The Ms. Q&A: Actor-Activist Vanessa Marano on Shifting the Trafficking Narrative to Survivors

Conversations around sex trafficking experienced a resurgence following the investigation and indictment of billionaire Jeffrey Epstein and his accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell. However, the renewed spotlight on sex trafficking also helped popularize a plethora of unsupported conspiracy theories—leaving survivors in the shadows as powerful people continue to contort the narrative.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that sexual exploitation is the most common form of human trafficking (79 percent), with women and girls as predominant victims. In fact, worldwide, children make up almost 20 percent of all trafficking victims.

Even with this data available, when we focus all of our energy on clickbait and celebrity power, we are failing the millions of human trafficking survivors who, through no fault of their own, have fallen victim to the the second largest global crime industry.

Sisters Laura and Vanessa Marano are looking to combat this devastating reality by bringing survivors and their stories back into focus through their film Saving Zoe and reignited partnership with Equality Now, a human rights organization.

Ms. reporter Corinne Ahrens sat down with actor-activist Vanessa Marano to unpack what the sisters are doing to re-center survivors’ stories, as well as acknowledging the work that still desperately needs to be done.

The Ms. Q&A: Actor-Activist Vanessa Marano on Shifting the Trafficking Narrative to Survivors
Vanessa Marano has worked as an actor in film and television for years, from “Gilmore Girls” to “Switched at Birth” to “Silicon Valley” and beyond. She is looking to combat and bring awareness to the issue of sex trafficking (photo courtesy of Brooklin Rosenstock).

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Corinne Ahrens: It’s obvious that not enough attention is brought to the issue of human trafficking. What do you hope your film Saving Zoe can do to raise awareness about the issue? 

Vanessa Marano: A lot of times when we picture human trafficking and sex trafficking, we think it looks “Taken,” right? If it’s happening to a U.S. citizen, it’s happening to the pretty, blonde, white girl-next-door who is traveling overseas and gets kidnapped and sold into trafficking—and that does happen, but it does not happen as nearly as much as how trafficking actually happens.

We think of it happening to foreign nationals in third world countries, and that does happen, but it happens here in the U.S. tremendously to foreign nationals and U.S. citizens within the U.S. globally. Trafficking is a $99 billion industry—that’s an estimate from the United Nations (UN)—and that is the targeting of marginalized communities, the targeting of women, children, young men of color, LGBTQ identifying individuals. Predators prey on vulnerability.

What we were hoping to do with “Saving Zoe” was to show a different kind of story of an average girl. Maybe she isn’t from such a marginalized world, but she is not traveling abroad and getting kidnapped either. We wanted to show the tale of the average girl and how easy it is for this to happen to someone. For the audience to feel like they could identify with this girl.

Alyson Noël, who wrote the book that “Saving Zoe” was based on—really the thought behind the book was not even to tell the story of trafficking, but to tell the story of a young girl who finds herself in a situation she doesn’t want to be in and feels tortured, helpless, and underwater in the sense that she can’t get out—to tell the story of the sister who didn’t know, who has to grieve the loss of her sister and unpack all of this internal struggle that she didn’t even realize her sister was going through. That’s what we really connected with when we read the book, the story of sisters, young women, really. We saw ourselves in these characters.

When we were doing the edit of the film, we contacted Equality Now—a human rights organization—showed it to them and said, “We know you’re doing a tremendous amount of work in the trafficking world and especially when it comes to women’s rights (sexual violence, domestic violence).”

And Equality Now watched the first cut of the film and went, “We want to be involved and we think this story has not been told in this way before.” Again, what happens to Zoe—it’s someone she knows, someone she trusts, a friend lures her in, and suddenly she is in a situation she did not consent to and that situation gets used against her to eventually sell her.

Equality Now wanted to get behind the film and use it as a tool to educate, because we have not seen the story told this way and it is a way that trafficking does happen. What we were so happy that Equality Now could do for us was work with a tremendous amount of survivors and other organizations that are survivor led—we got to show the film to survivors, and get their opinion about the film and how the final edit should be. They were gracious and wonderful, we were really able to take their opinions into account and have that inform the final edit of the film.

