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CultMany wrote to me during the brouhaha about Somaly Mam and Nicholas Kristof as though I were not paying enough attention to it. There are lots of events in the fields of anti-trafficking, the sex industry and now even the Rescue Industry that I glance at and don’t find remarkable enough to comment: after 20 years of observing I find it difficult to be really surprised by anything. While I appreciate how infuriating bogus experts are, I published the following to remind everyone that individual personalities are only superficially important in the now highly institutionalised scheme of things.

Somaly Mam, Nick Kristof and the Cult of Personality, 16 June 2014, Jacobin

By Laura Agustín

A Cambodian activist against sex slavery, Somaly Mam, recently resigned from her foundation after an outside investigation confirmed she had lied to attract donors and supporters. The revelations of Mam’s fraudulence are old news, however — Simon Marks’s reports have been appearing in the Cambodian Daily since 2012, and many other debunkings and doubts circulated much earlier among institutions, researchers, and activists trying to reverse unfounded sensationalism about sex trafficking.

Newsweek published some of Marks’s work on May 21, provoking outrage in the New York media establishment — less towards Mam than one of her greatest fans, self-styled slave rescuer Nicholas Kristof. He is accused of hoodwinking liberal-identifying readers and letting down the cause of journalism. Both accusations miss the point.

An editor from this media in-group asked if I would write for them about Somaly Mam’s resignation, having seen tweets indicating I don’t consider it significant. She suggested I write about problems of “accountability” with institutions like Mam’s, along with the “history and failures of the organization and others like it.”

I asked if she was acquainted with my work, mentioning my research on projects to help and save women who sell sex, documented in Sex at the Margins, which originatedthe concept of a “rescue industry.” Since my analysis rarely gets into the mainstream, the focus of anything I do for such outlets would have to explain the basics about that industry. The editor replied that she was not interested in anything so broad. I said if she wanted someone who has studied Mam’s annual reports and the workings of her rescue centers, I have not. I got no reply.

To focus on accountability implies that one accepts that there is a verifiable phenomenon to be accountable about, to espouse the fundamental propositions about human trafficking promoted by government, moral entrepreneurs, and the media which cry that trafficking, especially the kind where women sell sex, is the great scourge of our time. To focus on accountability assumes that the dominant narrative is based on reality, and all we have to do is quibble about individual ethics and demand high standards. This is all wrong.

There are flagrant injustices that need to be addressed regarding undocumented travel and labor, including selling sex. Exploitation of all kinds is rampant, and libertarian claims to bodily autonomy, the adult right to trade sex for money, and “no borders” are not enough. As I’ve been saying for many years, new migration and labor policies can begin to address the problems — not criminalization, policing, the infantilization of women, or raising “rescuer” to a saintly profession. The trafficking hoo-hah is not “myth,” but a terrible misnomer and misframing  — the glossing of complex social phenomena into a simplistic idea that fails over and over, even on its own terms.

In the wide field I call the rescue industry (all missions to “help” women who sell sex, or save them from it), one personality like Mam more or less is unimportant. She became a figurehead through a cult of personality, the phenomenon by which people uninformed about a subject look up to an individual as an inspiring symbol, endowing them with expertise and special knowledge, imagining they are leaders. Cults of personality rely on an unquestioning belief that the hero worshipped has the right fine feelings about an issue, perhaps gained through personal experience.

Human trafficking as a cause began to catch on with the general public in part when film stars attached themselves to it, adding patronage of exciting causes to their portfolios. Various UN agencies named actors as “Goodwill Ambassadors,” lending needed color to the endless parade of men in suits (bureaucrats), men in uniform (police), and frowning women that held sway. Such celebrities presumably inform themselves by reading what comes up easily in online searches, which means media reports parroting uncorroborated statistics and sensationalist horror stories.

To make their knowledge seem real, however, and to be able to project their feelings of caring, celebrities make field-visits to rescue centers in poorer countries. A long list of Hollywood and other celebrities have used such visits to demonstrate their empathy — many specifically visiting Mam venues: Mira Sorvino, Ashton Kutcher, Susan Sarandon, Meg Ryan, Demi Moore, Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Emma Thompson, and many more. I have written many times about visits like these as an expression of colonialism.

In the world of NGOs, visits by a raft of different characters are viewed as an unfortunate but necessary part of survival. Whole days are dedicated to showing outsiders tidbits of projects in the hope that flattering reports will reach donors’ eyes. Those receiving visits carefully orchestrate them to be entertaining and rewarding for visitors, including by arranging photo opportunities. It is totally conventional for the same objects of pity to be wheeled out every time: They have learned their lines and how to behave appropriately, they know how to hug visitors and smile for the camera. It would be too time-consuming to set up a new scenario for every visit.

The repetition of stories by the same inmates is well known, as is the phenomenon by which victims learn to embellish their stories to provoke more sympathy in listeners (including researchers and program evaluators). That these narrations are often exaggerated in performance or fabricated out of whole cloth is so well known in NGO circles as to be banal. Everyone does it, one old hand wrote me.

Those not familiar with this world are upset to discover that Mam made theater for visitors, because they seem to assume that NGOs must be squeaky-clean ethical. But NGOs (even if their tax-status is called nonprofit) are organizations with employees who want careers, security, and decent salaries so they can buy houses, cars, and everything else employees of profit-making businesses want.

NGOs operate in a precarious world of capricious funding in which they are forced to write proposals for projects in vogue with donors, even projects that contradict their own beliefs. NGO workers cultivate an attitude of benevolently caring more about their social causes than others do, but this is identity-formation, not fact — the building of a satisfying self-image to project to the world. These are conventionally career-seeking people, not self-sacrificing saints.

