I have previously written about the difficulty of accurately understanding the issue of sex trafficking, and attempted to point out the conflicted political goals and deceptive tactics of some of the key activists and organizations in the movement against sex trafficking. I wrote these posts in connection with my argument that radical feminist critiques of sex work are fundamentally anti-woman, and observed that they often employ the power of a fundamentally patriarchal state apparatus to enforce their “radical” goals. Recently, a scandal has exploded around one of the US poster-boys for the anti-trafficking movement, Nic Kristoff, author of the anti-sex work screed Half the Sky and pro-sweatshop campaigner.

It turns out that one of the main anti-trafficking activists upon whom Kristoff’s campaign depended, Somaly Mam, turns out to be a fraud: Newsweek has a long and detailed expose of her false claims to have been abused, along with tales about how she trained the children in her care to lie about their experiences for western media, in order to secure funds and political support. Salon has an article suggesting Kristoff knew about these lies, and played a key role in boosting the tall stories being told in order to support the fund-raising efforts of various NGOs (and of course, to boost his own credentials as a rescuer of poor women from developing nations). This article points out that many women “rescued” by NGOs like Mam’s end up working in the garment industry, and are not allowed to talk about their pay and conditions with visiting journalists. Sounds like trafficking, no? The Newsweek article quotes researching pointing out that the number of children trafficked into sex work in Cambodia is likely tiny, and that most adult women working in the industry also are there voluntarily. Of course, these women are “choosing” sex work in the context of a poor nation with few employment alternatives for uneducated women – and one of the main alternatives is the hard, exhausting and sometimes dangerous option of working in the garment industry – an industry, we should remember, that Kristoff writes articles in support of, and that “rescue” NGOs supply “rescued” sex workers to.

Kristoff is, of course, famous for this sick and disturbing tale of having “bought” two sex workers from their “owner” in Cambodia. Consider the final paragraph of this tale, which shows both a callous disregard for the actual economic and social prospects of women from developing nations, and a cynical contempt for their personal choices:

So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We’ll see.

 Do you think that many slaves would “slink back to slavery” after they were freed by the underground railway in pre-civil war America? No, probably not. What kind of language is being deployed here, that a commentator would honestly think people liberated from slavery would “slink” back to it? This is disgusting language, and it shows the way in which Kristoff instrumentalizes women and girls in his quest to prove himself morally superior – even as he defends an industry that is renowned for its labour abuses.
Following up on these revelations, the New York Times (Kristoff’s employer) has an excellent article about the difficulties of activism in this field. This article quotes one activist from Cambodia criticizing journalistic endeavours in these nations:
You show the face of the mother, who is so poor that she has to sell her daughter for money? How does this help the daughter or mother? It doesn’t. It helps the NGO to make money.
This is what people like Somaly Mam were doing. It’s worth also reading the comments of the Salon and NY Times articles, which contain detailed and thoughtful comments by activists working in the field who have been waiting for Kristoff’s bubble to burst. They are highly critical of efforts to outlaw sex work, and of the role of the US State Department in encouraging violent crackdowns on “traffickers” that inevitably end up harming sex workers, and these activists instead encourage the development of labour unions and sex worker organizations similar to those operating in Thailand. Of course, a campaigner for sweatshops has zero interest in supporting unionization, which history shows us is the only way workers in the garment industry have ever been able to protect themselves from terrible abuse. A person who supports sweatshops and campaigns against sex work must have seen enough of both industries to know that one pays considerably more than the other – is it any wonder that his response to the industry that pays more is to try and break it up on moral grounds, and to oppose any political response based on labour organization, which is the historical enemy of the industry he supports? No, it is not.
This is what lies behind the anti-trafficking movement, and all too often those who work to criminalize the broader sex industry use the “sex trafficking problem” as their entry-level argument against the entire industry. As these articles show, the effects of this activism on ordinary women voluntarily involved in sex work can be ferocious, not to mention the damage done to women “rescued” from trafficking by these unscrupulous organizations. When contemplating what “should be done” about sex work, the best option is first and foremost to ask the women who work in the industry – not rich white journalists or NGOs who claim to have a simple solution to a moral problem. Because where sex work is concerned, those people will turn out to be liars, and they do not have the interests of poor women and girls at heart.