We were touched that the film resonated with them and that they felt it was an accurate depiction of everything. They said that the least accurate part about it was that the police never show up that quickly, especially when it is involving children, the children are not believed, the adult is being believed. While trafficking can happen when it is a stranger, more often than not it is someone you know. It can be a parent, boyfriend, aunt, uncle— this has been going on in the underbelly for a really long time and the reason marginalized communities are so easy to target is: the voices of those communities are often not heard by law enforcement, lawmakers, society in general—because they are marginalized. We think that doesn’t affect us, but newsflash: if it affects human beings, it affects us all.

That is what we’re hoping Saving Zoe can do—personalize the issue, especially because of the online world that has now opened up opportunities for traffickers to target potential victims, prey on their vulnerabilities. It can be anybody, and that’s the truth of the matter.

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Ahrens: Following the film’s one year anniversary, what is the goal of your reignited partnership with Equality Now? What still needs to be done?

Marano: There’s two folds to that which are, when the film came out last year, we were able to show the film at the UN through our partnership with Equality Now. The UN was doing a high political forum and the particular subject of that forum was human trafficking. Equality Now spoke on a panel and a survivor of human trafficking spoke on the panel as well. “Saving Zoe” was shown to highlight the issues we’re dealing with within the online of it all and how predators target people online so the UN can be more aware of laws that still need to be put in place.

For example, there is no legal definition of online sexual exploitation right now and there needs to be because it makes it incredibly difficult to combat when there is no legal definition. There is a global definition of human trafficking, a global definition of sex trafficking—but there is no domestic definition of online sexual exploitation, and there’s no global definition. It’s incredibly important that there’s a global definition because you can be online, in a separate country, breaking the laws of a country that you’re not necessarily located in, and there needs to be a better overall definition of what that means so we can better combat these predators to the letter of the law.

The survivor who spoke at that UN panel was incredibly moving in telling her story—eloquent and passionate—we were all so moved. Her name is Melanie Thompson and I approached her saying, “We would love to do a panel with you and have a conversation if you’re willing to lend your voice.” Melanie has been a tremendous advocate and said she would love to be a part of that.

We were trying to do this last year but there were some logistical issues with locations and timing—and then quarantine happens. We’re all home, and we all go, “Hold on a second…we don’t need to fly to New York to record this now, we can just record this on Zoom!” We approached Melanie and she gave us the name of a fellow survivor named Christian Eduardo, who identifies as a gay man, and she thought he could offer a perspective we don’t often hear—because we often don’t hear the voices of male survivors.

And that’s what really happened! We wanted to do a survivor-informed panel we wanted to hear first and foremost from two survivors who are willing to talk about their story because that is not easy for someone to do! And both Melanie and Christian, I am so appreciative and in awe of them that they are doing this for the greater good—to spread awareness, to make sure this never happens to anyone ever again.

We put that panel on our Instagram accounts, directly to people who follow us, using social media (which you can find on @vanessamarano). This motivated us to want to do another follow-up panel with Romina Canessa, who is a lawyer at Equality now, and Hera Hussain, who has an organization called CHAYN and works on the tech side of things.

Our follow up to our survivor panel is our legal and tech panel, which will address what still needs to be done. That was really the decision of it all with the year anniversary. The second part of that is that Saving Zoe is now on Netflix, now available on a much wider scale that we can reignite the interest in it to tell the story, and simultaneously shed light on the survivor voices through the panels we did as well as what still needs to be done legally and on the tech side of things.

The goal is to raise awareness from a place of information because there is a tremendous amount of misinformation surrounding trafficking and conspiracy theories out there. When we get caught up in the conspiracies and say that celebrities are involved in this, you’re detracting from survivors and people who have actually been through it, who want to tell their story—we need to be focusing on that because that is real and that is experience.

When we shine a light where there is no valid information behind and give that a voice and start spreading that misinformation, it takes away from the actual issue. It takes away from survivors being heard and that’s what Laura and I really wanted to focus on so we were using our platform in a way to give a voice to survivors, lawyers, people on the tech side of things who can eloquently speak on this issue with correct information and knowledge that Laura and I both are not experts in.

What still needs to be done in regard to the legal and the tech side—a lot of tech communities have made tremendous strides in being able to identify child sex materials, but there still needs to be work in how we identify those materials.