Of course, fabricating stories to get more followers and money is unethical, and Mam seems to have done a lot of it. Inventing a few false victims for public consumption does not, however, prove there are no real victims or that Mam’s activities never helped anyone. This is why the SMF foundation had her resign — so that activities can continue and damage can be limited.

Will any donors lose significant confidence and withdraw funding because of revelations that her story and two others were falsified? I doubt it. Donors do not like to admit they were duped. But if some do stop funding SMF, they will simply shift support to other similar institutions engaged in the same cause, since the money was already earmarked for it. And some new figure with the ability to stir feelings will eventually emerge from the hundreds of groups now dedicated to sex trafficking and sex slavery.

Figureheads and personalities are of little significance, anyway. The anti-trafficking movement is now structurally mainstreamed in overlapping national and international initiatives — bigger, like the US Trafficking in Persons Office and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and smaller, like the Swedish Institute. Multinational projects like the Global Slavery Index provide official-looking data on trafficking that rest on the wobbliest of sources.

The machinery is now well-oiled. Personalities are beloved by the general public, but dry technocrats and calculating consultants are in charge, with the regular intervention of opportunist politicians.

Then there are the journalists. A few years ago, a veteran New York literary agent said she could not consider my book proposal because she believed Nicholas Kristof. If he was right, I could not be. Kristof’s flying photo-shoots to the jungle were worth more than my twenty years of research. For members of the liberal mainstream that expect the New York Times to be responsible and unbiased, his protagonism in the sex-trafficking craze has been a moral seal of approval, and those liberals feel betrayed by him.

Never expecting institutions like the Times or the Guardian to be unbiased, I paid little attention to Kristof until late 2011, when he live-tweeted a brothel raid in Cambodia alongside Somaly Mam. When I expressed revulsion at this on my blog, I received hate mail. One was not permitted to question Great White Hunter reporters. I was a nobody — how dare I write on this topic? I responded with The Soft Side of Imperialism: Kristof and the Rescue Industry.

Despite many takedowns, Kristof has maintained his popularity, in another cult of personality that simply refuses to ask critical questions. After Mam’s exposure in Newsweek, Kristof first said mildly that it is difficult to pin down facts in Cambodia, excusing himself by faulting a backward nation. After being upbraided loudly by other journalistshe disavowed Mam in a move even more repulsive than his original adulation. But to complain about his misplaced faith is merely an attempt to shift the blame from his followers’ own original flawed act: allowing a sanctimonious Braggadocchio to define the facts in a complex and contradictory field.

One can understand how people swallow grand claims at the outset of a craze, but not years later, after repeated public failures to find large numbers of self-identified victims, the obvious re-branding of old categories like pimping as “trafficking” in order to inflate numbers of villains, and the steady debunking of myths like the sky-rocketing of sex trafficking at sports events.

Why do supporters whine that Kristof deceived them when they have no one to blame but themselves for refusing to face the truth for so many years? They complain that journalists should be accountable, but Kristof writes on sex trafficking in his columnist identity, on editorial pages where his is not the only mediocrity. He is part of a mainstream media machine that supports the status quo and ignores ideas not originated by old-boy networks.

Sad personal stories constitute the most convincing evidence of suffering presented by figureheads like Mam and Kristof. But even if all these were verifiable, they cannot justify the enormous outlay in time, money, and spirit assigned to this cause over time. And sad stories are much less common than the not-so-sad, less sensational stories told to many dozens of field researchers who have interviewed women who sell sex, many of them undocumented migrants (even leaving aside self-identified professional sex workers). Yet these more complicated stories are disqualified by anti-trafficking adherents who dismiss anything that throws doubt on their crusade.

The current fuss about Kristof and Mam reproduces the cult of personality that caused trouble in the first place. To focus on individuals is to avoid addressing structures. A couple of self-promoting showoffs pale beside proliferating government machinery that now churns out salaries and prestige for thousands worldwide caught up in a movement based on fraud.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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I remember where I first heard the word empowerment. It was a poor, not very attractive place, the kind celebrities visit to have feel-good photos taken of themselves hugging children who appear to adore them. The girls at Somaly Mam’s over-visited home for ex-victims of trafficking are regularly required to perform the emotional work of gazing happily at rich visitors from abroad (as in this shot the US State Department has the nerve to call ‘diplomacy’).

Celebrity Rescuers like Shay Mitchell imagine they are experiencing Love:

My friends and I went to [a Mam] center, and we literally got out of the truck and the younger girls were running to me and my friends. They hadn’t met us before, they had no idea who we were. They didn’t care. It was just the fact we’d come to visit — that was enough for them to come up and give us a hug. They were saying, “Sister, sister.” That was unconditional love like I’ve never felt in my entire life.

That’s a lot of naiveté, even for a missionary. Do these folks actually not know that oft-visited residents learn how they are meant to greet fat-cat visitors? And there’s a jolly neoliberal proposition:

Somaly has heart-and-hand necklaces . . . They’re survivor-made products and when you purchase them, you’re helping a survivor become financially self-sufficient.

Self-sufficient – Is she kidding? Mam’s website is characterised by statements like We help victims of sex slavery to become survivors, and empower survivors as part of the solution. Thirteen years ago I wrote the following piece daring to doubt the idea of empowerment, and I haven’t changed my mind today. (More repellent feel-good photos here, if you can stomach them. Below, I do believe some of the faces from another Mam photo shoot are the same as above)

The Em- of Empowerment: Injecting pride in unwilling subjects?

