Tag Archives: helping

Becoming aware of Awareness-Raising as anti-trafficking tactic

CCO.Knabe-Sex-Trafficking-Board.5.31.12 (1)My Google Alerts are now full of nonsensical items on behalf of a Trafficking Awareness Month in the USA. I first discovered Awareness Raising when I began to study assumptions held in the world of helping. One holds that certain social problems are ‘hidden’, and ‘hidden populations’ are great favourites amongst sociologists (who can then claim to have located and revealed them). Of course, most of us do know marginalised groups exist; we see them every day and may belong to them ourselves. But the idea that we cannot see social ills creates the need for self-identified experts to inform us about them. Hiding has become a term especially used about undocumented women and under-18-year-olds who sell sex.

busHere the theory is played out with a message placed on a city bus so that a lot of random people see it (thus having their awareness raised). The term is not a synonym for consciousness-raising, whether yogic or feminist (Wikipedia is wrong) but a strategy with concrete techniques used first by social-policy adepts and activists and then spread in mediocre news-production and social media. See the example of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 8) for more explanation.

Awareness is by definition superficial and can only become deeper if followed up by curious investigation: wondering, reading, critique, talking with those more experienced, cogitating over ambiguities. But with awareness-raising as goal, previously uninformed audiences tend to accept whatever messages claim to be the truth, so that when campaigners are unprincipled (as many anti-traffickers are), audiences are misinformed. Misinformation – or deliberate disinformation – usually comes in the form of over-simplified categories that reduce human complexities to a couple of black-and-white labels, accompanied by unfounded statistics. I often meet people now who, when they discover what my work has been, dismiss it with a smug claim that we have a ‘difference of opinion’. I object: my knowledge is based on research and analysis over many years, not an awareness campaign disseminated on facebook or an online petition, not the acceptance of heavily biased or badly researched media articles.

satmThis field is not easy to comprehend but fraught with subtleties and apparent contradictions. My work began with my own questions, because I didn’t understand 20 years ago and I knew I didn’t. Over time I came to focus on those who position themselves as called to rescue women they call victims who, in large numbers, didn’t (and still don’t) identify that way (which doesn’t mean nothing is wrong or everyone is happy). I created the term Rescue Industry after years of study to describe non-self-critical helpers who assume they Know Better than the rest of us how we all ought to live. In my book Sex at the Margins I wrote of trafficking as a new keyword (thanks to Molly Crabapple for the tweeted photo). Creating this keyword was an essential step towards the Rescue Industry’s becoming able to engage in awareness-raising: you can’t put snappy messages on buses until you have snappy concepts (for theory-mavens I am talking about an apparatus of governmentality).

Anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigning have produced a generation of people who believe the facts have been established long since about who is Good and Bad, who is Victim and why and how to solve the problems. Most folks are not, of course, particularly interested in the details or nuances to the general narrative. At the same time some opposition campaigners also over-simplify in an attempt to reach uncritical audiences, by invoking civil liberties or freedom of choice and ignoring complexities.

billboardarlingtonHere’s awareness-raising on a highway before a Super Bowl in Texas. Note this is not only about the message but the medium, the board-in-your-driving-face. Speeches and presentations given by social workers, politicians, academics and others at meetings and conferences do not qualify. Website mission statements do not qualify. You have to go out into the world and Do Something broadly educative. I recall when I worked amongst undocumented migrants detained at the Mexico-US border how we dreamt of travelling south to hold posters up in bus and gas stations warning of certain, er, problems ahead.

The following Google Alerts for 6 January 2015 come from around the US; town-names show how awareness-raising as a tactic has spread: Fargo, Spartanburg, Fond du Lac, Fresno, Duluth, Houston. Despite varying immigration and cultural histories, all conform to and reproduce the dominant confusing and dysfunctional message.

