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A National Geographic television special called 21st Century Sex Slaves employs the melodramatic voiceover common to all trite police documentaries, but it goes further. The ever-evolving Rescue Industry now has a large media branch, where camera crews film undercover operations and men act out hero fantasies (women get subordinate roles, usually as faceless victims).

The wannabe Special Agent in this story is Steve Galster, head of something called Freeland Foundation, which bizarrely seems to have been dedicated to preventing wildlife trafficking before jumping on the human gravytrain. I wonder if they found it an easy mental shift from pangolins to young women; the rhetoric is the same:

Freeland is dedicated to making the world free of human slavery and wildlife trafficking by increasing law enforcement capacity, supporting vulnerable communities and raising awareness.

Law enforcement is a Man’s game, right? So these men otherwise associated with saving animals and running NGOs now have an excuse not only to hobnob with real cops but also to play cops themselves. The camera spends a lot of time on Galster, whose features recall pretty-man Special Agents Gibbs and DiNozzo in NCIS, but Galster is a weak, non-charismatic character. National Geographic has taken television shows like NCIS as inspiration in all sorts of ways – but the excitement is conspicuously absent.

Notice the technique: the camera records crowded streets where lots of young women mill about. The narration mentions that many have gone into sex work on their own, but as the camera pans past, the voiceover talks about willing and unwilling women in the same breath, implying that everyone you see is a potential slave.

In this attempt at a thriller the Bad Guys are Uzbeks, in just the same way that Law & Order often singles out an ethnic group’s misbehaviour: Russians in Brighton Beach is a popular one. Here a Thai police chief laments how his country is being abused by foreigners (the trafficking Uzbeks). But it’s wildlife-saviour Galster who gets the main role, despite his inability to convey drama. The whole thing is, like the BBC series on Mexican sex slaves, infotainment, a misleading blend of facts, factoids and fantasies.

Unsurprisingly, Pattaya is one of the locations chosen for this cliché-ridden show, where one place offers Only European Girls. I doubt they pick up any of the irony.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Last September I wrote about so-called Reality Tours to meet victims of sex trafficking. Now it’s August and several people have written me from Bangkok about the tour taking place there this past week. I remember when I first heard about Global Exchange educational tours, while visiting a little storefront in San Francisco in 1989. I have a memory of puzzling over the brochure amidst shelves and tables piled with ethnic jewellery and objects from Other Cultures. The shop on 24th Street is still there, according to a contemporary description:

Global Exchange offers fair trade crafts produced in over 40 countries. Proceeds go toward improving lives in these villages. They have a vast selection of unique items from all over the world. This is a great place to pick up a gift for the person who is hard to shop for.

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

The tour to Bangkok is entitled Thailand: Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: Delegation? Delegates are meant to be official or elected representatives. I shudder to think who people on the tour believe they are representing. Why not call themselves what they are – tourists? Those who think themselves sexually liberal may sneer at Christian tourism – aka missions – but there is not so much difference from the point of view of the objects of their solidarity and pity.

My analysis is not purely theoretical. A couple of decades ago, I happened to be working on the Mexico-US border, in a project whose main task was to provide legal advice to migrants who’d crossed the border illegally and wanted to make a claim for asylum in the US. (Yes, another kind of helping). Lots of people wanted to but few could provide the kind of evidence required by immigration authorities. While stories were checked and papers processed, asylum-seekers had to hang around in halfway-houses found for them by the project.

On one occasion, I was at the enormous garbage dump in Matamoros, where hundreds of people live amidst rubbish of all kinds, picking and carting bits to sell outside.  A group of Reality Tourists came up to some children to ask them questions. The children, accustomed to flies crawling over their faces, did not move to brush them off. The tourists, horrified by the flies landing on their own eyes, faced an excruciating dilemma: They wanted to express interest in and respect for the garbage-dwellers at the same time they wanted to run away screaming. But if they ran away, what would it say about the humanity they were fleeing?

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist



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Men at the higher end of the evolutionary scale: That is how one man has described men who want to save sex slaves, seeking to differentiate themselves from less civilised, bad men – the ones that buy sex. In this idea, being a Good Man is achieved not by concern for world peace, equal opportunity, racism, the end of poverty or war but rather by concern for sex slaves.

