A National Geographic television special called 21st Century Sex Slaves employs the melodramatic voiceover common to all trite police documentaries, but it goes further. The ever-evolving Rescue Industry now has a large media branch, where camera crews film undercover operations and men act out hero fantasies (women get subordinate roles, usually as faceless victims).
The wannabe Special Agent in this story is Steve Galster, head of something called Freeland Foundation, which bizarrely seems to have been dedicated to preventing wildlife trafficking before jumping on the human gravytrain. I wonder if they found it an easy mental shift from pangolins to young women; the rhetoric is the same:
Freeland is dedicated to making the world free of human slavery and wildlife trafficking by increasing law enforcement capacity, supporting vulnerable communities and raising awareness.
Law enforcement is a Man’s game, right? So these men otherwise associated with saving animals and running NGOs now have an excuse not only to hobnob with real cops but also to play cops themselves. The camera spends a lot of time on Galster, whose features recall pretty-man Special Agents Gibbs and DiNozzo in NCIS, but Galster is a weak, non-charismatic character. National Geographic has taken television shows like NCIS as inspiration in all sorts of ways – but the excitement is conspicuously absent.
Notice the technique: the camera records crowded streets where lots of young women mill about. The narration mentions that many have gone into sex work on their own, but as the camera pans past, the voiceover talks about willing and unwilling women in the same breath, implying that everyone you see is a potential slave.
In this attempt at a thriller the Bad Guys are Uzbeks, in just the same way that Law & Order often singles out an ethnic group’s misbehaviour: Russians in Brighton Beach is a popular one. Here a Thai police chief laments how his country is being abused by foreigners (the trafficking Uzbeks). But it’s wildlife-saviour Galster who gets the main role, despite his inability to convey drama. The whole thing is, like the BBC series on Mexican sex slaves, infotainment, a misleading blend of facts, factoids and fantasies.
Unsurprisingly, Pattaya is one of the locations chosen for this cliché-ridden show, where one place offers Only European Girls. I doubt they pick up any of the irony.
Last September I wrote about so-called Reality Tours to meet victims of sex trafficking. Now it’s August and several people have written me from Bangkok about the tour taking place there this past week. I remember when I first heard about Global Exchange educational tours, while visiting a little storefront in San Francisco in 1989. I have a memory of puzzling over the brochure amidst shelves and tables piled with ethnic jewellery and objects from Other Cultures. The shop on 24th Street is still there, according to a contemporary description:
Global Exchange offers fair trade crafts produced in over 40 countries. Proceeds go toward improving lives in these villages. They have a vast selection of unique items from all over the world. This is a great place to pick up a gift for the person who is hard to shop for.
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.
The tour to Bangkok is entitled Thailand: Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: Delegation? Delegates are meant to be official or elected representatives. I shudder to think who people on the tour believe they are representing. Why not call themselves what they are – tourists? Those who think themselves sexually liberal may sneer at Christian tourism – aka missions – but there is not so much difference from the point of view of the objects of their solidarity and pity.
My analysis is not purely theoretical. A couple of decades ago, I happened to be working on the Mexico-US border, in a project whose main task was to provide legal advice to migrants who’d crossed the border illegally and wanted to make a claim for asylum in the US. (Yes, another kind of helping). Lots of people wanted to but few could provide the kind of evidence required by immigration authorities. While stories were checked and papers processed, asylum-seekers had to hang around in halfway-houses found for them by the project.
On one occasion, I was at the enormous garbage dump in Matamoros, where hundreds of people live amidst rubbish of all kinds, picking and carting bits to sell outside. A group of Reality Tourists came up to some children to ask them questions. The children, accustomed to flies crawling over their faces, did not move to brush them off. The tourists, horrified by the flies landing on their own eyes, faced an excruciating dilemma: They wanted to express interest in and respect for the garbage-dwellers at the same time they wanted to run away screaming. But if they ran away, what would it say about the humanity they were fleeing?
