Home Trafficking Cyntoia Brown and the Commodification of the Good Victim

Cyntoia Brown and the Commodification of the Good Victim

Cyntoia Brown graduated Lipscomb University with an associate’s degree in prison. (Photo via Fox 17 Nashville/WZTV)

Imagine at the age of 16 being sex trafficked by a pimp named “cut-throat.” After days of being repeatedly drugged and raped by different men, you were purchased by a 43-year-old child predator who took you to his home to use you for sex. You end up finding enough courage to fight back and shoot and kill him. You arrested [sic] as result tried and convicted as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.

So reads the text in an image Rihanna reposted on Instagram, referring to trafficking victim Cyntoia Brown. Judging by the swirl of news media coverage recently about the case, you would think it had just happened within the past few months. But actually, the shooting death of the Nashville man took place in 2004 and Brown has been in prison for it for more than a decade. A documentary about her plight came out in 2011 and reached an international audience; a local paper, The Tennessean, has been running in-depth coverage about Brown’s case since last year; and Tennessee lawmaker Gerald McCormick was inspired to co-sponsor a bill in the Tennessee legislature in February offering parole to people with lengthy sentences who were convicted in their teens because of Brown’s story. This begs a couple of questions: firstly, why are we just hearing about this case more than a decade later? Secondly, why have anti-trafficking abolitionists stayed so quiet about this?

The answer to the second question, and perhaps the first one, is because Brown does not fit the profile of a “good victim.” Victimhood is a commodity in the anti-trafficking rescue industry. It is used, exploited, and manipulated as a means for supposed  “nonprofit” organizations to acquire more funding and political power, wealthier donors, and increased media coverage. Nonprofits tokenize survivors by having us speak for their fancy fundraisers, they use our stories for their newsletters, and they tote us around like little anti-trafficking freak show exhibits.  

Most prestigious anti-trafficking allies don’t give a shit about trafficking survivors—they never have. Julie Bindle, Melissa Farley, Gail Dines, Polaris Project, Shared Hope, International Justice Mission, Benjamin Nolot, Alisa Bernard, and Peter Qualliotine—all of them claim to care deeply about survivors, but the “help” they offer them is woefully fucked up and misguided. What have they done to help survivors like Cyntoia Brown, who has spent over a decade in prison for killing a violent client? I imagine if she was some blonde-haired, white, suburban girl they would adopt her as their little trafficking showpiece, like they do to so many survivors. I imagine if I weren’t a loudmouthed, cunt-y, strong survivor who refuses to be manipulated and used by the rescue industry, I could get help myself. But I’m not a “good victim,” and by their definitions, neither is Cyntoia Brown.

When I speak to abolitionist/anti-trafficking allies about my strength—when I speak about my experience coming from a place of agency and a locus of control, you anti-trafficking allies abandon me. You don’t want to hear, see, or know anything about my personal power. You want my pain, my hurt, my powerlessness, and my victimhood so you can leverage them, like coins for magic beans, to get more money and fame for yourselves. I’m not your “good girl.” Cyntoia Brown is not what you consider to be a victim worthy of redemption because of her strength, her daring in killing a cis man in self-defense, and because of her race.

Our stories as survivors are commodities to rich allies who wish to co-opt them for their own selfish purposes. Survivors are not humanized by the organizations that claim to help them. Instead, we are human currency. To ask for help from an anti-trafficking organization is to be trafficked yet again.

I know what it is like to be overlooked by anti-trafficking allies because you don’t fit the bill of a “good” victim. Several months ago, I was fired from my job as an advocate helping teen trafficking victims because I wouldn’t deny my past as a voluntary sex worker in addition to being a trafficking survivor. The result? I am in the process of being evicted and becoming homeless again. Allies couldn’t give a shit. It’s my fault for having agency. It’s Brown’s fault for exerting agency.

Anti-trafficking allies are often like pimps on the track. If we want any money, safety, or economic power, we have to work with them. Renegades like Cyntoia Brown, myself, and many others are not welcome because we don’t serve the purpose of making wealthy cis white people feel like saviors, attracting sympathy and donors. Cyntoia Brown was a victim of horrendous treatment, but the agency she displayed by freeing herself from bondage, along with the color of her skin, mean that Brown is seen as an aggressor, not as a victim. This is wrong, and anti-trafficking allies need to be held accountable for it.

I want to know, what are all you famous allies and survivors doing to help support a survivor of color who has been incarcerated unjustly? Why aren’t you using your platform to help support this woman? Why have I never heard any of you speak on this issue or try to raise any kind of awareness around this woman’s sentence? What are all you fucks doing with all your money and fame if you’re not helping our community?

You allies oppress us, you tokenize us, and you traffick our humanity, and then you rest on the accolades that we survivors have won you. We survivors need REAL help. Not smoke and mirrors. We don’t need to be part of yet another transaction in which our humanity is traded for our survival. 

I know as a survivor there are so many barriers to implementing real change in our community because we aren’t the ones with the resources. Our anti-trafficking “pimps”, AKA our so-called allies, have all the dough, hence they have all the power and all the platforms. I know it’s hard to refuse when you’re homeless or broke as fuck and these pimps offer you a clothing closet or some such shit, but we gotta try to make our voice heard outside their system wherever possible.

