Finding the face behind the numbers

 -by Larry Hawley

Larry Hawley is currently a Defenders Fellow for Shared Hope International, working in Florida to raise awareness on domestic minor sex trafficking through outreach and truck stop campaigns.


“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”     -Mother Teresa

The issue of human trafficking, and sex trafficking in particular, can be overwhelming. 27 million people enslaved worldwide. Over 300,000 young girls at risk of being trafficked into the commercial sex industry in the United States alone. These numbers set our heads spinning and make us wonder: how we can sustain our compassion for those who are suffering when we are likely overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of this issue?

Mother Theresa’s quote illustrates the difficulty faced by many NGO’s  – donations dry up and political will disappears once an issue becomes too large to emotionally process.  The charitable nature of human beings or their outrage against injustice is limited by a process called “psychic numbing” posited by Oregon professor Paul Slovic.  In simple terms, psychic numbing explains the phenomenon that human beings are more likely to act to stop the suffering of one human being than tackling ever-increasing numbers of human suffering.

 NGO’s that seek to end human trafficking worldwide must base their strategy on the studies of Dr. Slovic or will have their cries fall on deaf ears. Our brains can grasp the pain of our fellow man, but do not go through a process of multiplying this suffering amongst our fellow brethren. As Slovic says, “Numerical representations of human lives do not necessarily convey the importance of those lives. All too often the numbers represent dry statistics, “human beings with the tears dried off,” that lack feeling and fail to motivate action.”

The effects of psychic numbing are seen in the media coverage of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  In the HBO documentary “Reporter”, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof was followed on his journey to the DRC to document the atrocities.  Mr. Kristof has spent most of his career seeking out underreported large-scale human suffering in order to bring the stories back to mainland.  The DRC has lost nearly six million people over twelve years during the Second Congo War, the largest death toll in any war since WWII. 

Unfortunately, the magnitude of lives lost in the Congo has not been given justice through the media because raw numbers do not carry weight with audiences, as millions dead without personal stories mean little to our sympathetic eyes. Overall, mainstream media coverage of this conflict has been feeble at best, while natural disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti occupy a large portion of media consciousness due to the ability to ‘put a face’ to the tragedy.  Audiences have been responding to courageous individual stories of survival in Haiti with their dollars and hands while six million remains just a number.

Dr. Slovic’s theory should come as no surprise to a population overwhelmed by twenty-four hour news channels that often focus on two or three individual stories per cycle, i.e. the disappearance of Laci Peterson, the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, or the recent death of Shaniya Davis. These stories garnered national attention because of our ability to relate to the one- an easily identifiable victim. News reporters everywhere have learned the value of the “human interest” story and flood the airwaves with personal details designed to capture our attention.  This practice is not limited to news desks, either.  A number of people have recently been exposed to the issue of sex trafficking from the Hollywood film, Taken

Even if Taken is not the typical trafficking situation, there is something about a story and an individual victim that we ‘get to know’ that draws us in and helps us relate to them. If stories of trafficking are not personalized to our country or neighborhood, we often turn a blind eye. This is ‘psychic numbing’ in practice. How do we make human trafficking REAL?

We in the anti-trafficking community need to tell twenty-seven million individual stories to the localities in which we serve in order to make the reality of trafficking resonate within our communities.  Scale is useful when lobbying politicians, but is overwhelming when engaging citizens in the fight.  Unfortunately, it is not hard to find a local story of a trafficking victim that looks, sounds, and acts like someone’s teenage daughter.  To make human trafficking real to the masses, it takes one story for each community in America.

“What does a child sex trafficking victim look like?” Like you used to look when you were a child…..


1 Comment

Filed under Shared Hope

One response to “Finding the face behind the numbers

  1. Thank you Larry. This is helpful perspective as I’m in the process of organizing a public awareness event in the NW. (

    tom perez

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