Cry with trafficked women: Colonial prurience and 3-star hotels

I’ve been ill a great deal this year and for the past month bowed down by a death, but the imminence of August cranked me up sufficiently to vent my now annual disgust at tours from the US that take well-paying travellers to gawk at and pity poorer people in Other Countries (who always smile in the photos taken, of course). If there is anything I hate it’s this. In 2011 I wrote Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour, illustrating it with the egregious Kristof, who has not a jot of shame about looking like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider. Given the sexual aspect, the word prurience came to mind: socially-sanctioned permission to be a voyeur, to go to bars abroad you wouldn’t set foot in at home as part of a do-gooding ‘social justice’ trip. To my mind, this is sex tourism.

This year’s tour to Thailand Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking is aimed at aspiring individuals. What might they mean by that? And why do they call this a delegation to end trafficking rather than, if not pure tourism, a first step towards understanding trafficking? The pretension is obviously meant to provide something to add to CVs, the way internships in impressive-sounding organisations do, though at least those last some months, whereas this tour takes a week (5 -12 August). Look at the rhetoric:

Global Exchange Reality Tours is facilitating this delegation to Thailand geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings. Participants will receive a comprehensive education in the mechanics of human trafficking, as well an understanding of its underlying causes. Participants will meet with those who have been freed from slavery and learn what it means to rebuild one’s life after having been a victim of trafficking, and will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle to expose and ultimately end the trade in human lives.

This is B-movie-type public-relations prose: facilitating – delegation – geared – confronting – realities – global trade – human beings – comprehensive education – mechanics – human trafficking – participants – comprehensive education – mechanics – underlying causes – freed from slavery – rebuild one’s life – frontlines of the struggle – expose – end the trade – human lives. Nothing concrete, nothing real.

For those who aren’t clear as to why I call this colonialism, note the clear differentiation between Subject (tourist) and Object (exotic other). I believe this is the first time they claim tourists will talk with people who have been freed from slavery – an obvious pitch to the cheapest of sentiments. I am appalled that Global Exchange maintains any credibility. Last year I wrote the following in Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk, because online sales of folkloric and supposedly authentic third-worldish objects is how GE started:

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.

This year they provide an itinerary, which includes:

In the morning drive to Chiang Mai: Check into Guesthouse
Visit local project
At night visit nightclubs and bars to observe night activities

It’s been made clear to me that ordinary people in the US have no understanding of what colonialism means and how they themselves perpetuate it. That needs work. Perhaps having broken the spell of not writing I’ll begin again now, even if it is August.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

14 thoughts on “Cry with trafficked women: Colonial prurience and 3-star hotels

  1. Lindsay

    I totally agree with everything here but in the last paragraph about “ordinary Americans” having no understanding about colonialism. The word ‘ordinary’ is a problem because indigenous people, people of color, people settled in America who have come from the Global South, all of whom are ordinary Americans, damn well understand colonialism. If you mean privileged white folks, you should say so.

    1. Laura Agustín

      There’s no perfect term for what I mean, since no colour or history absolutely determines attitudes or consciousness. I mean just everyday folk whether educated or not and monied or not. Granted I agree with you that there are groups way more likely to understand what colonialism is than others.

      1. Lindsay

        There is nothing particularly American about that either. Talk to an ordinary European about colonialism and you will encounter the same ignorance.

    2. Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette

      Having met many African Americans who have extremely colonialist mindsets (think of a post-modern version of the Garveyite belief that African Americans were more “evolved” by their struggle with the “Anglo-Saxon”), I would have to say that color, at least, is no guarantee that one understands colonialism.

  2. Mike

    Such tours are similar to tours of movie stars’ homes in Hollywood, voyeuristic but not particularly reprehensible.

    Perhaps you should organise your own tours to Chiang Mai with seminars teaching people how empowering sex work is, presentations by Empower, etc. Include visits to both tourist-oriented bars and local-oriented brothels. Encourage the participants to engage in as much sex with as many girls as they can because it gives then a deeper insight into sex work and avoids wasting the girls’ time. Sceptics may come around to your way of thinking.

  3. Jay

    When a commercial “tour operator” hides behind a “humanitarian organization”

    “Global Exchange is a licensed Travel Service Provider (TSP) by the Office of Foreign Assets Control”

    1. Laura Agustín

      yow! worse than that as this is how office of foreign assets control describes its ‘mission’: The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the US Department of the Treasury administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on US foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes, terrorists, international narcotics traffickers, those engaged in activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and other threats to the national security, foreign policy or economy of the United States. OFAC acts under Presidential national emergency powers, as well as authority granted by specific legislation, to impose controls on transactions and freeze assets under US jurisdiction. Many of the sanctions are based on United Nations and other international mandates, are multilateral in scope, and involve close cooperation with allied governments.

  4. William Thirteen

    my condolences on your loss. the shadow of death has also darkened our doorsteps these past few months…

  5. mana

    i understand the frustration and appreciate the insight here, which i have always shared but never been able to express eloquently.
    the question i’m left with is, what is the alternative?
    there are good-intentioned people (all over the world) that want to infuse their travel experiences with awareness, meaning, and impact, and these tours cater to them. i definitely admire these people more than those who travel to indulge in decadence and pick up tiny cliche bits of the local culture and social struggles.
    How can mindful socially conscious travelers travel responsibly? I struggle with this every time I travel (and most of the time when I hear about other people’s trips abroad) The answer to this question I think is more productive than the critique itself…

    1. Laura Agustín

      Good point of course; this is a huge subject which I”ll probably write about someday. First thoughts have to include the question Why should anyone’s travel desires have to be fulfilled? One might have to be disappointed about having more ‘meaningful’ experiences. This idea of getting to know people through tours is questionable in and of itself. There’s the first-world or wealthier people’s ‘right’ to know others intimately. And, going on one’s own, wandering, talking to chance strangers is certainly meaningful. The assumptions behind the kind of tourism you want are questionable in themselves.

  6. Louisa Schein

    I think the key phrase in here, and what really makes these practices colonial is “projects to interfere follow quickly…” It risks being way more than a prurient gaze…Knowing your work, Laura, I’d love to see more here on those INTERFERING projects

    1. Laura Agustín

      just press the helping or rescue-industry tags in the right-hand column of the webpage, as well as psychology. this is also a focus of my book, Sex at the Margins.

  7. Pingback: Laura Augustin on Victim Tourism | Anti-Feminist Theory of Men's Rights, Male Sexuality, Feminism

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