"Hidden Voices" Performance Exposes the Lives of Sex Trafficking Victims

shadowed woman sits on bed, silhouetted by window

          Those who ventured up to the eleventh floor of Aber Hall on Thursday, April 20th encountered an environment both familiar and foreign. They found themselves touring empty dorm rooms occupied by a single individual, doused in red glow from the room’s only lit bulb. The dimness hid many features of the room and the individual, and in the shadows one could find, upon closer scrutiny, needles or empty bottles, bras strewn across the sparse furniture. These shadowed figures, clothed in black, would begin to speak after the door closed behind the guests. As they turned to face the guests the marks on their faces would become visible, suggestive of bruising, but ignored by the figure herself, as if a normal part of life.

     shadowed woman sits on bed, face downturned

          The words these women shared wove tales of hope, emotional manipulation, of entrapment and rape, beatings for attempted escape, of having no alternative to “working” to provide “clients” with sex for money they rarely saw in order to support themselves or their families. Make no mistake: women and youth in these situations are slaves, not sex workers. They do not choose this life, and those that stay do so out of fear of punishment and because they truly believe they are worthless, that there is no other option for them, let alone a better one.

          These rooms were a performance art piece created by one of the Franke GLI capstone groups, the Sex Trafficking Awareness Research Team (START). This capstone group discovered that sex trafficking is one of the largest businesses in the world, and sought to ease the suffering and promote resources for its victims. The group recruited students from UM’s School of Theater and Dance, along with one of the group’s own members, to relay through storytelling the experiences of victims of this inhumane industry. The stories heard by visitors in each of the rooms were composites of stories shared by victims the group interviewed. While they do not represent the experience of any one individual, they do highlight important, and often common, elements of the real stories. Creating the scripts in this way not only preserves anonymity but exposes the audience to a range of experiences, condensing many unique stories into one for ease of accessibility.

          Each room represented a different region; each actress told a story tailored to the experience of victims from that region. These regions were India, Cambodia, Montana/the US, and US Indian reservations. The sex trafficking is particularly large in India and Cambodia, but the group also wanted to highlight that it exists here in our own country and our own state. They chose to add stories from the reservations for these pose a particular legal dilemma when it comes to prosecutorial jurisdiction. The final room in the sequence contrasted the first four: bright yellow light illuminated desks and a chair to form a mock prosecutor’s office. In this room a young man told the story of law enforcement, and the delicacy of navigating the legal framework for supporting these victims, their families, and getting compensation. Here the team emphasized the importance of taking the stories seriously, and of encouraging victims to speak up, and assuring them they would not be tried for prostitution.

shadowed woman sits in chair, holding head up with hand         man sits at desk in brightly lit room

          In addition to this public performance, START worked with law enforcement to improve resources available for victims. This included updating signs in rest stop bathrooms. The team indicated that often these signs, which list help lines, feature a young white girl and the question, “Are you a slave?”. The trouble is that many of these women do not identify with the word slave, even if it technically describes their situation, and many are not young white women. By improving representation on the signage, the team hopes more of the victims trafficked through Montana will recognize themselves in it and call for help. START also had letters at the performance which visitors could sign and address to Montana lawmakers, urging them to prioritize this problem and improve the effectiveness of resources already in place.

The team will present their capstone research at UMCUR on April 28th in the UC ballroom. The UMCUR schedule for all Franke GLI captsone groups is below.

Presentation Time
Health Safety Abroad: The University of Montana Zika Awareness Program (ZAP UM) 10:20-10:40am
Bridging the Gap: Producing a play with the Congolese Refugees of Missoula 10:40-11:00am

Improving landowner access to effective invasive weed management methods

Managing Stress Through Mindfulness 11:20-11:40am
Fostering Global Citizens: Using Technology to Improve Intercultural Competence
Among Study Abroad Students
Climate Change: Our Adaptive Future in the Columbia and Mekong River Basins 1:40-2:00pm
Raising Cultural Awareness in Undergraduate Students through an Online Pen Pal Program 2:00-2:20pm
A Place to Call Home: Experiencing the refugee struggle through simulation 2:20-2:40pm

Combating Global Sex Trafficking: Addressing its Humanitarian Impact