Recently I published a sober academic review of a book that is not academic at all, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Afterwards, I republished the review in Counterpunch, with a snappy introduction for the occasion:

FEBRUARY 27, 2012

Not Inside the Business of Modern Slavery
Sex Trafficking


It is good luck for Good Men that sex slavery has been identified as a terrible new phenomenon requiring extraordinary actions. In the chivalric tradition, to rescue a damsel in distress ranked high as a way knights errant could prove themselves, along with slaying dragons and giants. Nowadays, Nicholas Kristof is only one of a growing number of men seeking attention and praise through the rescue of a new kind of distressed damsel – poorer women called sex slaves. In this noble quest, women who prefer to sell sex to their other limited options are not consulted but must be saved, and human rights are the new grail. The association with Christianity is not casual. Siddharth Kara, another man seeking saintliness, uses lite economics – another trendy way to get noticed these days.

The original review follows. The publisher of Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn, has forwarded me a letter from the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation objecting to the piece, calling me a journalist, which I am not. He also doesn’t seem to have read past that introductory paragraph to the review of the book, where he might have found real issues to think about.

In Laura Agustin’s cynical worldview, men who hold the opinion that prostituting women is wrong and endeavor to do something about it are, in fact, misguided crusaders in the tradition of Don Quixote lost in chivalric fantasy on a mortal quest to feed their own egos by saving damsels in distress. In her article, Not Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Sex Trafficking, Agustin specifically targets two men amongst what she portrays as a growing parade of attention-seeking phony heroes (cue the paparazzi) – Nicholas Kristof and Siddharth Kara.

Unsettling as it is for Agustin to accept the presence of men at the higher end of the evolutionary scale, Kristof and Kara are helping to shed light on a culture of gender exploitation that has survived only because of spin and lies. Where the rest of us see two men of intelligence and compassion, Agustin sees ulterior motive. In my experience, ones own ill intent makes one suspicious of ill intent in others. What is Agustin’s motive in attacking those working hard to end the exploitation of women? More spin and lies I suspect.

Robert J. Benz
Founder & Executive Vice President
Frederick Douglass Family Foundation

A culture of gender exploitation has only survived because of spin and lies? What? No interest in poverty or cultures of gender inequality from this crusader! Cynicism is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Note that Benz clearly places his kind of man on the high end of evolution, in that overtly colonialistic move in which white men save brown women from brown men. I don’t even understand the last sentence: how can a motive be spin? The guy should have looked me up first and come up with a better attack. And got a copyeditor.

But there is something else interesting here: the notion that Kara has been insulted by being placed in the chivalric tradition, which is generally assumed to represent something noble. Benz’s reference to Don Quixote shows he probably never studied chivalry himself. On the contrary, I imagine both Kara and Kristof would be chuffed to be associated with it. To critique knights in shining armour, as I do, you need to be not only interested in solving social problems but also interested in ending patriarchy, and knighthood is an elitist, male, hierarchical tradition in which white European men proved themselves to other men through treating women as objects, and women were supposed to be grateful, because they couldn’t possibly have gotten themselves out of their predicament unassisted, or figured out how to deal with life themselves in the first place. Note also my reference to human rights as the new grail.

In the contemporary example, men proving themselves through virtuous acts are using police and paternalism to rescue damsels – acts more than legitimate to criticise.

If you got this far and you tweet or post anywhere else, I’d appreciate this getting around. Maybe even Benz will see it!

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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In December of 2010 I met Siddharth Kara at the BBC World Debate on Human Trafficking. In fact, he was there because I gave his name to the producer, who was under pressure to find people without knowing anything about the field. The BBC held the debate programme at a sort of anti-trafficking revival meeting organised by Mrs Mubarak (not yet an international pariah). Just beforehand, panellists met with Zeinab Badawi (the presenter) in a crowded hotel Green Room. When I walked in Kara was in full cry with an Elevator Pitch so out of place I giggled, which seemed to puzzle him. Thus I found out that being poster boy for a movement had protected him from self-awareness. When I accepted the request to review his book, I did not know how inane it would turn out to be.

Siddharth Kara. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. xviii + 298 pp.  (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-13960-1;  (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-13961-8.

Reviewed by Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

Published on H-LatAm 14 February 2012

A Man of Moral Sentiments

Siddharth Kara’s Sex Trafficking is not a scholarly book. Neither based on methodological research nor reflecting knowledge of literature that could give context to the author’s experience, this reads like the diary of a poverty tourist or the bildungsroman of an unsophisticated man of moral sentiments demonstrating his pain at unfathomable injustices. This places Kara in the tradition of colonial writers who believed that they were called to testify to the suffering of those not lucky enough to be born into comfortable Western society.

