Simon Marks has a long expose demonstrating that Cambodian anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam lied about her own life story and trained children to make up stories about their supposed experiences of sexual abuse in order to get rich westerners to give large donations.
In 2009, Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times about a girl named Long Pross, who had finally summoned the strength to tell her stunning story of sexual slavery. He reported that a woman had kidnapped Pross and sold her to a brothel, where she was beaten, tortured with electric wires, forced to endure two crude abortions and had an eye gouged out with a piece of metal by an angry pimp. Pross, Kristof said, was rescued by Mam and became part of her valiant group of former trafficking victims fighting for a world free of sexual slavery.
Pross also told her disturbing story on Oprah and appeared in the PBS documentary Half the Sky. “Believe it or not, when I returned home, my mother and father didn’t want me around. I wasn’t considered a good person,” she says in the documentary.
Equally hard to believe is the fact that Pross’s family, neighbors and medical records all tell a different story. Dr. Pok Thorn says he performed surgery on Pross when she was 13, after her parents brought her to a hospital with a nonmalignant tumor covering her right eye. Photographs in her medical records clearly show the young girl’s eye before and after the surgery.
So how did she come to be one of Somaly Mam’s girls? Te Sereybonn, director of Cambodia’s Takeo Eye Hospital back then, says his staff contacted AFESIP to see if they could admit Pross to one of their vocational training programs.
Another of Mam’s biggest “stars” was Meas Ratha, who as a teenager gave a chilling performance on French television in 1998, describing how she had been sold to a brothel and held against her will as a sex slave.
Late last year, Ratha finally confessed that her story was fabricated and carefully rehearsed for the cameras under Mam’s instruction, and only after she was chosen from a group of girls who had been put through an audition. Now in her early 30s and living a modest life on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Ratha says she reluctantly allowed herself to be depicted as a child prostitute: “Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well.”
She, like Pross, was never a victim of sex trafficking; she and a sister were sent to AFESIP in 1997 because their parents were unable to care for all seven of their children.
Wait, Nic Kristof? No! You mean, Mr. Helicopter Rich White Man Rescuer was ready to buy lurid, falsified stories hook, line, and sinker? Who could have guessed! Here’s a 2011 Kristof article lauding Mam and her story, in what has to be the most prototypical Kristof column. Here’s another, on Pross, entitled, “If This Isn’t Slavery, What Is?” Oh, I don’t know. Maybe something that actually happened.
Sex trafficking of minors is absolutely a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. But that’s not exactly why it’s an issue that attracts so much attention and funding and glitzy celebrity hobnobbing. It’s because it’s one of those issues that is easy to moralize about without much fear of stepping into a major controversy. No one is for selling underage girls into prostitution. Even the pimps interviewed by the Urban Institute went out of their way to denounce sex slavery and trafficking of underage girls. Standing up for reproductive rights or pushing back against economic injustice means running the risk of powerful people, such as religious leaders or other wealthy people, fighting back.
For this reason, the focus on underage sex trafficking is all too often used as a feel-good feminism, eclipsing larger issues. Take, for instance, the campaign of male celebrities taking pictures of themselves holding up signs that say, “Real men don’t buy girls.” It’s hard not to wonder if the bar is being set awfully low here. It’s easy to take a stand against underage sex slavery. It’s harder to take a stand against the widespread objectification and marginalization of women in the entertainment community, forces that help shape a culture where men feel entitled to have sex and act indifferently to the humanity of women. Many of these men make a lot of money off marginalizing and objectifying women, and holding up a sign denouncing enslavement of underage girls is an easy way to establish themselves as good guys without changing any other behavior.
The history of prostitution reform in Progressive Era America tells a similar story. There were Kristof’s then too, freaking out about the white slavery traffic. They wanted to hear the most lurid stories possible and then publicize them to make points about the evils of prostitution. They didn’t bother fact-checking either. And time and time again, these stories about young women didn’t pan out. The impact of this movement was to make sex work illegal, making it far more dangerous, as it largely remains today.
The actions of women like Mam and useful idiots like Kristof just obscure the real problems of a lack of opportunity for women to have decent work and respectable lives in Cambodia and elsewhere, not to mention discrediting attempts to help solve real sex slavery. But then Kristof has never been interested in people helping themselves anyway. He prefers saving brown people from themselves.
I, for one, look forward to Kristof’s response to Marks’ report.