Laura Agustín, Research for Sex Work, 3, 15-16 (2000).

The verb is transitive: someone gives power to another, or encourages them to take power or find power in themselves. It’s used among those who want to help others identified as oppressed. In Latin America, in educación popular, one of the great cradles of this kind of concept, the word itself didn’t exist until it was translated back from English. To many people, if they know it at all, the word empoderamiento sounds strange. It’s an NGO word, used by either volunteer or paid educators who view themselves as helpers of others or fighters for social justice, and is understood to represent the current politically correct way of thinking about ‘third world’, subaltern or marginalised people. But it remains a transitive verb, which places emphasis on the helper and her vision of her capacity to help, encourage and show the way. These good intentions, held also by 19th-century European missionaries, we know from experience do not ensure non-exploitation.

In the current version of these good intentions, ‘first-world’ people and entities use their funds to help or empower those less privileged. They spend money to set up offices and pay salaries, many to people who remain in offices, often engaged in writing proposals that will allow them to stay in business. These organisations have hierarchies, and those engaged in education or organisation at the grassroots level often are the last to influence how funds will be used. Those closer to the top, who attend conferences, live in Europe or have career interests in the organisation, know how proposals must be written to compete in the crowded funding world. This condition of structural power should not be overlooked by those concerned with empowerment, who more often view themselves as embattled, as non-government, as crusaders situated against conservative policies. Yet, when a concept like empowerment comes from above in this way, we needn’t be surprised at the kind of contradictions that result—literacy programmes that don’t keep people interested in reading, AIDS education that doesn’t stop people from refusing to use condoms.

To empower me as a sex worker you assume the role of acting on me and you assume that I see myself as an individual engaged in sex work. If I don’t see myself this way, then I am disqualified from the empowerment project, despite your best intentions. The identity issue here is crucial; funders and activists alike are currently interested in valorising cultural and individual difference. While it is a great advance to recognise and ‘give voice to’ human subjects who were before marginalised or disappeared, the problem remains that if you want to inject pride in me that I am a worker and supporter of my family and I don’t recognise or want to think of myself that way, the advance won’t occur, in my case.

But, you say, those are the real conditions, we live in a world of funders and partial successes. We’re doing the best we can, and we acknowledge that these empowerment projects often fail. Since it’s to no one’s benefit that successes be quite so partial, let’s consider whether there is any way which this empowerment concept might be conceived differently, forgetting for the moment the funder and his funds.

In educación popular, in programmes sometimes called capacitación [capacity-building], people get together to talk, sometimes with the encouragement of a person from ‘outside’. This person might be called an animadora or an educator, her job to facilitate conditions where subjects might realise they have a problem in common which, if they acted together, they might be able to move toward solving. I’m describing a very fundamental, ‘pure’ version, perhaps, now complicated in many places in many ways by different histories, international contacts, hybrid forms. Still, it’s worth considering what the most basic idea always has been.

Here, the most the outsider does is provide the suggestion of a time and place, with perhaps a very basic reason for getting together, perhaps just ‘meeting neighbours’. Who finds out about this meeting? Everyone who lives there, if it’s a village or small barrio and people talk to each other fairly freely. Letting people know can be an important task of the outsider. Sometimes, in larger places, an ‘identity’ is targeted, but it can be a very general identity, such as everyone concerned to improve conditions in the community.

The educator/animator might suggest the group talk about a topic such as how to get running water, bus service or rubbish collection—topics of concern to everyone, including sex workers. Or she might present a question—such as why everyone is talking about migrating to work somewhere else—and hope people will respond. But if they don’t, and if nothing seems to happen, her job is to resist the temptation to push the conversation. The hope is rather that if people feel free to talk, they will, eventually, if only to see if others share their feelings. This process can be extremely slow and even invisible, and no money or materials from outside are required. The profound assumption is rather that people themselves already know a lot—what they want, what they need. If they agree after some time that a technical fact or help is needed that none of them possess, then they might feel ‘empowered’ to search for that fact on the outside.

Does the ‘outsider’actually need to be there during this process? The answer depends on the person, on how quietly encouraging she is, on how patient and undisappointed if the group doesn’t take off, agree on anything or if it agrees to a programme the opposite of what the funders want.

Can this vision be applied when funders seem concerned solely with the sex organs of people assumed to ‘identify’ themselves as sex workers? If educators must ‘target’ prostitutes as those who come to a meeting? Perhaps, if the same kind of mostly undirected sharing of experiences is encouraged. Many times sex workers will then be heard to discuss not sex, clients and condoms—the topics always brought up by funders—but all the other aspects of their lives, which are not peculiar to them as sex workers. They might talk about a new song, a new dress, a new club—or a new idea for getting together to protect and help each other.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Last week PBS ran Kristof’s documentary of his Half the Sky book. I’m not in the US so didn’t see it (and don’t have the option of seeing it at all), but publicity material abounds, including photos showing Hollywood stars, such as this one of Meg Ryan hugging a girl at a shelter for victims of trafficking. Some of the press-packaged stories discuss the techniques being used to manipulate viewers into joining a Half the Sky movement. It’s tempting to point to the maternalism inherent in the images, but the publicity makes it clear that this was conscious and deliberate – no one’s pretending real relationships are being portrayed. Ryan explained why ’privileged celebrities’ were used to tell the stories:

The actresses are the emotional conduits for the experience… Fame is such a perverse power when it comes to this type of advocacy. Celebrities bring attention to the problem, but they’re also resented… How we become sensitive to one another and less judgmental and more forgiving is what’s good. We’re all human. If we can increase compassion in the world, then we have a better place. Meg Ryan and Somaly Mam on Celebrity, Human Trafficking, and Compassion.