Google “Human Trafficking” 6 January 2015

Official Reports Progress in Awareness of Human Trafficking
Department of Defense WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2015 – Defense Department awareness of slavery and human trafficking issues is paying off significantly because of …

Human trafficking awareness events planned in Fargo
INFORUM FARGO – An event scheduled here Sunday in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day will feature a panel discussion with local experts …

Ongoing human trafficking cases
Daily Republic Mitchell SD
Trina Nguyen and Loc Tran face federal human trafficking charges and other charges after allegedly operating a brothel in Minot, N.D., and then, after …

SC prosecutor discussing fight against human trafficking
The State Columbia SC The State Wilson’s office says he plans to talk about the need for new legislative tools for fighting human trafficking. Benton plans to talk about how some of those …

Human trafficking: How one Minnesota girl was lured into ‘the game’
Duluth News Tribune Duluth MN It was the early 1980s, and the evolving Block E of downtown Minneapolis had life, with hustlers and prostitutes interspersed with the suit-and-tie …

Human trafficking event held Saturday
Fond du Lac Reporter Fond du Lac WI A presentation about human trafficking will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 10 at Fond du Lac Public Library’s Eugene G. McLane Meeting Room.

Human trafficking hidden but present in Upstate
Spartanburg Herald Journal Spartanburg SC January is human trafficking awareness month, and statewide and local events are scheduled to bring attention to the issue that exploits about 21 …

Life after human trafficking
Houston Chronicle Houston TX Life after human trafficking … Today she’s a 33-year-old college junior with a 4.0 GPA — living proof that the victims of human trafficking can recover.

Fresno meeting set to discuss human trafficking, domestic violence
Fresno Bee Fresno CA Centro La Familia Advocacy Services will host “A Community Convening: Conversations Not Heard” to raise public awareness of human trafficking …

mccainThen, of course, there are ads aimed at victims themselves, which are more properly understood as outreach. The latest generation of these show clearly that objects of help may not know they are victims.

In the midst of writing this post I listened to Marvin Gaye’s early rendition of I heard it through the grapevine. Grapevines pre-date awareness-raising.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Somaly Mam, Nick Kristof and the Cult of Personality

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

Social-work projects fail sex workers despite helping-hands image

Social work, whether voluntary or paid, rests on an assumption that people with problems can be helped by outsiders who provide services that facilitate solutions. Hands predominate in icons used on social-work websites: holding hands, piles of hands, hands of different shapes and colours. I suppose these are meant to signify working together – mutuality – non-hierarchy – equality. But how many social-work situations involving a sex worker reflect those values? Take this news item from Los Angeles:

Getting tough on underage prostitution

LA County calls on legislators to toughen laws, while those who work with young prostitutes grapple with how to get them off the streets. “Children cannot give consent by definition,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. McSweeney said there are times when deputies pick up an underage girl and take her to county social services. Often, he said, that girl will end up in a group home, flee the next day, and be back on the street that night. It’s a revolving door, he said, and the system could use some tweaking.

Rejection of help is widely known amongst people who sell sex of all ages, yet to question ideas about helping is frowned upon. It is said people who are at least trying to do good deserve credit. Do they have to be perfect? At any rate, they are not employed as soldiers or bankers, they are socially involved, at least they care. But for most social workers, the job is just a job. They don’t imagine themselves to be saints but do appreciate the security and respect associated with it. They would probably prefer to think their work is relevant and appreciated. Consider a news item from Texas:

Child sex trafficking seminar in Paris educates first responders

“You would think that if you ran across a child that was being used for sex trafficking that they would stand up and say help me and that’s not the case,” said Paris Regional Medical Emergency Director Doug LaMendola. “They are so mentally reprogrammed into submissiveness that they won’t speak up.”

It must be frustrating when help is rejected, but inventing psychological reasons is a dodge to avoid wondering if the projects could be improved. Some psy excuses used with women who sell sex are brainwashingStockholm Syndrome and acting out. Now consider a news item from Chicago:

Who’s A Victim Of Human Sex Trafficking?