Trafficking survivors, don’t get me wrong: It’s totally okay to take the pimps for what they’re worth—get that $50 phone bill paid by an anti-trafficking organization or eat that free dinner they serve, but don’t for a second put your trust in them. They don’t give a fuck about us. They care about money and fame. Poor, homeless, marginalized survivors need to come together to support each other and trust each other. Fuck the outsiders and fuck those sneaker pimps. What are WE going to do to organize around Brown? What are we going to do to begin to take our power back? 

For one, we need to start talking about it—make your voice heard about this injustice. Give Brown’s struggle meaning by not just letting her story slip into the abyss of a news cycle with a short attention span. What we survivors still have are our voices. We may not have the reach that these famous allies have, but if there’s one thing we survivors can do, it’s speaking up. Let’s start TELLING these organizations what we want.

I’m calling on all survivors to make a fuss about Brown’s sentence. Whatever your platform is, it’s never too small: my friend does slam poetry on the street corner for folks, I write and self-publish—we all have some form of social media. Us poor and homeless survivors may not have a lot of influence or ability to influence the outcome of Cyntoia’s case, but we all have a voice. Organize with other trafficking survivors—talk to people who live in your transitional housing building or folks you get your methadone dose with. There is power in the voices of poor and marginalized people. Don’t let the allies ever make you feel like there isn’t.

And while you do that, never stop asking this question: Julie Bindle, Melissa Farley, Gail Dines, Polaris Project, Shared Hope, International Justice Mission, Benjamin Nolot, Alisa Bernard, Peter Qualliotine and all of you anti-trafficking allies—what will you do today to support Cyntoia Brown?

Laura LeMoon is a writer, sex worker and HIV researcher based in the Seattle area. She has worked with organizations such as St. James Infirmary, International Rescue Committee, and Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) in Kolkata, India on sex workers' rights issues, and she is one of the founders of Safe Night Access Project Seattle (SNAPS). She is never found without her beloved elderly rescue dog, Little Bear.


  1. What a shame. Prayers for Cyntoia and all the suffering survivors who need real love and support. I believe anyone who can voice thier opinion against any such injustice should do so. Keep fighting the good fight !

  2. This hardly surprises me. Like almost anything that is “morals driven”, the people involved are far more concerned with ending the behavior, than they are ended the exploitation. Its not about helping people find better lives, its about “saving them from this immoral thing they shouldn’t be doing.” Everything after that is not the saviors problem. So, of course they only bloody want to do more for those people that sell the same salvation. And, there are signs of the same behavior that goes with this righteous indignity against trafficking they have – undermine, disparage, and destroy anything/anyone that tries to present a solution that helps the victims, but doesn’t *end* the moral offense.

    Which is precisely why we see no laws to protect prostitutes, to make actual traffickers more liable for anything, or otherwise try to change the business, just destroy it. And, to hell with the people that get ruined in the process.

  3. Morals-driven organizations (from whatever political spectrum) are mostly concerned with propping up their own stories and image. There is a lack of curiosity or genuine interest in the complexity of the stories of others. Victims of traffickers have even more complicated stories; they don’t have ordinary problems. Their stories get compressed / whitewashed in order to be sold at market….even if it is an alternative type of market. I feel much the same way with all types of victim stories…feeling that there is so much more and the actual format cannot convey the story, and the delivering organization is perfectly happy with how compressed and severely edited the story has become (conflicting morals and ethical quagmires removed).

  4. Wow, this is a beautifully written exposée on the ironic/paradoxical and extremely challenging realities only someone living through being labeled and commodified as a “bad victim” by the anti trafficking wing of the nonprofit industrial complex could share… thank you for your courage and critique.

  5. When Cyntoia Brown was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced, it was several years before ANYONE in the entire United States even wanted to acknowledge that poor marginalized American women, girls (and basically anyone NOT a rich white cis het male) could actually be victims of the crime of human trafficking, too. This was the public consensus of “conventional wisdom” for nearly a decade after former president George W. Bush enacted the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, which deliberately excluded American trafficking victims.

    Privileged rich people in this country all agreed that poor foreign women and girls being trafficked here from the former East Bloc and Southeast Asia were victims of human trafficking because they were forced by brutal pimps into prostitution and never got to keep one penny of any of that money, while poor marginalized women and girls (and anyone not a rich white male) who were victims of the exact same crimes somehow “chose” prostitution because we enjoyed it or something.

    It wasn’t until only VERY recently, within the past 3 years or so, that American-born and raised trafficking victims even got acknowledged as bona fide trafficking victims by ANYONE. So that’s a large part of the reason nothing was said by anyone when Cyntoia Brown was convicted and sentenced.

    And many of us older survivors who were among the first to speak out about what happened to us paid a HUGE price for it – we got stalked, doxxed, death threats, harassed, viciously slandered, and our Gofundmes attacked and sabotaged – the ONLY option available to many of us for getting any money to be able TO survive as stigmatized and criminalized trafficking victims in post-Welfare Reform America, which never did enough to eliminate job discrimination against non-whites and women, and which never provided enough decent jobs with dignity for all.

  6. Excellent piece…to support Ms LeMoon’s point, WA State Task Force Against the Trafficking of Persons made a recommendation 6-5-2017 which was to fund 3 full-time FTE’s placed within rescue orgs: “…These positions would also develop an assessment tool to identify housing options that are accessible, affirming, and safe for survivors. Using that tool, the Housing Coordinators would update a resources list to share statewide.”

    The recommendation was to fund the rescue orgs.


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