The importance of not ignoring agency

I was involved recently in organizing a program at our university to highlight the problem of human trafficking. That label immediately conjures up the notion of women and children being forced into the sex trade and this is undoubtedly a major problem. But there is also human trafficking of people and children for labor, who end up working in appalling conditions in foreign countries and cannot escape.

When I initially went to the organizing meetings, I thought of the people who had been trafficked for any reason as being victims who had been lured or trapped into the situation, sometimes even kidnapped. But one member of the committee who actually works with trafficked women says that we should not immediately jump to the conclusion that these women are merely pawns, because doing so denies them their sense of agency and adds to their dehumanization. The reasons why they ended up in their situations are often complex. She said that when people try to rescue them from their situation without taking into account what they themselves say they want or need, this can result in the women ending up back in the same situation after being rescued. This is sometimes the case with women who are sex workers. She said that whatever the plight of the trafficked people, they too had a sense of their own agency that must be respected.

Those discussions had a significant impact on me. It made me realize that however bad someone’s situation might seem to an outsider, you still should not consider them as purely victims and must listen to them and take their needs and interests into account when making any plans for assisting them.

I was reminded of those discussions when I posted recently about the re-emergence of Monica Lewinsky into public life. In the ensuing discussion in the comments, it was argued that Bill Clinton had abused his power over her because he was the president and she was a lowly intern and that therefore such a relationship was unacceptable.

But at the same time Lewinsky insisted then and now that the affair had been consensual. There are grounds for genuine concern as whether there can truly be free consent in a situation where there is a huge power differential between the two parties. The person in the power position (in this case Clinton) should definitely avoid getting into such a relationship with someone who may not feel they have the power to refuse their advances. But while keeping that in mind, we also should not deny Lewinsky her sense of agency and treat her as if she were a mere pawn, since she was after all 24 years old at the time and an adult by any reasonable measure.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    I have never seen a solid rebuttal of the claim that Lewinsky initiated her fling with Clinton.

    Meanwhile, a pet peeve: to me, the word “agent” denotes someone acting on another person’s (or organization’s) behalf, or as their representative – the diametrical opposite of “autonomous individual” or whatever the murky hell present philosophers and/or activists claim they mean when they (mis)use that word. Why couldn’t they have, when seeking to describe persons-with-rights-&-self-chosen-goals, picked another term that didn’t have a contradictory meaning???

  2. DonDueed says

    Well, that leaves any unmarried President pretty much out in the cold. It’s somewhat hard to name anyone who would not be at a power disadvantage compared to POTUS.

    I guess we’d better not elect any singles to high office, unless they’re willing to remain single throughout their term.

  3. says

    It’s even worse when sex trafficking is conflated with ordinary sex workers as a way to take their agency away. As to suggest no one would actually want to be a sex worker and thus justify denying their rights.

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