Emotional conduit is a pop-psychology notion I’m not sure serious media analysts would go along with here. It sounds more like Kristof’s wish about what would happen – that using attractive female actresses would magically make poor, dark, needy, less attractive women and children easier to care about. Or care about for longer than it takes to watch the documentary, long enough to sign up to do something further, like give money or volunteer on some project.

The publicity photographs have been set up to convey an intimacy disproportionate to the brief visits involved, as though Hollywood stars were gifted with an ability to bond deeply very fast. But in fact they are simply acting. The pictures are portraits of affection acted by people who’ve had training in how to do it. This has nothing to do with real feeling, and perhaps it needn’t. I am not accusing anyone of cynicism here, because the whole project has been calculated.

Eva Mendes is said to have embarked on a ‘life-changing’ visit to Sierra Leone. In this pose she seems to be physically touching a number of children at once, at the same time leaning toward the camera as though giving herself to it.

America Ferrera plays with children of sex workers in Kolkata, India. This shot plays on Ferrera’s more natural, less glamorous style but is equally contrived. The pose suggests she could be a sibling of all these children, playing on our knowledge that this actress is Latina.

Olivia Wilde in Kenya. The inclusion of a cameraperson in this shot underscores how posed and self-conscious it is. The children have obviously been told to hug her so close one might think they actually loved her. Wilde is good at acting genuine-looking emotion, but the children just look squashed and uncomfortable.

By merely standing beside two older women in Somalia (although one appears to be touching her back), Diane Lane’s set-up appears less effusive and intimate, more like people of equal status standing together. Does this mean less potential emotional conduit?

Kristof is hoping to catalyse his movement via CrowdriseTurning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. Something’s going on in the world of so-called social movements, isn’t it? Remember the two boys with their Hope Boutique Bakery? That was part of Crowd-Fuelled Causes, and I still don’t know what that does.

What I am sure about is how sophisticated media techniques are being brought in to modernise traditional Rescue-Industry events and publicity. Kristof prides himself on being a with-it guy in terms of social media – remember when he live-tweeted that brothel raid? So what’s next – conversations with the camera personnel about how they set up those emotional conduits?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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By Gloria! Look Who’s Here to Protect Victims with Money and Might reads the giddy headline. It seems that Warren Buffet’s son cannot bear to be left off today’s showiest philanthropy bandwagon: Rescuing women from prostitution. And neither does Ruchira Gupta intend to be left off today’s biggest social-work gravytrain: Funding for sex trafficking victims. And what better way to get attention for the cause than to bring Gloria Steinem in to pose for pictures?

So here’s how to make sex trafficking into your own project, laid out clearly in an article from The Telegraph of Calcutta (a paper Gupta once worked for). Note that it is important to pretend you are the first to take on trafficking, to go look at poor prostitutes in their habitat and to talk with women who hated the life. It’s definitely Reality Tourism. What’s really ridiculous here is bringing in an outsider when India has a long history, both intellectual and activist, in thinking creatively about sex work (consider DMSC’s many initiatives), and consider the comment at India Today: Do we really need Steinem to tell us that prostitution is about ‘an unequal distribution of power’ or that we face an ‘epidemic’ of sex trafficking?

The epidemic is rather of tourists from the US claiming expertise without reading up even a little of the complex literature before they start posing for photo opportunities. Steinem embarrasses herself further by claiming some lifelong connection to Calcutta when she cannot even remember where she stayed 50-some years ago.

Most serious however is to hear Ruchira Gupta calling for a stop to AIDS funding that provides sex workers with condoms; she wants them to get out of prostitution instead. At her and Steinem’s event in Hyderabad the other day, sex workers like these in the photo to the left were ignored. In the story below about Calcutta it is claimed Gupta and Steinem talked with some, but no report on how that went.

The story is full of silly words. Everyone has to be an icon nowadays. But do icons camp in town? Steinem ideates for thought leaders. Gupta pretentiously claims a connection to Gandhi for Apne Aap, a traditional Rescue project that calls all prostitution rape. Classic colonialism all around, with outsiders needed to protect with money and might.

A-team to tackle sex-ploitation
Mohua Das, 9 April 2012, The Telegraph

The day screen icon Shah Rukh Khan and his KKR XI were struggling to make an impact at the Eden Gardens, an 11-member team led by feminist icon Gloria Steinem and including philanthropy icons Peter and Jennifer Buffett, was quietly camping in town to make a difference where it really matters: putting in their money and their might to battle sex trafficking.

A “learning tour” ideated by Steinem, funded by the NoVo Foundation run by the son and daughter-in-law of Warren Buffett, and steered by Ruchira Gupta, founder of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, had brought together 11 thought leaders in a city where hardly anyone of global significance spends any time any more.

The high-profile champions of humanitarian causes from the US and Canada (see chart) arrived hush-hush on Wednesday, spent two days observing the red-light district of Sonagachhi, visiting the Victoria Memorial and interacting with members of Apne Aap.

At a dinner hosted by Harsh and Madhu Neotia on Thursday evening, 78-year-old Steinem, who had briefly lived in Calcutta five decades ago, told Metro: “I came to know of Ruchira’s work and I wanted to support her and be helpful. We wanted other people to see and meet the women of Apne Aap and so I thought if we got a group to come here and understand what’s happening, they too would become attached and become supporters.” The ‘they’ in question included Peter Buffett and his wife Jennifer whose NoVo Foundation, a philanthropic organisation to promote the rights of girls and women worldwide, took the lead in organising the learning tour.

