image and the real: it’s another of pornography’s issues: for porn’s purposes it’s very convenient to posit that images aren’t hurting anyone, but such a nonchalant attitude towards images, combined with the desire to make as much money as possible from them, can only make the methods by which these images are obtained decreasingly concerned with the human models necessary for the manufacture of the images. And that’s very much the point: that humans are a necessary part of the process. As far as I’m concerned, the now multiple uses of multiple media offer us numerous methods with which to make images of ourselves: these processes do not create a disconnection between us and our images – since for most of us, at least in the West, we are rarely completely disconnected from a phone, or a computer, or a TV – they create an extension. In this way we are our images, and therefore trafficking of images is as much a human violation as is the physical trafficking of the humans themselves.

Addressing the culture and social attitudes that endorse and seek to replicate and perpetuate the negative sexualisation of women and their images is an extremely tall order, since it requires a deep interrogation into the psychology of each society, and the scrutinising of the culture within which we are raised, from the roots upwards, and from the heart outwards. We need to question when and how it became desirable, even necessary, for men to objectify women in the flesh – and in time why and how fleshly desires transferred and found satisfaction in images of that flesh. It is in the knowledge of the daunting dimensions of such an enquiry that sees those who this matter concerns turn to ICTs in order to, if not address this deeper aspect of the problem, at least slow the process and put as many spanners in the works as possible. And the strategy for deliberate disruption and interference should not be underestimated. The same GenderIT article describes how ICTs can be, and are being, reappropriated to retrieve victims, and to warn and attempt to prevent future victims, as well as making attempts, through the flipside of ICTs’ wonderful capacity for spreading information, to instigate the social changes in attitudes and perceptions that are what is needed to turn the tables on every kind of trafficking.

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