Scholarship is virtually absent from his works cited, whether on migration, trafficking, slavery, feminism, sexualities, criminology, gender, informal-sector labor, or the sex industry and prostitution. Apparently unaware of over ten years of difficult debates, hundreds of scholarly articles, and investigative journalism, Kara is an MBA on a mission, using statistical sleight of hand to solve the problem of slavery. Because the book is touted by campaigners as presenting hard data and incisive analysis, H-Net requested this review.

A travelogue in six chapters is bracketed by arguments both high-minded and businesslike. Kara mentions his moral awakening while volunteering at a refugee camp, his business career, and his sporadic travels since 2000, interviewing 150 “victims” (term unexplained) and a variety of other people located by what he calls “word of mouth.” Because many people did not trust him, he could not enter most businesses and found it easier to interview victims in shelters. Chapter headings are regional, but my guess is his stays in most regions were brief (scholars in the field will recognize his contacts as predictable), with India a possible exception. Kara does not acknowledge these inevitable biases given his lack of method.

On the one hand, his freedom sounds heavenly to those planning fieldwork who have grubbed for funding, written and rewritten interview questions, toadied to gatekeepers, pacified ethics committees, and dealt with supervisors who fail to understand what one is trying to do. On the other hand, Kara reads like a bull in a china shop, bumbling into brothels, stressing and sometimes endangering young women, pressing them to provide him with conversation, annoying goons, and throwing money around. For a scholarly review, the salient point is the absence of academic supervision to control his preconceptions about what he would find, critique his lack of methodology, or control the spin he puts on his experiences. At times, he simply claims that informants did not “appear” to be coerced.

For a man setting out to report on sex as business he is priggish. Bothered by old men who ogle young girls, he admits “I felt ashamed to be male” and opines “I also believe that the preponderance of males do not condone these vulgarities” (pp. 71, 33). After escaping violence he declaims: “For so many years I had stepped into the fire pit and emerged unscathed…. That night, I suffered violent food poisoning from mushrooms and vomited thirty-four times. Justice was swift. I accepted my punishment” (p. 58). Exalted sensibility and anachronistic rhetoric further link Kara to nineteenth-century moral crusaders like Josephine Butler, famous for saying if she were a prostitute she would be crying all day.

Kara knows little about present-day migration and mobility. Meeting a Lithuanian woman in Italy and a Nigerian woman in Bangkok cause him to suspect they were trafficked, as though obtaining travel documents and tickets were too difficult for women to manage alone. Not finding slaves in the United States, he concludes there must be less demand and therefore less slavery, but also that the United States is “too far away” (from what?), as though airplanes and multiple technologies had not rendered distance almost irrelevant. Even a cursory check of current migration literature would have saved him such gaffes.

But Kara is not interested in migration (whether voluntary, ambivalent, or coerced) or in smuggling. He also rejects “trafficking” as a core concept, preferring slave trading for the movement of people and slavery for the jobs they get. His pitch is that slavery is back in a big way, but his is a cartoon version of master and slave, free of any social complexity and the ambiguities of human interaction. If he can contemplate this industry coolly for the purposes of financial calculations, then he should be able to consider potential human gains also. Finally forced to recognize that slavery could actually sometimes represent “a better life” (p. 199), he is nonetheless blind to the possibility that people in bad situations may be able to exploit them and seems ignorant of slavery studies far evolved from abolitionist reductionism. Slave narratives, slave archaeology, ethnobiology, and historical research all have illuminated social systems in which slaves were not wholly passive nor owners unidimensionally crushing. Coping, resisting, manipulating, strategizing, and creating culture form part of slaves’ lives.[1] But Kara, intent on discovering tales of sexual exploitation, has no idea how his informants spend most of their time.

He claims that “sex slaves” are the best earners for masters because they are sold “literally thousands of times before they are replaced” (p. 24), conflating an owner’s sale of a slave with a slave’s sale of sexual services to customers. Would he do this if another service were involved, like hairdressing? If a salon owner buys a slave to be a hairdresser who then sees many customers and produces money for her owner, would Kara say the hairdresser is sold thousands of times? Or would he see that her labor is sold, albeit unfairly? Questions to be asked about both cases would include: Is money earned credited toward the payment of a debt? Is the worker able to leave the workplace? Does the worker accept the character of the work but want more autonomy, different working conditions, or a (bigger) percentage of money earned? In the case of sex businesses, workplaces may actually be more comfortable and cleaner than they are in other available jobs, workers may feel safer locked in than on the streets, and they may like wearing pretty clothes and being admired. By reducing the entire world of his informants to the minutes of sex, Kara misses the big picture, whether we call it political economy, culture, or simply everyday life.