Men at the higher end of the evolutionary scale: That is how one man has described men who want to save sex slaves, seeking to differentiate themselves from less civilised, bad men – the ones that buy sex. In this idea, being a Good Man is achieved not by concern for world peace, equal opportunity, racism, the end of poverty or war but rather by concern for sex slaves.
Recently I published a sober academic review of a book that is not academic at all, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. Afterwards, I republished the review in Counterpunch, with a snappy introduction for the occasion:
It is good luck for Good Men that sex slavery has been identified as a terrible new phenomenon requiring extraordinary actions. In the chivalric tradition, to rescue a damsel in distress ranked high as a way knights errant could prove themselves, along with slaying dragons and giants. Nowadays, Nicholas Kristof is only one of a growing number of men seeking attention and praise through the rescue of a new kind of distressed damsel – poorer women called sex slaves. In this noble quest, women who prefer to sell sex to their other limited options are not consulted but must be saved, and human rights are the new grail. The association with Christianity is not casual. Siddharth Kara, another man seeking saintliness, uses lite economics – another trendy way to get noticed these days.
The original review follows. The publisher of Counterpunch, Alexander Cockburn, has forwarded me a letter from the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation objecting to the piece, calling me a journalist, which I am not. He also doesn’t seem to have read past that introductory paragraph to the review of the book, where he might have found real issues to think about.
In Laura Agustin’s cynical worldview, men who hold the opinion that prostituting women is wrong and endeavor to do something about it are, in fact, misguided crusaders in the tradition of Don Quixote lost in chivalric fantasy on a mortal quest to feed their own egos by saving damsels in distress. In her article, Not Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, Sex Trafficking, Agustin specifically targets two men amongst what she portrays as a growing parade of attention-seeking phony heroes (cue the paparazzi) – Nicholas Kristof and Siddharth Kara.
Unsettling as it is for Agustin to accept the presence of men at the higher end of the evolutionary scale, Kristof and Kara are helping to shed light on a culture of gender exploitation that has survived only because of spin and lies. Where the rest of us see two men of intelligence and compassion, Agustin sees ulterior motive. In my experience, ones own ill intent makes one suspicious of ill intent in others. What is Agustin’s motive in attacking those working hard to end the exploitation of women? More spin and lies I suspect.
Robert J. Benz
Founder & Executive Vice President
Frederick Douglass Family Foundation
A culture of gender exploitation has only survived because of spin and lies? What? No interest in poverty or cultures of gender inequality from this crusader! Cynicism is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Note that Benz clearly places his kind of man on the high end of evolution, in that overtly colonialistic move in which white men save brown women from brown men. I don’t even understand the last sentence: how can a motive be spin? The guy should have looked me up first and come up with a better attack. And got a copyeditor.
But there is something else interesting here: the notion that Kara has been insulted by being placed in the chivalric tradition, which is generally assumed to represent something noble. Benz’s reference to Don Quixote shows he probably never studied chivalry himself. On the contrary, I imagine both Kara and Kristof would be chuffed to be associated with it. To critique knights in shining armour, as I do, you need to be not only interested in solving social problems but also interested in ending patriarchy, and knighthood is an elitist, male, hierarchical tradition in which white European men proved themselves to other men through treating women as objects, and women were supposed to be grateful, because they couldn’t possibly have gotten themselves out of their predicament unassisted, or figured out how to deal with life themselves in the first place. Note also my reference to human rights as the new grail.
In the contemporary example, men proving themselves through virtuous acts are using police and paternalism to rescue damsels – acts more than legitimate to criticise.
If you got this far and you tweet or post anywhere else, I’d appreciate this getting around. Maybe even Benz will see it!
In December of 2010 I met Siddharth Kara at the BBC World Debate on Human Trafficking. In fact, he was there because I gave his name to the producer, who was under pressure to find people without knowing anything about the field. The BBC held the debate programme at a sort of anti-trafficking revival meeting organised by Mrs Mubarak (not yet an international pariah). Just beforehand, panellists met with Zeinab Badawi (the presenter) in a crowded hotel Green Room. When I walked in Kara was in full cry with an Elevator Pitch so out of place I giggled, which seemed to puzzle him. Thus I found out that being poster boy for a movement had protected him from self-awareness. When I accepted the request to review his book, I did not know how inane it would turn out to be.
