Britain’s International Slavery Museum is facing a backlash over a “dehumanising” exhibition on human trafficking in the porn industry, which features an image of a naked woman with tape over her mouth and abusive comments plastered on her body.
The museum in England’s northern city of Liverpool has come under fire for partnering with a U.S.-based lobby group, Exodus Cry, which seeks to stop pornography and shut down commercial sex work and has been criticised for stigmatising sex workers.
A tweet by the museum announcing the exhibition this week attracted dozens of critical responses, including from anti-trafficking activists and academics who said the artworks were “trauma porn” and “damaging, sensationalist and dehumanising”.
“This is so problematic on so many levels,” said Inga Thiemann, a law lecturer at Exeter University who teaches on modern slavery and human trafficking.
“Exodus Cry are fundamentalist and the ‘artworks’ are textbook examples of stereotypical, hyper-scandalised, and oversimplified anti-trafficking campaigns,” she said in a tweet.
The group said in a statement this week that it was “honoured by the partnership” with the slavery museum, which opened in 2007 and focuses on the transatlantic slave trade.
Exodus Cry’s chief executive, Benjamin Nolot, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that criticism of the exhibition was “unfortunate” and “unfair”, and that the word “damaging” should instead be applied to websites that profit from child porn.
Sensationalised images used to raise awareness of modern slavery can do more harm than good because they misrepresent the problem, and also risk retraumatising survivors, a 2019 study by the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab found.
Exodus Cry hit the headlines this month following a New York Times column which said Pornhub, one of the world’s biggest porn websites, included child abuse videos, which led Mastercard and Visa to stop payments on the site.
Pornhub responded by pulling content uploaded by unverified users and in a statement said Exodus Cry was targeting it for being an adult content site, comparing the lobby group to forces that demonise sex education and LGBT+ rights.
“Exodus Cry claims to speak for ‘the voiceless’, and yet it refuses to listen to sex workers and trafficking victims who … connect trafficking to their experiences of immigration laws and inequality,” said Julia Laite of Birkbeck, University of London.
“Instead, Exodus Cry … chooses to see sexual immorality as the chief source of trafficking, depicts victims as helpless, silent and passive, and advocates for more carceral approaches,” added Laite, a historian of gender, sex work and migration.
The International Slavery Museum said the exhibition – which is part of Exodus Cry’s Traffickinghub campaign to shut down Pornhub – was meant to record “what abolitionist efforts can look like today”.
“Modern slavery is rife, and Traffickinghub is a campaign that includes survivor testimony as well as artworks produced by the public, which demonstrates their emotional reaction to the campaign,” a spokesman told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
About 4.8 million people worldwide are victims of sex trafficking, according to a 2017 estimate by the United Nations.