“We got together this group of people interested in learning more about how to end sexual exploitation and to specifically learn from the model of Apne Aap,” said Pamela Shifman, director of initiatives for girls and women at the NoVo Foundation and the first person who Ruchira connected with in the group. Ruchira founded Apne Aap Women Worldwide with 22 women from the red-light districts in Mumbai in 2002 before expanding its offices in Delhi, Calcutta, Bihar and New York.

“It’s a learning tour for the group to understand the Apne Aap approach. We have been travelling around India but we are particularly concerned about the situation in Calcutta because of Sonagachhi and the legitimisation of sexual exploitation there. This group is here to see this problem in Sonagachhi and also to see the solution that Apne Aap has created,” said Ruchira.

A former journalist with The Telegraph, her 1996 documentary The Selling of Innocents had exposed the trafficking of women from Nepal to India and won her an Emmy Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. In Calcutta, Apne Aap operates in areas like Kidderpore, Munshigunge and Watgunge. Steinem, who lives in New York, is a chair on the advisory board for Apne Aap.

The six-day India tour started on April 2 with a visit to Gandhi Smriti in Delhi, as Apne Aap is modelled on Gandhi’s social justice framework, Ahimsa (non-violence) and Antodaya (power to the last wo/man) being the cornerstones. After a meeting with Apne Aap girls and a speech by Steinem at JNU to mark the 10th anniversary of Apne Aap, the group arrived in Calcutta on Wednesday before leaving for Bihar on Friday.

Day One in Calcutta was spent in a visit to Sonagachhi. “This red-light area is becoming a magnet for traffickers and Murshidabad, the Sunderbans and New Jalpaiguri are becoming high-risk areas. It’s a shame that Calcutta allows Sonagachhi to exist,” said Ruchira.

On Day Two, the group attended a panel discussion with survivors of prostitution followed by interactions with people who want to legalise prostitution and believe sex should be called ‘work’, and meetings with Apne Aap women’s groups.

For Steinem, it was her third visit to India on an Apne Aap project. “India’s been a part of my life since I was 22. First of all, I was a student in India on fellowship, in the Fifties. I came for a year and stayed on for two years. That’s when I also lived in Calcutta for a while but it was so long ago, either in 1957 or 58. I was staying with a friend but I just can’t remember where…. I think somewhere near the Calcutta University,” said the pioneer of the women’s lib movement in the 1960s and ’70s. Steinem even recounted writing a guidebook on India, “trying to persuade people to stay longer in the country”.

Now, for Steinem and Ruchira, sex trafficking is an invisible black hole, and its victims the last frontier of humanity. Apne Aap, while firmly opposing “people trying to glorify prostitution but actually legitimising repeated rape in Sonagachhi”, has been organising women and girls in groups of 10 inside slums and red-light districts to resist traffickers and pimps in Delhi, Bihar and Calcutta.

“There’s something lopsided about the AIDS lobby around the world that tries to protect male buyers from disease rather than protecting the women from them. We need to bring attention to this, that this kind of funding has to stop and investing in funds that give these women more choices other than prostitution has to start,” explained Ruchira.

“That’s when Gloria suggested that we create a group of people and organise an alternative sex tour where they can come and see what is going on in these red-light districts and also understand the Apne Aap approach.” So what would Steinem prescribe to combat trafficking in this part of the country? “I don’t want to arrive for a few days and dictate…. In America too, they tend to arrest the prostituted women and not the traffickers, pimps or brothel owners. We should arrest the criminals and support the victims.”

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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Oh for goodness’ sake, does everyone in the USA have to take on sex trafficking as their special mission? How conformist! Ashley Judd has joined the list; it turns out she once wrote a school paper on the topic, so the UN invited her to come be an expert recently, and rather than blame Judd for her lack of imagination I charge the UN for utter irresponsibility. I expect Mira Sorvino is annoyed as well, displaced from her Queen Bee position. Both women are smugly calling themselves philanthropists now, showing perfectly the correctness of my theory of Rescue as identity marker for under-employed middle-class women.

Now here is Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms Magazine and veteran politicker in the women’s movement, spouting fundamentalist cliches in India, where she was invited to talk about prostitution and trafficking. Feminist conflict on these subjects is as common in India as anywhere else, so the fact that Steinem’s remarks caused a kerfuffle is not surprising, but The Hindu newspaper has allowed a true blossoming of quarrels today –  really quite absurd if you read through them all. Steinem’s original talk at a university, reported as Up against the epidemic of trafficking, was repressive towards sex workers and their allies who attended, followed by Prostitution is one of the oldest oppressions, not profession, which includes more unsubstantiated statistics from Rescue project Apne Aap

the number of child victims trafficked globally for sexual exploitation or cheap labour is 1.2 million annually. The National Human Rights Commission estimates that almost half the children trafficked within India are between the ages of 11 and 14.

Steinem’s own errors and cliches include:

The average age for children to be pushed into sex trafficking is between 12 and 13 in the United States and between 9 and 12 in India. The perception is that very young children are less likely to have AIDS. Quoting from her experiences in different countries, she said women who are trafficked suffer a great deal because of patriarchal structures and religions.

. . . the less “valuable” women who are not expected to maintain the “purity” of a class, caste or race are the ones most likely to fall prey to human trafficking worldwide.