Siddharth Kara’s Sex Trafficking is not a scholarly book. Neither based on methodological research nor reflecting knowledge of literature that could give context to the author’s experience, this reads like the diary of a poverty tourist or the bildungsroman of an unsophisticated man of moral sentiments demonstrating his pain at unfathomable injustices. This places Kara in the tradition of colonial writers who believed that they were called to testify to the suffering of those not lucky enough to be born into comfortable Western society.
Scholarship is virtually absent from his works cited, whether on migration, trafficking, slavery, feminism, sexualities, criminology, gender, informal-sector labor, or the sex industry and prostitution. Apparently unaware of over ten years of difficult debates, hundreds of scholarly articles, and investigative journalism, Kara is an MBA on a mission, using statistical sleight of hand to solve the problem of slavery. Because the book is touted by campaigners as presenting hard data and incisive analysis, H-Net requested this review.
A travelogue in six chapters is bracketed by arguments both high-minded and businesslike. Kara mentions his moral awakening while volunteering at a refugee camp, his business career, and his sporadic travels since 2000, interviewing 150 “victims” (term unexplained) and a variety of other people located by what he calls “word of mouth.” Because many people did not trust him, he could not enter most businesses and found it easier to interview victims in shelters. Chapter headings are regional, but my guess is his stays in most regions were brief (scholars in the field will recognize his contacts as predictable), with India a possible exception. Kara does not acknowledge these inevitable biases given his lack of method.
On the one hand, his freedom sounds heavenly to those planning fieldwork who have grubbed for funding, written and rewritten interview questions, toadied to gatekeepers, pacified ethics committees, and dealt with supervisors who fail to understand what one is trying to do. On the other hand, Kara reads like a bull in a china shop, bumbling into brothels, stressing and sometimes endangering young women, pressing them to provide him with conversation, annoying goons, and throwing money around. For a scholarly review, the salient point is the absence of academic supervision to control his preconceptions about what he would find, critique his lack of methodology, or control the spin he puts on his experiences. At times, he simply claims that informants did not “appear” to be coerced.
For a man setting out to report on sex as business he is priggish. Bothered by old men who ogle young girls, he admits “I felt ashamed to be male” and opines “I also believe that the preponderance of males do not condone these vulgarities” (pp. 71, 33). After escaping violence he declaims: “For so many years I had stepped into the fire pit and emerged unscathed…. That night, I suffered violent food poisoning from mushrooms and vomited thirty-four times. Justice was swift. I accepted my punishment” (p. 58). Exalted sensibility and anachronistic rhetoric further link Kara to nineteenth-century moral crusaders like Josephine Butler, famous for saying if she were a prostitute she would be crying all day.
Kara knows little about present-day migration and mobility. Meeting a Lithuanian woman in Italy and a Nigerian woman in Bangkok cause him to suspect they were trafficked, as though obtaining travel documents and tickets were too difficult for women to manage alone. Not finding slaves in the United States, he concludes there must be less demand and therefore less slavery, but also that the United States is “too far away” (from what?), as though airplanes and multiple technologies had not rendered distance almost irrelevant. Even a cursory check of current migration literature would have saved him such gaffes.
But Kara is not interested in migration (whether voluntary, ambivalent, or coerced) or in smuggling. He also rejects “trafficking” as a core concept, preferring slave trading for the movement of people and slavery for the jobs they get. His pitch is that slavery is back in a big way, but his is a cartoon version of master and slave, free of any social complexity and the ambiguities of human interaction. If he can contemplate this industry coolly for the purposes of financial calculations, then he should be able to consider potential human gains also. Finally forced to recognize that slavery could actually sometimes represent “a better life” (p. 199), he is nonetheless blind to the possibility that people in bad situations may be able to exploit them and seems ignorant of slavery studies far evolved from abolitionist reductionism. Slave narratives, slave archaeology, ethnobiology, and historical research all have illuminated social systems in which slaves were not wholly passive nor owners unidimensionally crushing. Coping, resisting, manipulating, strategizing, and creating culture form part of slaves’ lives. But Kara, intent on discovering tales of sexual exploitation, has no idea how his informants spend most of their time.