Kara proposes abolition through making slave trading and slave owning too costly. The most simplistic version of this thinking is seen in the current End Demand campaign in which complex social interactions and market theories are reduced to a truism: remove demand for commercial sex and supply must disappear. This panacea could apply only if all demand of every kind were eradicated permanently and simultaneously, as demand moves and metamorphoses to find supply. Since the sex industry is large and variegated, and since the supply side (people who sell sex as well as managers and owners of businesses) constantly adapts to new market forces, resists laws, and innovates, the fantasy that supply is 100 percent determined by demand is foolish.

We do not need to read the whole book to know that something fishy is afoot. In the first chapter, extrapolating from only four conversations with customers in one Indian brothel, Kara contends that “demand for sexual services” is highly elastic (p. 35). No responsible economist, academic or not, would dare to make claims on the basis of so little data, easily ascribed to interviewer misunderstanding, informant misinformation, both, and/or random events. But it does not stop there; Kara goes on to suggest that demand must have increased because of the “increased use of slaves” (p. 37). The absence of proof is breathtaking.

At the end of the book he presents tables purporting to show “slavery economics” (apparently unaware that others have reckoned slavery values before).[2] Within a typology of sex businesses that fails even to benefit from a sober International Labour Organization study of the sex sector [3], each table posits general assumptions that must be accepted to believe what is inferred from them. For example, Massage Parlor Economics, Kathmandu, assumes four slaves per parlor, averages ten sex acts per day, one of ten customers buys a condom, one slave is re-trafficked every six months, and 50 percent “tip” per thirty sex acts, going on to give an average price per sale of sex (table B.3). We have no idea where these figures came from, but scholars in the field will doubt Kara has much to base them on–especially since he produces thirteen other such tables, all requiring data that can only be obtained through long, repetitive, methodological research, whether in Queens or Chiang Mai (to mention two of many locations he claims to know). Kara did not do such research.

That Kara uses terms like “exploitation value” and “return on investment” should not distract us from data at best anecdotal and at worst garbage. As a Rescue Industry story, his is emblematic. Struggling to accept that not every woman who sells sex is a slave, he tries to convince a woman in Los Angeles to let him help her but finally sees that “it was not up to me to decide that Sunee’s life was more important than her father’s” (p. 182). The reader heaves a sigh of relief that Sunee was spared. The real message is moral: “The world had indeed degraded into a plague of lust, greed, deceit and violence. Untamed desire ran amok, governing the descent of man” (p. 82). Perhaps Kara reveals his underlying dream when he says “I felt like I was watching myself on a movie screen” (p. 63). Graham Greene would have known how to write about him.


[1]. John Fair, “The Georgia Slave Narratives: A Historical Conundrum,” Journal of The Historical Society 10, no. 3 (2010): 235-281; Julius Sensat, “Exploitation,” Noûs 18, no. 1 (1984): 21-38; Theresa Singleton, “The Archaeology of Slavery in North America,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 119-140; and Jessica Bowes, “Provisioned, Produced, Procured: Slave Subsistence Strategies and Social Relations at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest,” Journal of Ethnobiology 31, no. 1 (2011): 89-109.

[2]. Jim Marketti, “Black Equity in the Slave Industry,” The Review of Black Political Economy 2, no. 2 (1972): 43-66; and Robert Browne, “The Economic Basis for Reparations to Black America,” The Review of Black Political Economy 21 (1993): 99-110.

[3]. Lin Lean Lim, ed., The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1998).

PS: My title for H-Net, A Man of Moral Sentiments, is a reference to Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, which preceded his Wealth of Nations.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist, below with the friend who came as my entourage, since I told the BBC I didn’t want to go alone. Sitting close to the movie stars in the front row, she overheard one of them accuse me of resembling a holocaust denier and was the only person to applaud my comments, after which she was shunned.