She could be crucified for comments like the last one but was presumably surrounded by groupies so not in danger. Isn’t it nice to know that she now has travel plans with Apne Aap to look at real live sex trafficking and prostitution around India? More Reality Tourism, I call it, with a biased guide. Has she met Siddharth Kara yet?

I suspect that the event’s organiser, Kumkum Roy of Jawaharlal University’s Women Studies Programme, had not properly investigated Steinem before inviting her, because she nearly apologised for exclusion of sex workers at Steinem’s talk in Need for a nuanced debate. Shohini Ghosh, another academic, refuted Steinem’s nonsense more clearly in Moralistic assumptions.

However the icing on this quarrelsome cake is in a piece by Steinem herself called Body Invasion is De-humanising, as a reply to the above criticism. Steinem’s unfamiliarity with this particular debate is glaringly obvious, so that she leans on 1970s Dworkian rhetoric and errors of fact that have been debunked hundreds of times. As with the pea-brained actors, Steinem is reduced to using anecdotal evidence, claiming that the unhappy prostitutes she happens to have met represent all, and she says no one has ever told her they want their daughter to grow up to be a prostitute. My land, isn’t that amazing! This sort of embarrassing cant is easily avoided by never accepting an invitation to talk on a subject where most of the audience knows much more than you ever will: Public Speaking 101.

Pictures depict real body invasions.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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For those with a sense of humour about these things, here’s a six-minute video comprising the most dramatic moments from the BBC World Debate in Luxor where Mira Sorvino jumped down my throat, the head of Interpol conceded I had the right to speak, Ashton Kutcher claimed the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 and I met Siddharth Kara, whose book I reviewed the other day. What an experience.

The original programme is 50 minutes, too long for all but the most devoted, so Carol Leigh and I collaborated to produce this version for a Stella event in Montreal last November, which played to laughs the whole time (but of course they are super insiders).

The Scarlot Harlot and I have known each other since 1996, when I arrived in Miami, worked as a secretary and saved up my $10-an-hour salary to buy a laptop and find out what the Internet was. In the middle of one night I found the Bayswan website and figured out how to send my first email. Carol responded and we met in person in early 1997, on the occasion of another first for me – a conference – organised by GAATW, in Victoria, British Columbia. It was about trafficking, a term I had scarcely heard at the time. Fifteen years later, well – what else is there now except trafficking? Which is what I am trying to resist in these clips. Thank you, Carol.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Real Men Don't Buy GirlsAshton Kutcher is branching out from child sex trafficking and child sex slavery to child pornography, undoubtedly on the advice of publicists who want him associated with all things scarily sexy about children.

This guaranteed-to-win project contributes to the blurring of distinctions amongst people who sell sex, no matter what age they are. Distinctions are necessary if one would like as many different people as possible to enjoy autonomy and rights, and one would think most people would like that, but alas they don’t when exchanging money for sex is concerned. Does Ashton care? He once said (on David Letterman’s show) that strippers and porn stars are not sex trafficking victims, for which he was slammed by the anti-prostitution people at Change.org, so maybe his team has abandoned that ship.

Being part of police raids is clearly the In Thing for Rescuers. Nicholas Kristof went giddy over the AK-47s he saw at Somaly Mam’s raid, and Mira Sorvino said playing a New York cop-turned-Border-Patrol-agent in a TV mini-series called Human Trafficking gave her the ‘opportunity to combine my social work with my acting’. Social work? So I am hardly surprised that Ashton asked to tag along on a police raid of pedophile homes in California (if that is really what they were, which is not proven).

But something creepy is getting normalised here: Celebrities now routinely side with police in order to show their seriousness about trafficking, and, in a circular move, get their knowledge about trafficking from the police. Ashton won’t have known anything about the people whose homes were invaded except what the cops told him (he wasn’t allowed inside). But he doesn’t have to know more, because this is a publicity stunt – a show that is showier if done with an agency pretentiously called The Silicon Valley Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. What happened to Hollywood’s historic liberal slant that caused actors and writers to stand up against big government? Gone with the wind of trafficking.

Ashton Kutcher Rides Along During DOJ Child Porn Bust

Sajid Farooq, 24 February 2012, NBC Bay Area

The Silicon Valley Internet Crimes Against Children task force had a special guest riding along with them when the agency arrested five people Thursday on suspicion of downloading child pornography. The task force, which is run by the Department of Justice and is made up of both federal and local law enforcement officers, was joined by actor Ashton Kutcher during the crackdown. The “Two and a Half Men” star founded the DNA Foundation with Demi Moore, which aims to help end child sex slavery.

Jose Garcia, the public information officer for the San Jose Police Department, confirmed that Kutcher was part of the ride along, which involved more than 70 detectives from 23 different law enforcement agencies. “Mr. Kutcher observed the operation on behalf of the DNA Foundation,” he said. “Current case law and San Jose Police Department policy prohibits civilian ride along and observers from entering residences during search warrants or other police enforcement action. Mr. Kutcher did not enter any residences and was not involved in any enforcement action.” He refused to elaborate on why the actor chose to do the ride along. A request for a comment from the foundation was not immediately answered.

But Kutcher’s organization initiated the request for the ride along and he was joined by the foundation’s director, according to Garcia. “The DNA Foundation reached out to SVICAC on the recommendation of a Silicon Valley company that is already working with federal law enforcement on similar investigations,” Garcia said.

The officers searched seven homes in Larkspur, Novato, Fairfax, San Rafael and unincorporated Marin County and seized a number of computers and other evidence as Kutcher awaited their return. In all, four men and one 16-year-old were arrested on suspicion of possessing child pornography.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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During a prolonged stay in New York recently I realised that Nicholas Kristof looms very large to many people, while to me he is only one of many annoying members of the Rescue Industry, albeit an egregious one. In the article I published last week about imperialism for Counterpunch Kristof was the obvious choice for main punching bag. The piece was picked up by the NYTimes eXaminer as an Op-Ed, where they added a funny photo.

