The Anarchist Bookfair is next Saturday 6 April, and I am looking forward to talking specifically about ideas related to sex work as a job or occupation or livelihood or profession – without giving centre-stage to feminist arguments, or any other -isms for that matter. That does not mean I think feminisms are irrelevant, but the focus on them has impeded dealing with labour policy on commercial sex for donkey’s years. All my ideas are infused with concepts of social justice whether they come from anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anarchist, socialist or feminist traditions. I’ve been a second-wave and third-wave feminist in my own way and plan to belong to future waves, as well – but consider arguing about which specific ideas are ideologically correct a waste of my time.
In Are Evangelicals Monopolizing, Misleading US Anti-Trafficking Efforts? Yvonne Zimmerman, author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking, is asked if US anti-trafficking crusades could be called colonialist. She replies, ‘It’s an argument waiting to be made’. Since I’ve been making it for ten years, I had to write to her. It’s certainly true that the critique of colonialism is not often heard, despite the term Rescue Industry‘s spread.
To make things worse, Reynolds used a flagrantly racist image to bias his own piece, showing a dark-skinned and/or dirty man handling an innocent white child. The shot is one of several someone created for campaigning purposes – whether they understood the inherent racism I don’t know.
It is very popular for American Christians to be involved in anti-trafficking activism. Although some American Christians are interested in a broad understanding of trafficking that includes exploitative labor, usually they mean sex trafficking. And usually by sex trafficking they mean commercial sex – any exchange of sex or sexual services for money. They think that if people no longer sell sexual services they will be free from trafficking, so they favor programs that ‘fight trafficking’ by trying to get people to leave the sex industry. Means to this end vary from educational scholarships to job-training programs to brothel raids. In terms of law and policy, many American Christians support the abolitionist agenda to criminalize all sex-money exchanges.
I am a scholar of religious studies and ethics. I wrote Other Dreams of Freedom to examine why this anti-trafficking perspective feels so appealing and ‘right’ to many American Christians. When I was doing the research between 2005 and 2008, George W. Bush was president and his administration was constructing an international anti-trafficking agenda, often referring to God, God’s intent for human life and Good and Evil. I focused on anti-trafficking legislation (TVPA), the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, public policy statements and press releases. These were not trying to be religious, but I saw how they expressed a very particular religious and moral sensibility.
But Other Dreams of Freedom is about more than Bush. The understanding of human trafficking that his administration endorsed is wildly popular in the US; Americans who identify with a wide variety of other religious traditions defend this view. My book shows how Christian theology rooted in Reformed Protestantism infuses and shapes much American culture and moral sensibility, including the connections between sex, freedom and morality. My analysis of the theological sources clarifies why Americans are so quick to see commercial sex to be inherently degrading and immoral. The book discusses the unintended consequences of using a single religious perspective to build foreign policy in a multi-religious world.
What I have carried with me from my first job at a little NGO in DC called the Nicaragua Network is that any kind of real support we offer to people in disadvantaged situations anywhere must always have its terms dictated to us by the people we’re supposedly helping. We called it the solidarity model. In Christianese, I would call it ‘servanthood’ rather than ‘service’. It’ s great that young evangelicals are interested in social justice, but it seems like the way it’s often packaged makes it more like a form of tourism than anything else. I’m interested in reading more.
Yvonne Zimmerman is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
Alas. Ordinarily I would quickly click away or delete nonsense-news like this of a ‘consultation’ on prostitution law run by politicians. But since I am assured that its results will indeed be taken seriously by mainstream government, I have to suggest people especially in the UK and especially those who can claim to be a ‘group’ do respond. So-called consultations are going on left and right in the this area of the world, in both Irelands and Scotland, so this adds England and Wales. They are all started by people who want to bring in criminalisation of clients, and in such a conflict-ridden field it’s better to claim to be non-partisan.
You may look at the official registry page for this group called the All Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade (APPG for short); their names unsurprisingly include Fiona Mactaggart. The group have launched an online Call for Evidence, a misnomer as they are just asking for opinions and feelings – no evidence at all. The stated goal of the group is
To raise awareness of the impact of the sale of sexual services on those involved and to develop proposals for government action to tackle individuals who create demand for sexual services as well as those who control prostitutes; to protect prostituted women by helping them to exit prostitution and to prevent girls from entering prostitution.
The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade is launching an inquiry to assess the current UK legal settlement surrounding prostitution, and to identify how legislation to tackle demand could safeguard those in danger of sexual exploitation and abuse.
I hardly need point out that this is not the way to make a serious inquiry or hold a consultation.
The online questionnaire is not long. Skip if you want to from the introductory palaver to where the questions begin. You may answer anonymously. You may answer as an individual. You may be anywhere in the world.
The deadline for response is Monday 4 February at 16:00. No responses considered after that.