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People in the United States who want to lead a new anti-slavery movement should know better than anyone what chattel slavery is: The institution that allows one person to legally buy another and do whatever they want with them. Legally is the keyword: that is, the sale and purchase of human beings is permitted by the state in open sales; the slave becomes the owner’s possession in the same way a house or box of chocolates does. The women in the picture above, hanging out in front of a brothel or bar, are unlikely to have been purchased in that kind of sale or to feel themselves that they are slaves. Very likely they would feel offended to be called that, even if they don’t care for the work they are doing or object to working conditions.

Free the Slaves, founded by Kevin Bales, says there are 27 million slaves in the world today, which doesn’t match anyone else’s estimates. That’s because they lump together a very wide variety of people as slaves, mostly because their working conditions and pay are awful. That this reminds people of slavery is understandable, but to not distinguish between different states of freedom, volition and labour of individuals is a way of imposing an abstraction on them. Yes, it is colonialism again, by saying We Know What Your Situation Really Is, We Know Better Than You Do. Poor You, We Will Rescue You.

One effect of this generalising is to trivialise the worst cases of exploitation. How must descendants of chattel slaves feel when abolitionists say all women who sell sex are slaves? Are they annoyed at the comparison? Insult is added to injury when putting an end to modern-day slavery is called our civil rights movement, as Kristen Lindsey did. It’s not as though civil rights are no longer an issue in the US! I also find the desire to own a movement repellent, rather than thinking about how to empower and support the actual protagonists and victims of the story.

Here are excerpts from a piece about students at an Arkansas university who are opening a chapter of the International Justice Mission. They are newly thrilled to have this cause and incredibly muddled about what’s going on.

IJM coming together at ASU to end slavery, 26 January 2012

. . . According to conservative estimations, there are thought to be about 27 million people enslaved or human trafficking victims in the world today. Does the OR mean they are hedging their bets because everyone isn’t agreed about generalising slavery yet?

Right now there are more people enslaved in the world than any other time in history. There are currently even more slaves than when the Civil War was fought in the 1800s. There are more of all kinds of people, for heaven’s sake.

Our group hopes to raise at least $1,000 to go towards stopping human trafficking and helping the former slaves get back to their lives. These are college students, remember.

When a sex trading ring or brothel is discovered by the IJM, the local police are informed and are then sent out to raid the compounds and rescue any slaves they find. Do none of these students wonder about IJM’s meddling in other countries’ business? Have they no questions about these ‘slaves’?

The IJM has already gained national attention and support from some large corporations. Google Inc. donated $11.5 million last month to IJM and 10 other organizations focused on stopping slavery and human trafficking. Oh, fine, no need to think about it yourselves then. If Google says it’s good it must be.

–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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Writing on Nicholas Kristof’s tweets about saving sex slaves, I said that the important point to criticise is his boast to have caused the closure of six brothels. Whether you believe that brothels are workplaces or slavery dens, you need to ask what the result will be for those working inside when those sites are suddenly closed down (some answers to that are described in this video).

Someone at In These Times wrote about that article of mine, apparently agreeing with my main points, but the post was taken down the same day, making me wonder if the site owners will not allow any criticism of Kristof. Is he such a sacred cow for liberal-leaning news-site managers? Even if they claim to be independent, as it says on their website? It seems absurd, what harm did their blogger do?

The writer had called her article ‘Seventh Grader’ is not an insult: The Naked Anthropologist vs. Nicholas Kristof, in reference to my comment that it is offensive he would ‘refer to a young person in Cambodia with a made-in-USA label like seventh grader‘. She thought it was silly of me because Kristof writes for a US audience who understand that 12-year-olds belong in seventh grade. But many people understood what was annoying about Kristof’s comment, and my guess is he himself likes to think of his work as international, since he at least sometimes lives in Cambodia and writes for the New York Times.

The issue here is colonialism, the imposition not just of the words seventh grader but of the whole world view behind them, a world in which people who are 12 are said to be school children and nothing else because 12-year-olds are claimed to have the right to absolute innocence, lives in which neither work nor sex have a part. Such a claim is questionable in the USA itself, but to transport it wholesale onto a young stranger in Cambodia, a girl glimpsed in a brothel, is to impose an outside interpretation on that girl and the cultural context she’s found in. You may say, based on your belief of what’s right in your culture, that she’s a seventh grader, but you thereby maintain control of someone not in a position to resist, you exploit and victimise her without knowing anything real about her. Kristof says she’s a slave, therefore she is one: is that right?