Numerous people have written to express particular outrage that Kristof’s Facebook game should be like FarmVille, with women taking the place of farm animals, to be looked after. Others wrote to say the word smarmy was just right to describe him. It turns out he’s not such an unquestioned celebrity Rescuer after all.

Kristof and the Rescue Industry:
The Soft Side of Imperialism

by LAURA AGUSTÍN, 25 January 2012, Counterpunch

Reasons abound to be turned off by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. He is too pleased with himself and demonstrates no capacity for self-reflection. He is too earnest. He claims to be in the vanguard of journalism because he tweets. He is said to be Doing Something about human suffering while the rest of us don’t care; he is smarmy. He doesn’t write particularly well. But most important, he is an apologist for a soft form of imperialism.

He poses for photos with the wretched of the earth and Hollywood celebrities in the same breath, and they are a perfect fit. Here he is squatting and grinning at black children, or trying to balance a basket on his head, and there he is with his arm over Mia Farrow’s shoulder in the desert. Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.

In interviews, he refers to the need to protect his humanitarian image, and he got one Pulitzer Prize because he “gave voice to the voiceless”. Can there be a more presumptuous claim? Educated at both Harvard and Oxford, he nevertheless appears ignorant of critiques of Empire and grassroots women’s movements alike. Instead, Kristof purports to speak for girls and women and then shows us how grateful they are. His Wikipedia entry reads like hagiography.

Keen to imply that he’s down with youth and hep to the jive, he lamely told one interviewer that “All of us in the news business are wondering what the future is going to be.” He is now venturing into the world of online games, the ones with a so-called moral conscience, like Darfur is Dying, in which players are invited to “Help stop the crisis in Darfur” by identifying with refugee characters and seeing how difficult their lives are. This experience, it is presumed, will teach players about suffering, but it could just as well make refugees seem like small brown toys for people to play with and then close that tab when they get bored. Moral conscience is a flexible term anyway: One click away from Darfur is Dying is a game aimed at helping the Pentagon improve their weapons.

Kristof says his game will be a Facebook app like FarmVille: “You’ll have a village, and in order to nurture this village, you’ll have to look after the women and girls in the village.” The paternalism couldn’t be clearer, and to show it’s all not just a game (because there’s actual money involved), schools and refugee camps get funds if you play well. A nice philanthropic touch.

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. Hollywood westerns lived off the image of white Europeans as civilizing force for decades, depicting the slaughter of redskins in the name of freedom. Their own freedom, that is, in the foundational American myth that settlers were courageous, ingenious, hard-working white men who risked everything and fought a revolution in the name of religious and political liberty.

Odd then, that so many Americans are blind when it comes to what they call humanitarianism, blissfully conscience-free about interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards. The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. Relying on a belief in social evolution, development and modernization as objective truths, contemporary rescuers, like John Stuart Mill 150 years ago, consider themselves free, self-governing individuals born in the most civilized lands and therefore entitled to rule people in more backward ones. (Mill required benevolence, but imperialists always claim to have the interests of the conquered at heart.) Here begins colonialism, the day-to-day imposition of value systems from outside, the permanent maintenance of the upper hand. Here is where the Rescue Industry finds its niche; here is where Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior.

In the formation of the 21st-century anti-trafficking movement, a morally convenient exception is made, as it was made for military actions in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The exception says This Time It’s Different. This time we have to go in. We have to step up and take the lead, show what real democracy is. In the name of freedom, of course. In the case of trafficking the exception says: We have achieved Equality. We abolished slavery, we had a civil-rights movement and a women’s liberation movement too and now everything is fine here.

With justification firmly in place, the US Rescue Industry imposes itself on the rest of the world through policies against prostitution, on the one hand, and against trafficking, on the other. In their book Half the Sky, Kristof and co-author Sheryl WuDunn liken the emancipation of women to the abolition of slavery, but his own actions –brothel raids, a game teaching players to protect village women – reflect only paternalism.

It may be easier to get away with this approach now than it was when W.T. Stead of London’s Pall Mall Gazette bought a young girl in 1885 to prove the existence of child prostitution. This event set off a panic that evil traders were systematically snatching young girls and carrying them to the continent – a fear that was disproved, although Stead was prosecuted and imprisoned for abduction.

In contrast, in 2004 when Kristof bought two young Cambodians out of a brothel, he took his cameraman to catch one girl’s weepy homecoming. A year later, revisiting the brothel and finding her back, Kristof again filmed a heartwarming reunion, this time between him and the girl. Presuming that being bought out by him was the best chance she could ever get, Kristof now reverted to a journalistic tone, citing hiv-infection rates and this girl’s probable death within a decade. She was not hiv-positive, but he felt fine about stigmatizing her anyway.

Then last November, Kristof live-tweeted a brothel raid in the company of ex-slave Somaly Mam. In “One Brothel Raid at a Time” he describes the excitement:

Riding beside Somaly in her car toward a brothel bristling with AK-47 assault rifles, it was scary. This town of Anlong Veng is in northern Cambodia near the Thai border, with a large military presence; it feels like something out of the Wild West. (New York Times)

There’s the cavalry moment again. A few days later Kristof boasted that six more brothels had closed as a result of the tweeted raid. Focused on out-of-work pimps, he failed to ask the most fundamental question: Where did the women inside those brothels go? The closures made them instantly vulnerable to trafficking, the very scenario Kristof would save them from.

