The Ethics of Nonprofit Storytelling: Survivor Porn and Parading Trauma

Over the last few years, nonprofits have been urged to tell stories to ensure their work is both memorable and fundable. This propensity for storytelling in the sector has created concerns about what many call “poverty porn”—the portrayal of people as helpless victims, such as the classic shot of a small child whose eyes are brimming with tears.

But there is another version that you might call “survivor porn.” This can happen when survivors of trauma are asked by a nonprofit to provide the emotional hook for their cause. But what is less understood are the ways in which these survivors may experience a number of unexpected personal and emotional challenges in the aftermath of sharing their stories. In this podcast, we look at the ethics of this kind of storytelling and ask some hard questions about the power dynamics between survivors and the nonprofits that have helped them.

“Think about the power that organization holds over this victim,” says Sophie Otiende. “And then think about consent. Think about whether that victim—that survivor—would actually be able to give proper consent about telling their stor[y].”

Otiende is a program consultant for HAART Kenya, a nonprofit that bills itself as the only organization in Kenya that works exclusively on eradicating human trafficking. Otiende is in charge of its protection department and works directly with victims of trafficking. And while many survivors may find sharing their stories cathartic, Otiende has concerns about the unspoken risks survivors may face when they go public.

No one talks to survivors about the impact of telling your story—what it does to you, what it ultimately means—because we tend to think we live in an ideal world where, when I tell my story, everyone will be moved with compassion. We all know that’s not true.

In this podcast, Otiende also discusses her anti-trafficking work, and why awareness campaigns fail to deter vulnerable women who are already suffering from poverty and abuse in their own homes. A desire to escape these circumstances may be reason enough for them to accept risks in order to secure a better life in another country. “When you talk about awareness being the only solution,” Otiende says, “you have to look at the context that people are coming from and the fact that they’re making logical decisions based on their circumstances.”

Working with trafficking victims has also taken a personal toll on Otiende. She says donors must do a better job of providing emotional support to frontline staff. “We have so many people just getting to a point where they’re exhausted and they burn out,” she explains. “If I was working in a metal company and I was working with machines, my employer would be concerned to give me tools to protect my hands to make sure I didn’t cut myself. Why can’t we also think about that when we are thinking about people who are working with [victims of] trauma?”

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

• HAART’s website
• The Star: “Sophie Otiende Realises Her Dream to Help Others
• Reuters: Don’t treat us like zoo animals, say trafficking survivors
• Tiny Spark podcast What Can We Do about the White Savior Complex?

Photo Credit: Matilde Simmas

5 Comments

  1. This is wonderful. As a caregiver in anti-trafficking I relate to many points. However, as one who is not a survivor, I deeply appreciate the wisdom and advice of Ms. Otiende. Through my time in the field, I’ve become increasingly concerned by some of the questionable ethics regarding story-telling. We must never fall prey to the mentality that the ends justify the means. We have lost the right to speak or work in anti-slavery when we knowingly exploit others for our (or our organization’s) profit. Thanks for this episode.

  2. Marjorie Moore

    This episode was one of the best of all the podcasts I heard all year.
    The comment Otiende made about funding self care for nonprofit employees was brilliant. And her thoughts on survivor porn and the power imbalance is making me completely rethink nonprofit storytelling and my own fundraising.
    Thank you.

    • Amy

      Thank you Marjorie. I am glad you have taken so much from Ms. Otiende’s wisdom and her powerful messages, which are too numerous to count. It’s also great to hear that you are rethinking nonprofit storytelling and your own approaches to fundraising. This is a conversation that must continue so that we can all do better by those we seek to help.

      I appreciate your taking the time to write.

  3. I’m a longtime listener, Amy, and I’m here to tell you: This episode is brilliant. The insights & wisdom that Sophie Otiende shares here should be heard by all journalists, not just those who deal directly with trauma victims.

    “We tend to think we live in an ideal world where, when I tell my story, everyone will be moved with compassion. We all know that’s not true.” And yet journalists plow ahead anyway. The question is: Why?

    Thanks to you & to Ms Otiene for an enlightening & important exchange.

    • Amy

      Thank you so much, Alan, for this feedback and for being a regular listener. I agree that Ms. Otiende has great lessons to share with journalists and nonprofits alike, as difficult as her message is to hear at times. I will continue to reflect on my conversation with her for a long time.

      Warmly,

      Amy

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