The writer’s note that the World Food Program labels the world’s children according to the same system of school grades only underscores that we are dealing with colonialism. I write about the Rescue Industry, but many before me have written about the counter-productive thing that is Aid, particularly the version that sends bags of food to hungry places. There are hundreds of resources for such critiques online, or you can read Barbara Harrell-Bond’s Imposing Aid or Graham Hancock’s The Lords of Poverty, if you want it in a more popular style. These out-of-date concepts of Helping are oppressive and haven’t actually stopped structural hunger yet, but they provide hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs for folks from richer countries who assume that their way of life is the best, most successful one despite the presence of many grave social problems and conflicts. Again, the issue is the control the coloniser exercises over the colonised.

This is not cant against the USA. Chinua Achebe commented famously in a critique of Heart of Darkness that Joseph Conrad used Africa

as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. 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

As we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, guilt, desire. Those found in the jungle or brothel are objects in a theatrical drama in which he plays the central role. Did anyone saved in those recent brothel raids want to be rescued as they were, with the results that came about, whatever they were? That is what we do not know, and as far as I can see, we are not going to find out from Kristof or In These Times.

I’ll talk about the idea of whiteness on another occasion.

–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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Recently I wrote about how the term debt bondage is often used to imply there is something peculiarly primitive and unjust about migrants’ agreeing to pay off smugglers by doing jobs not of their choosing for which they receive little pay until debts are paid off. The example was Vietnamese nail salons. But in a non-migrant example, students often comment on the horrendous loans they are forced to take in order to get degrees; a report from late last year said about the US: Seniors who graduated last year carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt. . . an approximately 6 percent rise in debt over the previous year. Many in the mainstream lament this debt without talking about it as demonic or enslaving.

Other discussions of debt bondage are typically illustrated with sadder pictures than this one of children at work as another way to demonise debt as an institution, as though a debt-free existence were the normal enlightened way to live. As though the parents that put their children into these jobs in order to make money were monsters – and so on.

So it is refreshing to read anthropologist David Graeber problematising conventional ideas about debt in an interview at The New Left Project, particularly the way some debts are seen as enslaving while others are not.

In America, for instance, pretty much everybody is in debt. The great social evil in antiquity, the thing that Sharia law and medieval canon law were trying to ensure never happened again, was the scenario in which a family gets so deep in debt that they are forced to sell themselves, or sell their children, into slavery. What do you have here today? You have a population all of whom are in debt, and who are essentially renting themselves to employers to do jobs that they almost certainly wouldn’t want to do otherwise, to be able to pay those debts. If Aristotle were magically transported to the U.S. he would conclude that most of the American population is enslaved, because for him the distinction between selling yourself and renting yourself is at best a legalism. This, again, is why I say that our definitions of freedom are bizarre – we’ve managed to take a situation which most people in the ancient world would have recognised as a form of slavery and turned it into the definition of freedom (your ability to contract debts, your ability to sell your labour on the market, and so on). In the process we have created the very thing that all that old legislation and all of those old political practices were designed to avoid.

Also created: a phantom, the Return of the Slave, conveniently found in far-away non-western nations and amongst indistinguishable masses of women and children. The point isn’t that debt is all good or all bad but that it exists everywhere, and its bondage is often seen as lamentable, yes, but as acceptable – something people are meant to struggle to pay off as part of normal life. Which is what most migrants think about the debts they incur to travel and work abroad.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Luis CdeBaca is a US government employee with the misleading title Ambassador-at-Large for Trafficking. I am told this means he reports directly to the President, so he is largely free to do what he likes. At an event I attended in Washington DC last year, he said people ask why he doesn’t address the root causes of trafficking in his work and gave his answer: My budget is only $25 million, so obviously I can’t address root causes. Only $25 million, well that explains it. He went on to say he therefore would continue to concentrate on raids and rescues.

He spoke stirringly of the UK-US alliance to end this scourge and leaned heavily on a supposed connection to William Wilberforce, an evangelical Christian Englishman who neocolonialists claim to be responsible for the end of slavery. In this account no mention is made of the original conquests that set up new and reinforced existing slave economies or of native resistance movements and revolutions: No, one White Man did it practically singlehandedly, and by the way he was also an enthusiast of the Society for Suppression of Vice (father of the Obscene Publications Act, by the way, amongst other repressive delights).