He claims that “sex slaves” are the best earners for masters because they are sold “literally thousands of times before they are replaced” (p. 24), conflating an owner’s sale of a slave with a slave’s sale of sexual services to customers. Would he do this if another service were involved, like hairdressing? If a salon owner buys a slave to be a hairdresser who then sees many customers and produces money for her owner, would Kara say the hairdresser is sold thousands of times? Or would he see that her labor is sold, albeit unfairly? Questions to be asked about both cases would include: Is money earned credited toward the payment of a debt? Is the worker able to leave the workplace? Does the worker accept the character of the work but want more autonomy, different working conditions, or a (bigger) percentage of money earned? In the case of sex businesses, workplaces may actually be more comfortable and cleaner than they are in other available jobs, workers may feel safer locked in than on the streets, and they may like wearing pretty clothes and being admired. By reducing the entire world of his informants to the minutes of sex, Kara misses the big picture, whether we call it political economy, culture, or simply everyday life.
Kara proposes abolition through making slave trading and slave owning too costly. The most simplistic version of this thinking is seen in the current End Demand campaign in which complex social interactions and market theories are reduced to a truism: remove demand for commercial sex and supply must disappear. This panacea could apply only if all demand of every kind were eradicated permanently and simultaneously, as demand moves and metamorphoses to find supply. Since the sex industry is large and variegated, and since the supply side (people who sell sex as well as managers and owners of businesses) constantly adapts to new market forces, resists laws, and innovates, the fantasy that supply is 100 percent determined by demand is foolish.
We do not need to read the whole book to know that something fishy is afoot. In the first chapter, extrapolating from only four conversations with customers in one Indian brothel, Kara contends that “demand for sexual services” is highly elastic (p. 35). No responsible economist, academic or not, would dare to make claims on the basis of so little data, easily ascribed to interviewer misunderstanding, informant misinformation, both, and/or random events. But it does not stop there; Kara goes on to suggest that demand must have increased because of the “increased use of slaves” (p. 37). The absence of proof is breathtaking.
At the end of the book he presents tables purporting to show “slavery economics” (apparently unaware that others have reckoned slavery values before). Within a typology of sex businesses that fails even to benefit from a sober International Labour Organization study of the sex sector , each table posits general assumptions that must be accepted to believe what is inferred from them. For example, Massage Parlor Economics, Kathmandu, assumes four slaves per parlor, averages ten sex acts per day, one of ten customers buys a condom, one slave is re-trafficked every six months, and 50 percent “tip” per thirty sex acts, going on to give an average price per sale of sex (table B.3). We have no idea where these figures came from, but scholars in the field will doubt Kara has much to base them on–especially since he produces thirteen other such tables, all requiring data that can only be obtained through long, repetitive, methodological research, whether in Queens or Chiang Mai (to mention two of many locations he claims to know). Kara did not do such research.
That Kara uses terms like “exploitation value” and “return on investment” should not distract us from data at best anecdotal and at worst garbage. As a Rescue Industry story, his is emblematic. Struggling to accept that not every woman who sells sex is a slave, he tries to convince a woman in Los Angeles to let him help her but finally sees that “it was not up to me to decide that Sunee’s life was more important than her father’s” (p. 182). The reader heaves a sigh of relief that Sunee was spared. The real message is moral: “The world had indeed degraded into a plague of lust, greed, deceit and violence. Untamed desire ran amok, governing the descent of man” (p. 82). Perhaps Kara reveals his underlying dream when he says “I felt like I was watching myself on a movie screen” (p. 63). Graham Greene would have known how to write about him.
