Breakthrough: anti-trafficking activist says I have the right to speak

Mira Sorvino was not worried about stating, in front of rolling tv cameras, that I should not be allowed to speak at the BBC debate in Luxor. Why are you doing this? she asked me, as though having a different point of view made me some kind of enemy. After the debate was over, several people from the audience came up to me to say You were very brave. This all reminds me of 1984 and Brave New World more than anything else, dystopic visions of societies where not agreeing with the state renders people dangerous and in need of silencing, surveillance and sedation.

Imagine my happy surprise, then, when I was advised of the following blog post from the Freedom Center in Ohio, in a description of David Henry Sterry’s interview with me in the Huffington Post:

While the anti-trafficking movement is still in its infancy, it would be a shame to cut off internal debate just because some may have already determined the parameters of the issue.

What a relief to hear a reasonable voice from the so-called Other Side. How much better all our efforts would be if there were more collaboration and listening. Here is Upsetting the Human Trafficking Apple Cart, by Paul Bernish, Director of Anti-Slavery and Human Trafficking Initiatives at the Freedom Center.

Anyone engaged in the anti-human trafficking cause today is bound to notice a certain sameness to the ongoing discussions about the issue. It’s no surprise that people are passionately against modern forms of slavery, abuse and exploitation, and it is certainly good that they communicate that passion at local meetings, regional and national conferences and especially by posting their outrage at traffickers and concern for victims in the social media world. I know, because I often do this myself.

Yet cumulatively, I feel a growing sense that modern-day abolitionists (again, myself included) are existing in an echo chamber where our thoughts, ideas and suggestions are repeated in a continuous loop, with very little that is new or insightful about the issue and what to do about it.

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom, as a consequence, that may actually be preventing us from seeing the issue clearly and objectively. This point came home to me rather abruptly in an early December during a meeting with three visitors to the Freedom Center from Thailand. One runs an anti-trafficking NGO; the other two are police officers who deal with the reality of trafficking every day.

I asked about efforts in Thailand to raise public awareness about sex trafficking, which, as most everyone asserts, is virtually endemic in this south Asian country. All three, through their interpreters, gave me an insight about the situation in their homeland that I had not heard, or considered before. Yes, they said, sex trafficking is a major issue in Thailand. But forced labor was the the much broader and difficult trafficking issue. Thousands of men, women and children from Cambodia, Myanmar, Viet Nam, as well as Thai citizens, were working as virtual slaves in back alley sweatshops and isolated manufacturing plants throughout the country. This, they said, was Thailand’s trafficking nightmare.

What they said called into question my assumptions about Thailand. More broadly, their comments about what’s the real problem in their country was a reminder that it’s always helpful to question long-held assumptions about the nature and extent of trafficking in the world.

A similar reminder came from an article on Huffington Post about a person who’s engaged in the trafficking issue, but is an iconoclast who has no problem challenging conventional thinking about the problem. Laura Agustín, who describes herself as the Naked Anthropologist, delights in going against the grain of the anti-trafficking establishment on her website and in her controversial book, Sex at the Margins.

Agustín recently took part in a “debate” at a well-publicized anti-trafficking conference in, of all places, Luxor, Egypt. The conference attracted the usual coterie of celebrity abolitionists, government officials and anti-trafficking leaders, but Agustin was apparently not on the guest list until the BBC asked her to participate in a debate on trafficking trends. Her presence set sparks flying, as recounted in the Huffington Post interview.

The point of all this is to say that while the anti-trafficking movement is still in its infancy, it would be a shame to cut off internal debate just because some may have already determined the parameters of the issue.

There’s much about trafficking and forced labor that we don’t know (because the data is so suspect and many of its victims remain invisible) and much that we don’t know we don’t know. Outliers like Laura Agustin provide a valuable check on reality. If we want to abolish slavery and trafficking — and we’re all agreed on that — let’s keep an open mind, and regularly tip over our apple carts of assumptions.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

2 thoughts on “Breakthrough: anti-trafficking activist says I have the right to speak

  1. LH

    Now, that’s at least something.

    I hope, these people will also begin to realize, that quite a few of their computers, e-book readers, smart phones, their blue jeans, pullovers, socks and what have you are actually being manufactured by heavily underpaid workers. So let’s first raise wages worldwide…

  2. asehpe

    That does sound like a good beginning. Now: will Mr Bernish be heard, or will he just be attacked for what he has just said? Will he be applauded or ignored and shunned?


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