I was surprised CdeBaca was at the Washington event, because all the other speakers were critical of his sort of approach and rhetoric, which is why I accepted the invitation. Thus unprepared, I became very wound up when he cited the US Constitution as justification for interference around the globe, so much so that I scrapped what I had intended to say to the large audience of government and ngo employees and instead, when it was my turn, lambasted the ambassador’s speech. I slipped once and said fucking as an adjective because, I can’t help it, imperialism is the subject that most boils my blood. There were a couple of blanched faces amongst the organisers but also some cheers from the audience, and CdeBaca had left already, anyway. I didn’t know before I went that the Woodrow Wilson Center is supposed to be a hallowed hall, but I can’t guarantee I wouldn’t have said it even if I had known. They describe my talk like this:

While Laura Agustín also critiqued U.S. policy toward human trafficking, her primary focus was on combating the assumption “that the U.S. and other sacred nations must take action” against human trafficking. Rather than assuming that trafficked persons need to be rescued, Agustín believes that we must interrogate the structure of ‘rescue’ efforts that can at times feel more like arrest, abuse and deportation. She also emphasized that migrants are not always passive victims, but rather are courageous, active agents, willing to risk the hazards of the informal economy in order to find work and pay in developed countries. She concluded that the current international discourse on protecting the rights of trafficked workers is misplaced and recommended that developed countries begin to legally recognize more jobs in the informal economy.

CdeBaca was in the audience at the BBC World Debate in Luxor, too, where he heard one of the panellists, Siddharth Kara, inflate so-called estimates of slavery into the 20-millions. That’s one of the places in that programme where I cut in and expressed disbelief, asking how exactly such a figure was reached and why the topic had shifted suddenly from trafficking to slavery. No problem for Kara, however, since the figure is reached by simply including vast categories of people, from child labourers in general to any woman selling sex and potentially to any worker in the informal economy. These are slaves, now, remember, not just trafficked people.

At a recent event at the Vatican, of all places, CdeBaca estimated between 12.5 and 27 million people are trapped in slavery around the world, ranging from children forced to work as domestic servants or in sweatshops to women coerced into prostitution. And here are statements all ascribed to him in Up to 27 million trapped in slavery worldwide (the incoherency might come from the reporter, there’s no way to tell.)

Countries where migrants arrive should try to identify potential victims and protect them, rather than opting for immediate repatriation which often sends them back into the hands of human traffickers. LA: Here he says people shouldn’t be deported (ghastly euphemism, repatriated) because they will run into traffickers again.

Tens of thousands of migrants are fleeing turmoil in North Africa, with many trying to reach Europe by boat, but the problem of slavery exists all over the world. . . Now he switches to saying slavery is everywhere, so presumably it’s on all the borders, too.

The European Union has urged African border authorities to bolster controls to prevent human smugglers taking advantage of the situation. But . . . it is more effective to fight slavery in the countries where the victims are exploited. Here he says it’s no good closing borders and implies they should be open, but I am not clear how this is connected to his claim that fighting slavery should happen in European countries. He seems to be saying it’s no use trying to do anything in the countries of origin, let all these folk get into Europe and then save them.

You don’t fight trafficking on the borders, because people don’t yet know they are trafficking victims, it’s only when they get to where they are going that they are enslaved. People should be keeping an eye on where these refugees end up, what kind of jobs they are being put into and how they are being treated. Again he’s against hardened border controls, but his statement that victims don’t know they are victims till they get inside is a silly and demeaning generalisation, since, if something has gone wrong lots of migrants know so at an early stage. He also calls enslaved migrants refugees, showing ignorance of what the term means in migration policy.

These statements do not add up to a plan. CdeBaca clearly wants to criticise European border policy, but his solutions are incoherent. Maybe he did hear what I said in Luxor, however, about one solution lying in revising antiquated and arbitrary distinctions between informal and formal sectors of the economy, so that people being called slaves could have some labour rights and people being called trafficked might get work permits to do jobs in other countries.

People are always telling me that these moral entrepreneurs went to Harvard and such places, as though that means they must be right. Maybe they are intelligent and got nice degrees, but their understanding of migration, social processes and precarious labour is practically non-existent. Being in campaign mode seriously distorts analytic ability.

By the way, note that images of white imperialism work two ways; in the Tintin picture blacks are carrying a white, while in the other picture a white is carrying a black. In both pictures, the white is in charge.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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