. John Fair, “The Georgia Slave Narratives: A Historical Conundrum,” Journal of The Historical Society 10, no. 3 (2010): 235-281; Julius Sensat, “Exploitation,” Noûs 18, no. 1 (1984): 21-38; Theresa Singleton, “The Archaeology of Slavery in North America,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 119-140; and Jessica Bowes, “Provisioned, Produced, Procured: Slave Subsistence Strategies and Social Relations at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest,” Journal of Ethnobiology 31, no. 1 (2011): 89-109.
. Jim Marketti, “Black Equity in the Slave Industry,” The Review of Black Political Economy 2, no. 2 (1972): 43-66; and Robert Browne, “The Economic Basis for Reparations to Black America,” The Review of Black Political Economy 21 (1993): 99-110.
. Lin Lean Lim, ed., The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1998).
PS: My title for H-Net, A Man of Moral Sentiments, is a reference to Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, which preceded his Wealth of Nations.
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist, here with the friend who came as my entourage, since I told the BBC I didn’t want to go alone. Sitting close to the movie stars in the front row, she overheard one of them accuse me of resembling a holocaust denier and was the only person to applaud my comments, after which she was shunned.
People in the United States who want to lead a new anti-slavery movement should know better than anyone what chattel slavery is: The institution that allows one person to legally buy another and do whatever they want with them. Legally is the keyword: that is, the sale and purchase of human beings is permitted by the state in open sales; the slave becomes the owner’s possession in the same way a house or box of chocolates does. The women in the picture above, hanging out in front of a brothel or bar, are unlikely to have been purchased in that kind of sale or to feel themselves that they are slaves. Very likely they would feel offended to be called that, even if they don’t care for the work they are doing or object to working conditions.
Free the Slaves, founded by Kevin Bales, says there are 27 million slaves in the world today, which doesn’t match anyone else’s estimates. That’s because they lump together a very wide variety of people as slaves, mostly because their working conditions and pay are awful. That this reminds people of slavery is understandable, but to not distinguish between different states of freedom, volition and labour of individuals is a way of imposing an abstraction on them. Yes, it is colonialism again, by saying We Know What Your Situation Really Is, We Know Better Than You Do. Poor You, We Will Rescue You.
One effect of this generalising is to trivialise the worst cases of exploitation. How must descendants of chattel slaves feel when abolitionists say all women who sell sex are slaves? Are they annoyed at the comparison? Insult is added to injury when putting an end to modern-day slavery is called our civil rights movement, as Kristen Lindsey did. It’s not as though civil rights are no longer an issue in the US! I also find the desire to own a movement repellent, rather than thinking about how to empower and support the actual protagonists and victims of the story.
Here are excerpts from a piece about students at an Arkansas university who are opening a chapter of the International Justice Mission. They are newly thrilled to have this cause and incredibly muddled about what’s going on.
IJM coming together at ASU to end slavery, 26 January 2012
. . . According to conservative estimations, there are thought to be about 27 million people enslaved or human trafficking victims in the world today. Does the OR mean they are hedging their bets because everyone isn’t agreed about generalising slavery yet?
Right now there are more people enslaved in the world than any other time in history. There are currently even more slaves than when the Civil War was fought in the 1800s. There are more of all kinds of people, for heaven’s sake.
Our group hopes to raise at least $1,000 to go towards stopping human trafficking and helping the former slaves get back to their lives. These are college students, remember.
When a sex trading ring or brothel is discovered by the IJM, the local police are informed and are then sent out to raid the compounds and rescue any slaves they find. Do none of these students wonder about IJM’s meddling in other countries’ business? Have they no questions about these ‘slaves’?
The IJM has already gained national attention and support from some large corporations. Google Inc. donated $11.5 million last month to IJM and 10 other organizations focused on stopping slavery and human trafficking. Oh, fine, no need to think about it yourselves then. If Google says it’s good it must be.