Something we should shed light on would be getting more coders who are women and who are people of color to accurately be able to figure out a way to identify these issues. A lot of coders are white men. That’s not to say that they are not doing all that they can, but we do need more diverse representation within that community to properly identify more.

On the legal side of things, I feel very passionate that survivors need a seat at the table when policy is being made. They should not be expected to tell their story over and over, and not actually have a say in the policy. Obviously the policy being made the final decision is on Congress, but they really need to take these survivor opinions into account especially if they are willing to share their story and opinions and give information about how this actually happens.

A bill that passed through the House of Representatives: “Put Trafficking Victims First Act of 2019,” passed in a bipartisan fashion. Only one congressperson opposed it and it has been sitting on the Senate floor since 2019. That bill is just a start in the idea of, “Okay, we’re actually giving survivors voices to use” when it comes to policy. There needs to be education and research through the survivor narrative as well as providing more resources for survivors after they get out of a trafficking situation. It is a great start, there needs to be more done besides that bill, but we cant start if the Senate doesn’t start working on that bill and make a place to pass it.

And with this election, I know we are an extremely divided country and we are all politically on very different sides of the spectrum, but looking on this at a human level, the fact that this is being politicized because it was a democratic Congresswoman of color who produced it, even though it has tremendous bipartisan support, it is being politicized and not being looked at. That is not our Congress working for us, that is not our Congress working for survivors. That is our congress weaponizing our safety.

The Ms. Q&A: Actor-Activist Vanessa Marano on Shifting the Trafficking Narrative to Survivors
Vanessa Marano (photo courtesy of Brooklin Rosenstock).

Ahrens: What was it like working on this project with your sister, Laura? What did the theme of sisterhood bring to the storyline of the Alyson Noël novel as well as your film? 

Marano: This our first time producing and we were both starring in the film, and our mom produced with us—it was tremendously difficult! We weren’t sleeping, it was an independent film so it was a real quick shoot, it was just us. There was nobody else. It was crazy!

I was so happy to be doing that with my sister because there’s no one I trust more in the world than my sister, so getting her opinion and making sure that if I had an idea to bounce it off of her for us to actually figure out how to execute something was helpful. But also just to have the emotional support through the whole thing.

I don’t know that “Saving Zoe” would be what it is without the fact that it was a mother and two sisters telling the story, and I am very very proud of that. And moving into humanitarian work and activism, just having a partner in my sister that we can carry the load with each other with what we want to do. It’s a lot of work and to have someone else to do that with so you’re more efficiently doing it. And again from an opinion standpoint, I value her opinion on things and its tremendously helpful.

When we read that novel all those years ago, I think as a sister, those characters pierce you and their relationship pierces you. It was very real to us. Zoe and Echo’s relationship felt really real to us and we felt really connected to it. I am very thankful I have a sister, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Ahrens: Why is it crucial for us to refocus our attention and efforts on the survivors of sex trafficking? 

Marano: Survivors have first hand experience and first hand knowledge. In order to combat an issue, you have to come from a place of knowledge and information. Believing survivors will take so much power out of predators and perpetrators. If we learn from what their experience was and use that information to apply it to the law, apply it to policies, and apply it to resources.

We talked about how all the focus is on Gilsaine and Epstein and we’re focusing on them, when we should be focusing on them being held accountable. What we need to remember are the lives that were completely affected and tormented by these people. Their lives have to go on, their lives don’t just end because they’re on trial or just because they’re in prison, they’re still living with their experience every singe day and they will live with their experience for the rest of their lives.

So, if a survivor feels strong, brave and healthy enough in their mental health to speak up and share their story, and say, “This is what would have helped me,” we should be listening. We should be taking those opinions into account, and we should be moving forward. And again from an educational perspective, if you haven’t had any experience with trafficking, hearing the perspectives of someone who has will change your perspective, and a perspective shift is all we need really to start making steps forward to actually create real change.


Corinne Ahrens is a recent graduate of The American University where she studied Political Science with a specialization in Gender, Race, & Politics as well as Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies. Corinne has been writing for Ms. since October 2019 and is a former Ms. editorial intern. She currently works at Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy in their Philadelphia office.