One recent Friday morning in a stuffy, crowded classroom at the Cook County jail in Chicago, a few women shared stories at a meeting of a group called Prostitution Anonymous. If they agree to get help, the women usually are not charged with prostitution in Cook County, though they may face other charges, from drug use to disorderly conduct.

Coercing people to participate in programmes is where social work touches bottom.

The idea that it’s impossible to change the lives of those in need unless they want them changed reveals a key assumption: that those in helping positions by definition already know what everyone needs. What happens if the person to be helped doesn’t accede to the helper’s proposition? Help fails, as it so often does in the oldest and commonest attempts worldwide to help women who sell sex, known as Exit Strategies, Diversion Programs and Rehabilitation. Consider recent news from Oklahoma:

Teen prostitute leaves shelter to return to street life

“She was in protective custody and doesn’t want any help,” he said. “There is no indication of a drug history. That’s the life she preferred. There is no telling how much money she was making.”
Woodward said the teenager comes from a rough family in the Tulsa area. “She doesn’t like her family, and she didn’t want us to contact her family,” he said.

Most women and young people who sell sex are simply not attracted by the alternative occupations or ‘homes’ offered that provide no flexibility, no autonomy, no street life, no way to have fun and pitiful money. Social workers can always point to people they know who appreciated some such project, but mainstream media provide examples of failure every week. The significant refusal here is on the social-work side, where not believing what people say they need guarantees that the situation for sex workers stays the same, despite endless hand-wringing and rhetoric about the need to help them.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The Em- of Empowerment: Neoliberal missionaries and maternalism

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

Rescuing a sex slave/worker in a novel: The Darkest Little Room

Numerous novels tell the story of attempts to rescue sad prostitutes or fallen women unconscious of their own degradation. It is a classic theme that took shape in the 19th century, signalling new beliefs in social reform: the possibility that those at the bottom of the social heap were not doomed to stay there but with help could rise up and better themselves. William Holman Hunt’s 1853 The Awakening Conscience, which depicts a fallen woman‘s moment of epiphany, is unusual in omitting any Rescue person showing the way, lifting her up, teaching her how to live.

One version of the prostitute’s saviour is a confused, melancholic man who ‘loves’ her and aims to remove her from the life. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a naive meddler in Vietnamese politics also sets out to rescue Phuong, the young mistress of a jaded older journalist. This book from 1955 is recommended reading for those interested in the Rescue Industry, and I bring it up because the review of another book relates it to Greene’s work.The novel is Patrick Holland’s The Darkest Little Room, the setting is also Saigon and the reviewer’s insights into the main character’s Rescue complex are pointed.

The only off-note in the review is the cliché murky in the headline, as if every time sex goes on sale the moral lights have to go out.

Flawed saviour sucked into Saigon’s murky sex trade

Emily Maguire, The Australian 6 October 2012

“The nights I have spent with prostitutes have been some of the saddest nights of my life,” Joseph reveals near the beginning of the book. He goes on to explain that the sadness comes when the sex is done and he must see the “deep unfeeling blankness” on the face of the “pretty young prostitute”. It’s a telling moment; Joseph is terribly sentimental about sex work, and so unable to see the women who do it as anything other than more or less useful accomplices in his project to redeem himself via loving, and thereby saving, a fallen woman. . .

Joseph cannot see sex workers as fully human lest he be forced to admit that some don’t want saving and, thus, he cannot be the hero he so desperately needs to be.

Emily Maguire’s understanding of Joseph tallies with what I concluded much of Rescue is about after a long time wondering why people saying they wanted to help prostitutes did not listen to what they had to say. In Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities I laid out the foundation for theorising about a Rescue Industry.

Real-life characters like Nicholas Kristof and Siddharth Kara belong to the sentimental tradition of men who want to rescue fallen women and thereby construct for themselves an identity as virtuous Knights in Shining Armour – which is also a path to prestige and power.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropology