Melissa Gira Grant, author of “Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work,” has written a remarkable opinion piece for the New York Times. Grant points out that our entire sex slave rescue mission -- led by the United States State Department, Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl Sandberg, Hollywood stars like Susan Sarandon and Mira Sorvino -- is so badly misinformed about sex trafficking that their and our actions have seriously harmed the people they claim to be helping.
All of this began, of course, with Newsweek's revelations that Somaly Mam, a worldwide icon who wrote a best seller about her being kidnapped by sex traders at age nine and became head of a successful foundation to aid people like her, was a fraud (she has resigned from her foundation). She wasn't kidnapped in Cambodia as a child, nor was her teenage daughter (who ran off with her boyfriend), as Mam claimed, along with a lot of other claptap. What a clever entrepreneur to read the likes of Kristof and so many Americans and feed them a ready-made cause on a tray!*
Of course, Sarandon, Sorvino, and Sandberg don't actually have the time or equipment to learn about sex trafficking (what Kristof's and John Kerry's excuses are, I don't know). Most (about 90 percent) of sex workers are not coerced (Grant's phrase) into prostitution. Most women who are kidnapped are put into factory or farm slavery. So how do American-inspired raids of brothels affect girls and women? They make prostitutes' lives more difficult. After having received an American government commendation for conducting such raids, the Cambodian military went back to its normal business -- extorting prostitutes and capturing and beating them when they do try to escape.
As one worker trying to help young prostitutes said about high-profile films about them, “You show the face of the mother, who is so poor that she has to sell her daughter for money? How does this help the daughter or mother? It doesn’t. It helps the NGO to make money.” The real American thinking: "These people are characters in our movie!" The answer given: "Yes, but we raised awareness of the problem." Here is the response by her foundation to the disclosure of Mam's lies and resignation: “We don’t expect this transition to be simple, but we ask that you stand with us in the face of these serious challenges and help us to honor all victims and survivors, and the millions of women and girls who are enslaved across the globe.”
As Grant notes, the way to provide actual help is by "the collection of accurate data, effective protection of victims, and the support of workers in their own organizing. It’s a broader fight against poverty, inequality and vulnerability that goes far beyond a brothel’s walls." But who has time for that!? We like to rush in when the rushing's good, as in the case of the kidnapped Nigerian school girls. (Senator John McCain wants to send American troops into Nigeria to rescue them.) But what about the fact that the rebel group, Boko Haram, has been raiding villages and killing their male populations for years? Yes, but kidnapped teenage girls? We must act on that -- whatever it is we do.
Remember Haiti, and how much we helped them? So they're well off now, right? Well, most of the billions of dollars collected weren't distributed, new institutions weren't created, most of the debris remains, and Haiti is as poor as ever. Oh, and international workers brought a deadly cholera epidemic which is still rampant after three years. But we've moved on, to sex trafficking and Nigerian teens. Pity them our help!
Meanwhile, Ms. Mam's former husband and cofounder of her foundation, Pierre Legros, said about the scandal:
“I’ve worked with a lot of organizations, and you confronted the same issue when you wanted money. If you have no story, you don’t have money.”
“I’m not surprised [about the brouhaha],” he said. “What is surprising to me is that it took 10 years for people to discover that it was a joke.”
If you hear of a social problem in another country, on another continent, be assured that the situation is more complex than you imagine, that most of what you hear is simplified and inaccurate, and that your first impulse to help will probably be useless, at best.
Just a word to the wise.
* What is most remarkable about this piece pointing out the idiocy and harmfulness of the liberal/conservative consensus (exactly the same as for addiction) is that the NY Times published something critiquing its own idiot savant, Nicholas Kristof (a great addictive disease backer, like David Brooks). Now Margaret Sullivan, the intrepid public editor for the Times, has called on Kristof to account for his many columns extolling Mam, as well as his detailing the case of the girl who told how a pimp gouged her eye out, but who actually had it removed surgically.
As I said, Kristof will believe anything, including every fable about addiction, in which he is joined by senior Times columnist David Brooks, who believes everything AA says. Here Sally Satel tells Brooks he is misinformed when he says addicts can't recover, which Brooks quickly ignores.
Update: June 3.
Still up at Mam's website: an interview with Amy Merrill, director of marketing and development at the Somaly Mam Foundation.
Somaly Mam is a survivor of sex slavery and a leader in the fight to end it. Born into a tribal minority family in Cambodia and sold at a young age, she endured many years of exploitation and abuse. But she escaped, and vowed never to forget those she left behind. . . .
Unfortunately, Somaly’s story is not uncommon for other women in Southeast Asia. However her ability to escape, persevere and share her struggle with the international community is nothing short of a miracle. How has she managed to overcome the psychological and physical abuse and channel her passion into humanitarian work?
Maybe they'll never take it down, it's so compelling?
Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. You can follow Stanton on Twitter and Facebook.
P.S. The New York Times just won't let this go -- Cambodians marketing their stories to get money from Americans, and actually creating more misery. (And, no, Nick Kristof still hasn't answered Margaret Sullivan's challenge for him to explain his many columns in support of bullshitter Somaly Mam.) Here's the latest:
Cambodian Activist’s Fall Exposes Broad Deception
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The fall from grace of one of Cambodia’s most prominent social activists and the unraveling of her sad tale of being an orphan sold into sex slavery has highlighted what aid workers here say is widespread embellishment and in some cases outright deception in fund-raising, especially among the country’s orphanages. . . .
A government study conducted five years ago found that 77 percent of children living in Cambodia’s orphanages had at least one parent. The empathy of foreigners — who not only deliver contributions, but also sometimes open their own institutions — helped create a glut of orphanages, according to aid workers, and the government says they now house more than 11,000 children. Although some of the orphanages are clean and well-managed, many are decrepit and, according to the United Nations, leave children susceptible to sexual abuse.
Read the comments to my post -- one feels the Newsweek article revealing the Mam fantasy that Kristof, John Kerry, and Hollywood fell for, after which Mam resigned, is itself made up.