Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour

People have different opinions about tourism by richer people to look at how poor people live. You can argue that it is better that they see some piece of reality themselves rather than swallow whole what is shown in the media (and optimistically hope they know they are being misled by them). Or be glad they prefer an educational trip to a hedonistic beach holiday, or that they are curious about the world outside their own comfy patch. And obviously the individuals who sign up for these things are all different and many must be well-meaning (awful word) and genuinely eager to learn.

Or you may, like me, view this as Rescue Industry prurience rooted in racism and colonialism (an aspect of helpers’ own identity formation). You may wish to tear your hair out simply at the thought of a tour catalogue displaying different kinds of social problems to feel horrified about and different human beings to feel pity for. But that is what Global Exchange offers in the form of Reality Tours – and human trafficking is a staple item. This tourism is veiled in language that makes tourists advocates. Here’s the description from last year’s week-long trip; new trips are listed for Perú, Uganda, Cambodia. I’ve added boldface as an emotional expression not only about the ideas but the trite language!

Thailand : Not For Sale Advocacy Delegation on Human Trafficking

Accurate statistics are difficult to compile, but it is believed that between 600,00 and 800,000 human beings are trafficked across international borders each year- 80% of them women and children. [blah blah, the usual] . . .The numbers are staggering, and actually confronting them and the shattered lives they represent can be an overwhelming prospect. Yet we are not powerless in the face of this monstrous industry, and the first step towards bringing it to a halt is education. In partnership with the Not for Sale Campaign against human trafficking, 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 as 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. They, will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle . . . We will visit vulnerable communities targeted by traffickers, learn effective strategies for undermining slave rings, and experience first hand how emancipated slaves rebuild their lives. Upon return, Global Exchange and Not for Sale will integrate the insights of the trip directly into an understanding of the nature of human trafficking in the United States and the meaning of working globally on backyard abolitionist activities.

Cost: $1,000 Includes:
All accommodations in 3-star and above hotels. Price is for shared double room- we can usually pair you up with a roommate.
All in-country transportation
Two meals per day
Tour leaders and guides
All program activities and translation
All entrance fees
Preparatory reading materials
Global Exchange membership
Donation to NFS

Plus airfare, of course. I wonder how large these groups get?

Picture of Nicholas Kristof, who does his own kind of reality tourism, from aidlolz.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

18 thoughts on “Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour

  1. William Thirteen

    Sex Pistols – Holiday In The Sun


    Hi Laura,

    my aging mother is visiting me in Berlin for a few months. Having entered the workforce as a single mother in the early sixties she is particularly aware of the common tendency to deny agency to working women. Even her own sisters refused to believe there wasn’t a man somewhere in the background supporting her to raise a family! I gave her a short summary of your book and we had a delightful discussion about the divergent treatment of immigrants & expats…


    1. Laura Agustín

      i know – this stuff is as old as the hills. i just wish more people would acknowledge it, talk about it, worry about it. your mother sounds delightful, wish i were having tea or cocktails there in berlin.

  2. Emily


    I am a future studies master’s student and am absolutely inspired by your work. Oftentimes when forecasting, futures work conveniently ignores industries deemed too “fringe”. When we do include these sectors, the future still generalizes whole populations and value sets. I’ve dedicated a year to studying the future of the commercial sex industry and am hard-pressed to provide comprehensive scenarios because the sex work is so multifaceted.

    In your opinion, is there any future where the varied nature of the commercial sex industry is accounted for within the general populace? Have you seen it shift since doing your research?

    Love reading your blog!


    1. Laura Agustín

      i think you have answered your own question: ‘the sex industry’ is just a metaphor, a handy way to group a lot of activities that involve sex and money but not an actual economic sector. or a social one, for that matter. the most obvious answer is about proliferation of forms on the internet, including most recently social networking. don’t you think the future is there?

      thanks for your appreciation!

      1. Emily


        I’ve been thinking about your comment since Thursday.

        Can we necessarily accept that the proliferation of online sex channels has shifted society’s views of the commercial sex industry? In this instance, is technology the most critical driver towards social change?

        To me, it seems like the underlying cultural paradigm remains the same despite technological innovation. Sex work is vilified by the media and culture, even when individuals have easier access to the industry itself. The public views all forms of sex work the same way.

        Technology has definitely impacted the underlying culture of the industry itself, but has this changed cultural considerations of sex work in the non-virtual environment?

        1. Laura Agustín

          no, certainly not. i referred to changes within the industry, within commercial sex – not social acceptance or stigma. our impression is that there’s not much change in that, but how do we know? we can’t measure it because we have no baseline to compare with. attitude surveys are used occasionally but i have never seen one that asked enough interesting questions to mean anything.

          the existence of a pro-rights movement is a change, but again cannot be measured.

  3. Maggie McNeill

    Gaaaah! I can never see Kristof’s self-satisfied smirk without feeling ill. His columns on “human trafficking” are always filled with the kind of lurid detail that sound as though they were typed one-handed. As such, he is the perfect poster child for this article!

    1. Laura Agustín

      i recall their little fairtrade shop on 24th street. and i remember seeing reality tours in a printed thing before the internet and feeling squeamish but the whole thing has gone way in one direction.

      1. Susan

        Ugh. This really takes me back to Cal, where my studies educated me against the very thing I wanted to do with my degree. I remember being all starry-eyed about Global Exchange, even donating to them and trying to intern for them while there. But I remember feeling really weird about how these orgs seemed to profit off of the free models – all the “poor natives” pictured in their ads. Ick. Some time after, National Geographic published a story revisiting the woman who came to be their hallmark face- the stunning green-eyed woman from Afghanistan. They found her in a refugee camp and left her there. I immediately cancelled my subscription and wrote them a letter about how disgusted I was that they should have made probably hundreds of thousands off her face and she was barely surviving in a refugee camp. Took a while, but my eyes have opened so much more since then.

  4. ewaffle

    There really is no lower limit to the willingness of the Rescue Industry to publicize themselves and take advantage of the prurient interests of those that fund it.

    Regarding St. Nick–not to put too fine a point on things, Kristoff is a smarmy hack.

  5. empower

    Just a new kind of sex tourist for Thailand…

    We would like to scream but shit like this just keeps coming so we would be screaming everyday…any suggestions about what to do welcome…should we sign up for the tour?
    $1,200 is a rip off… someone is cleaning up and its not us.

    1. Susan

      Perhaps you could offer Can-Do Bar up as a stop along their tour? Talk about a shot of reality! 🙂 Good luck, Empower!

      It really is disgusting. Thank goddess for folks like Laura who take these tropes to task.

  6. Pingback: Schadenfreude « The Honest Courtesan

  7. Jd

    The biggest impact these rescue organization can probably have is to read the objections to their work. Then travel and try to avoid being an ugly American at a human zoo and more of a cultural anthropologist. How does a culture emerge into the modern information world intact, safe, and strong? versus being destroyed and re written as an imitation flavor.


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