Please note that despite sounding like a government group, this whole project is financed by CARE (Christian Action Research and Education): a well-established mainstream Christian charity providing resources and helping to bring Christian insight and experience to matters of public policy and practical caring initiatives, according to themselves.
Note that the addition of Global Sex Trade in their name indicates an anti-trafficking agenda. They don’t address it in this questionnaire, but the door is obviously open.
For everyone now suffering from Mr Smarm’s documentary – which I’ve only heard about – here’s The Soft Side of Imperialism again. When being irritated or outraged in a way that feels visceral and personal it is useful to be reminded of the structural issues propping up liberalism, and Kristof is an egregious example of apologist for US imperialism.
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. Rescue Industry magnate supreme, fond of bragging about his multiple Pulitzer Prizes – which are circulated amongst members of the same old white-boys’ club eternally – this unattractive man is also a mediocre writer. Is the movie version any good?
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.
Pictures like this can cause ranting about Sex Tourism solely because an older white man is seen walking with a younger less-white woman. Their physical characteristics are presumed to determine fixed identities, by which I mean we are supposed to know who they are, fundamentally, simply because of how they look. I have always been very uncomfortable with such blanket categorisation, which reminds me of systems of racial segregation. Or if race is not the crux then age would seem to be, since according to today’s romantic narratives, proper relationships only occur between people of the same age. Anti-sex tourism campaigners who claim only to be concerned about the tourists’ financial power fail to account for the special repulsion they exhibit at age and ethnic/racial differences in these couples, a prejudice that blocks any curiosity about the people involved as people.
Soi Cowboy Photo by Matt Greenfield
Some of the men under scrutiny are tourists, while others call themselves ex-pats, but they all stand accused of having travelled for the purpose of using their money to buy sexual relationships. I bring this fraught topic up because a number of Christian Rescue Industry groups have identified places of sex tourism as a target of their mission, hoping to rescue women who sell sex and stop men who buy it: a species of End Demand project. The testimony below comes from The World Race: This unique mission trip is a challenging adventure for young adults to abandon worldly possessions and a traditional lifestyle in exchange for an understanding that it’s not about you; it’s about the Kingdom. The following are excerpts from a single participant’s description of one experience.
. . . One of the most dreadful days of my life was in Pattaya, Thailand. . . I was there on the human trafficking exploratory trip and Michelle and I had spent the day interviewing men and families on why they were in Pattaya. . . Bill was sitting around the table with some other western men. . . Bill was originally from Canada but had moved to Thailand a few years back. . . for “SEX” . . . he had BOUGHT OVER 300 women! Although somewhere in my gut I knew that response was coming, I sat shocked and horrified. . . He had no shame or inkling that what he was doing was wrong. It had never crossed his mind that the women and children that he was buying for sex were being held captive. It had never crossed his mind that . . these girls were . . . being forced to perform for him by their “owner”.
After this beginning, familiar from other Rescue narratives, there is a change.
The more I talked with Bill I heard his heart. . . He told me story after story of how he continually felt rejected . . . from his family, rejected from his friends, rejected from his old way of life, so he came to the one place where “love” is “guaranteed.” The truth was, Bill was not being satisfied and after years of chasing love and looking in all the wrong places he was becoming restless. Bill was hurting. Bill was alone. Bill was searching. . . . that dreadful night in Pattaya, Thailand, although it was brief, I was able just to shed some light on Bill’s life and tell him that there was more to the life that he was living. I was able to share HOPE and extend GRACE. If for no other reason, I may have been in Pattaya, Thailand, the nastiest place I have ever been, for Bill. It’s easy for me to walk into situations like the one with Bill and my heart immediately goes into conviction mode. Where all I see is this sin in Bill’s life, where I see where he is hurting people over and over again and the righteous justice rises within me and I get angry. But more often than not these days, my heart rises for justice for Bill; he is hurting. Obviously, I want the exploitation and abuse to end for the women and children, that’s my heart. But my deepest desire is for Bill’s life to be restored so he can be the end to the exploitation of women and children. If we can get to his heart than there would be no need to have prevention plans and recovery centers for women and children. If we could get to his heart there would be no Red Light District in Pattaya, Thailand.
The idea that commercial sex could disappear through ending demand for it is terribly naive, especially where it is economically and socially significant, as in Pattaya, as I discussed in a review of Sex Trafficking by Siddharth Kara. This Christian narrative of salvation and reform does improve on the usual secular and purely punitive proposal to put all men who buy sex in prison or on sex-offender lists. Otherwise, these missions of naive young Americans to other countries to interfere on religious grounds is just more colonialism, related to Reality Tourism – excuses to travel the world convinced that one’s own culture is best, that one knows how everyone else should live, that one has the right to barge in, judge and then feel good about it.