Some Rescuers evoke the Christian mission directly, like Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission, which accompanies police in raids on brothels. Or like Luis CdeBaca, the US Ambassador-at-Large for Trafficking, who unselfconsciously aligns himself with William Wilberforce, the evangelical Christian rescuers claim ended slavery – as though slaves and freed and escaped slaves had nothing to do with it. CdeBaca talks about the contemporary mission to save slaves as a responsibility uniquely belonging to Britain and the US.

Kristof positions himself as liberal Everyman, middle-class husband and father, rational journalist, transparent advocate for the underdog. But he likes what he calls the law-enforcement model to end slavery, showing no curiosity about police behavior toward victims during frightening raids. Ignoring reports of the negative effects these operations have on women, and the 19th-century model of moral regeneration forced on them after being rescued, he concentrates on a single well-funded program for his photo-opps, the one showing obedient-looking girls.

Kristof also fails to criticize US blackmail tactics. Issuing an annual report card to the world, the US Office on Trafficking presumes to judge, on evidence produced during investigations whose methodology has never been explained, each country according to its efforts to combat human trafficking. Reprisals follow – loss of aid – for countries not toeing the line. Kristof is an apologist for this manipulative policy.

To criticize the Rescue Industry is not to say that slavery, undocumented migration, human smuggling, trafficking and labor exploitation do not exist or involve egregious injustices. Yet Kristof supporters object to any critique with At least he is Doing Something. What are you doing to stop child rape? and so on. This sort of attempt to deflect all criticism is a hallmark of colonialism, which invokes class and race as reasons for clubbing together against savagery and terrorism. The Rescue Industry, like the war on terrorism, relies on an image of the barbaric Other.

It is important not to take at face value claims to be Helping, Saving or Rescuing just because people say that is what they are doing and feel emotional about it. Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Discussing Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe said Conrad used Africa

as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril… The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. (Things Fall Apart)

The latest sahib in colonialism’s dismal parade, Kristof is the Rescue Industry at its well-intentioned worst.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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In chapter four of Sex at the Margins, I look at history, at the period when the bourgeoisie started to define what society should look like and how everybody should live (whilst nobility and monarchy were fading from power). I did this historical research to try to understand what saving prostitutes was about, how it began and why. The result of that research was really revealing, showing how the role of Rescuer depends on the existence of Victims who need Rescue because their ways of life appear to be wrong. If you want the full-strength theoretical version, read Helping Women Who Sell Sex. The Rescuer gains a positive sense of identity, of Doing Good.

I do not mean to sneer at anyone’s feelings about life’s meaning or the desire to diminish injustice. But it is important not to take at face value claims to be Helping, Saving or Rescuing just because people say that is what they are doing. I take note of how the Rescue Industry sustains itself and grows, how the cultural meaning of helping and saving changes over time, and I am interested in who gets involved and what they say about their actions.

In the midst of economic crisis, intransigent armed conflicts, increasing socio-economic inequality and general anomie, anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaigns flourish, with more people and more money involved all the time. Presumably it just feels good, being able to be part of something Big and also something apparently Simple, in which everyone can agree: Slavery is bad. Look at images of Rescue Operations, with people rushing in to save others they don’t know from fires and earthquakes: some people find these actions to be the height of nobility.

Celebrities jump on bandwagons for the sake of publicity, which we may giggle over (consider Ashton Kutcher, Emma Thompson and Mira Sorvino.) But the following comments, which come from a serious person, struck me. Kristen Lindsey expresses a sense of thrill at getting to be part of the anti-slavery crusade, at having arrived on time to Do Something about a social scourge. Her words actually make me slightly queasy: the presence of suffering makes her glad because it gives her Important Work to do. The construction of her own identity is the point.

None of us are free, Kristen Lindsey, 26 October 2011, The Huffington Post

… Growing up, just after the 1960s, I feared that I had missed my chance to take part in the most important movement in our country. I now know that I have found my place — and that all of us can step up and join a movement that matters. This year, I became CEO of The Global Fund for Children…

The torch has been passed to us. Putting an end to modern day slavery is our civil rights movement. Now it’s our time to make a difference, and we must continue to work together to ensure that people everywhere are free.

Anyone who still thinks this movement is about women who sell sex: Wake up. It’s gone way, way past that.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Mira Sorvino was not wearing her Mighty Aphrodite clothes when she attacked me at the BBC World Debate programme on Human Trafficking. Her dress was a demure tartan instead, though with high transparent platform heels.

The programme has become accessible online in the UK, which it was not originally, so if you couldn’t see it before try again – it may now be watchable wherever you are. I wrote about the background to this show before I was flown to Luxor for it and afterwards when it went online in January.

Editors cut and re-arranged the debate from its original sequence, softening Mira Sorvino’s personal attack on me by placing it quite late, when in reality she freaked out only a few minutes after we began – after I had answered a question only twice, I think. She was backed by an audience composed of non-critical anti-trafficking campaigners brought in by the UN and Mrs Mubarak, now fallen from prestige but acting like a queen at the time (December 2010). There’s more about the Sorvino experience at the Huffington Post, but I can’t explain whether or not she knows how to reconcile her earlier sex-worker role with her moral outrage now.

If you have time to click here, I’d be grateful to know if it is not available wherever you are – that is, if you get a message saying Not available in your area. Even if you don’t have the time or will to watch the whole thing. If you want to see La Sorvino, she comes a few minutes into Part 4.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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