Ms. Mam and her foundation banked on Western feel-good demands for intervention, culminating in abusive crackdowns on the people she claimed to save. - Melissa Gira Grant
After the publication of “Continuing To Crumble“, all hell broke loose for Somaly Mam. I must admit I was surprised at just how quickly and thoroughly it happened; I suspect a lot of “sex trafficking” skeptics in editorial departments were just waiting for something like this (which is a very good sign indeed). The day after my essay, Somaly Mam announced that she was resigning from her position as head of her foundation, and this article by Anne Moore appeared in Salon:
This week’s Newsweek…[debunked] the figurehead of the so-called “modern slavery movement”…Mam claims to have rescued more than 4,000 girls from sex slavery, but questions about her stories still arise from former staff members, her former husband and those supposed former sex slaves…Mam’s…pernicious web of obfuscations and self-aggrandizements…keep women’s economic opportunities around the world hovering somewhere near deplorable…Many of her accolades…can be traced back to her friendship with New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. As of press time he still lists the Somaly Mam Foundation as a “partner” in Half the Sky Movement, his blatant attempt (along with wife Sheryl WuDunn) to brand and therefore profit from economic and physical violence against women and girls in the Global South…Kristof may, eventually, claim to have been duped. I believe he’ll be lying (again)…Mam can’t be held accountable for the impact of her tales as much as she can for establishing the culture of permanent victimhood…what…anti-human trafficking NGOs do…is normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment they may be. And they shame women who reject such jobs…What anti-trafficking NGOs are saving women from…is a life outside the international garment trade…
The next day, the Times itself – arguably the one organization most complicit in the spreading of Mam’s evil lies – published this piece by Melissa Gira Grant:
…Mam’s…portrayal of all sex workers as victims in need of saving encouraged raids and rescue operations that only hurt the sex workers themselves. In 2008, Cambodia enacted new prohibitions on commercial sex, after the country was placed on a watch list by the State Department. In brutal raids on brothels and in parks…women were chased down, detained and assaulted. The State Department commended [this]…and removed the country from the watch list…Mam’s target audience of well-off Westerners, eager to do good, often knows little about the sex trade. It doesn’t require much for them to imagine all women who sell sex as victims in need of rescue…When Mira Sorvino arrived with CNN last year to film sex workers undercover in Phnom Penh, Ros Sokunthy of the Women’s Network for Unity [WNU] told the Asian Correspondent news site that this approach was part of the problem: “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”…A “hero” like Ms. Mam lets those who lift her up feel that they are heroes, too. They can be saviors simply by repeating her stories and swiping their cards. Now Ms. Mam has been exposed before her donors and the Western media who anointed her and made fighting sex trafficking a kind of industry in itself, while sex workers suffered the consequences. Will Ms. Mam’s supporters consider the price of what they’ve been sold?
And speaking of Asian Correspondent, here’s their article from the day after Grant’s:
…CNN…”poverty porn” [does] not sit well with…WNU…Ros Sokunthy…said rich donors would rather support anti trafficking groups with an…agenda to stop all sex work, than those that help sex workers and their children get out of poverty…Pisey Ly…[said that the Somaly Mam Foundation] “still [praises]…Somaly and…[does] not recognize the consequences of how [they]…impacted people”…anti-trafficking organizations tend to be against all sex work, not just…forced sex work…When consenting sex workers are arrested or “rescued,” their children suffer. With their mothers gone and no money or food coming in, they must find work, even though they are children…
What about the Great White Savior, Nicholas Kristof, who as observed above is more complicit than any other individual in enabling Mam’s depredations against sex workers? Over the weekend, he quietly removed her page from his website; the first picture above is what it looked like before, and this is what it looks like now:
But if he thought the issue was just going to go away, he was sadly mistaken; it isn’t only sex workers who have been sick of his victim-pimping, snake oil and outright lies:
…You mean, Mr. Helicopter Rich White Man Rescuer was ready to buy lurid, falsified stories hook, line, and sinker? Who could have guessed! Here’s a 2011 Kristof article lauding Mam and her story, in what has to be the most prototypical Kristof column. Here’s another, on [Long Pros], entitled, “If This Isn’t Slavery, What Is?” Oh, I don’t know. Maybe something that actually happened…The history of prostitution reform in Progressive Era America tells a similar story. There were Kristofs then too, freaking out about the white slavery traffic. They wanted to hear the most lurid stories possible and then publicize them to make points about the evils of prostitution. They didn’t bother fact-checking either. And time and time again, these stories about young women didn’t pan out. The impact of this movement was to make sex work illegal, making it far more dangerous, as it largely remains today. The actions of women like Mam and useful idiots like Kristof just obscure the real problems of a lack of opportunity for women to have decent work and respectable lives in Cambodia and elsewhere, not to mention discrediting attempts to help solve real sex slavery. But then Kristof has never been interested in people helping themselves anyway. He prefers saving brown people from themselves…
Fittingly, Kristof issued his “explanation” and “apology” (which as you might expect was neither) on International Whores’ Day; predictably, it was not so much an admission of rescue industry fraud as a lament that Mam’s well-deserved downfall will make it harder for other rescue industry operations to continue enriching themselves at the expense of sex workers:
…I don’t know quite what to think. Somaly stands by her story, but she also resigned, which gives credence to the allegations…serious doubts have clearly been raised about her…but I’m reluctant to be an arbiter of her back story when I just don’t know what is true and false…Whatever the situation with Somaly, there’s no uncertainty about the larger issue of human trafficking in Cambodia…One risk is that girls fleeing Cambodian brothels will no longer get help. Another is that the debate about Somaly’s back story will overtake the imperative of ending the trafficking of young teenagers into brothels. Let’s remember that this is about more than one woman.
I suggest Kristof heed his own closing statement, though I know he won’t; he and other prohibitionists believe the feelings, beliefs and political agenda of a vocal minority which includes himself, politicians, neofeminists and fundamentalist Christians take precedence over the needs of many millions of sex workers, their clients, their children and everyone else they help. Prohibitionists aren’t literally “one woman”, but their numbers are tiny compared to those of the people they wish to control and overrule. Furthermore, I hardly think Kristof need worry about the “sex trafficking” gravy train running off of the rails just yet:
For the first time, pastors and police joined together in…Cambodia…to discuss human trafficking….IJM staff led nearly fifty church leaders through a study on the Bible’s call to seek justice for the oppressed, and then [a cop]…shared about human trafficking and how church leaders can help their communities report the crime…One pastor encouraged her peers to think creatively about how they could work with police for good…The chief of the Cambodian anti-trafficking police…shared tell-tale signs of trafficking and advised pastors of the kinds of questions they can ask if they suspect a girl is in trouble…
The “sex trafficking” hysteria is beginning to implode, and the vultures will eventually need to find another carcass to feed on. But there’s still a lot of meat left on this one, and they won’t leave until they’ve picked off every scrap.