By Yasmin Nair
Mira Sorvino’s breasts, barely encased in a camisole top, are distracting enough that I don’t register her words. She’s on the Tavis Smiley Show promoting her HBO mini-series Human Trafficking (HT). Her appearance coincides with a resurgence of public interest in sex trafficking, a phenomenon I’d described two years ago (“How Trafficking Became Sexy,” Clamor September/October 2004). I’d argued that trafficking was sensationalized and sexualized in stories about evil Russians luring innocent girls into worldwide prostitution rings. Watching Sorvino, it’s clear to me that trafficking has resurfaced in the public imagination but this time the threat is closer to home. Sorvino tells Smiley how afraid she is for her own daughter after having made the film. Later she tells the New York Times (NYT), “I would hope that people would be very, very careful with their daughters after seeing this.”
It’s tempting to overlook Sorvino’s exaggerated rhetoric as a desperate ploy for public attention — her last significant role involved fighting giant roaches in Mimic. This time, she plays an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officer who takes on an international sex trafficking ring. Clips of HT show Sorvino as both law-enforcer and maternal figure, fighting evil traffickers to save a girl.
But Sorvino’s paranoia, feigned or otherwise, is symptomatic of a significant shift in how we’re asked to think about trafficking and whom it affects. Trafficking has gone from being represented as a crisis that affects mostly female immigrants (“sexy” trafficking) to one that affects young American children. My initial article argued that these hypersexual narratives erased the fact that the phenomenon depends on the use of cheap or free migrant labor, not coerced sex work. In 2005, Debbie Nathan made a similar point in The Nation and exposed the bizarre collusion between anti-porn feminists and Christian conservatives. This alliance ensured that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act categorizes all trafficked persons as involuntary “victims” of “sex slavery” even if they voluntarily entered prostitution.
In February, Counterpunch’s Alexander Cockburn took aim at “Nicholas Kristoff’s Brothel Problem” and the NYT columnist’s obsession with rescuing girls in India. Cockburn pointed out that Kristoff’s self-aggrandizing tales obscure the wide-ranging costs of US-engendered neoliberal economic policies, which force larger numbers of people into prostitution. More recently, also on Counterpunch, Nathan wrote about ABC’s Primetime show on trafficking and revealed that new laws permit inflation in the numbers of domestic trafficking victims by misleadingly classifying as “sex slaves” even minors who run away from home and engage in prostitution to survive. This induces a new public hysteria that “our” children (read: white American) are being trafficked under our noses.
So trafficking is back, it’s sexier than ever, and we’re left to understand why, despite the abundance of material to the contrary, the phenomenon is still cast in the overly sexualized and hysterical paranoia about particular bodies. But this time, its “victims” are no longer foreign workers but our own children. And mothers are being called upon to protect their children. This recent incarnation of a trafficking crisis is cast as a struggle to preserve the innocence (read: virginity) of the girl-child.
The shift from “sexy trafficking” to “innocent victim trafficking” is a reminder that women’s bodies are endlessly mobilized to turn issues of labor and immigration into deeply personalized narratives about family and nation. A recent Oprah Winfrey show on the topic focused on child sex trafficking. Winfrey relied on the power of the imagination to conjure nightmarish scenes about the plight of children. In a series of short segments, celebrities and celebrity journalists like Ricky Martin and Christiane Amanpour lent their reputations and perpetuated falsehoods and hyperbole about the supposed danger to children worldwide and in the US.
In a segment about Mexican girls trafficked into the US, the reporter Michele Gillen is led into what looks like a set of The Blair Witch Project, a dark woody area where they supposedly serviced their clients. With no evidence that there were ever any girls there, her guide talks about imagining that they must have cried out for help. Gillen even repeats the widely debunked Peter Landesman story about young girls dressed up in white communion dresses, without revealing her disputed source.
In another segment, Amanpour tells Oprah that she spoke to a couple of women in the audience that day who said, “even 20-odd years ago, in their own towns, there were stories of girls disappeared and ending up in the sex trafficking business. So this is going on.” Amanpour’s willingness to extract fact from speculation is part of the show’s reliance on half-baked stories and rumors fuelled by dubious sources. She also speaks with Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission (IJM). Neither she nor Winfrey reveal that IJM is a Christian organization. Practically re-enacting Nathan’s point about the collusion between Christian conservatives and some feminists, Amanpour asks earnestly: “What can individual Americans do to help?”
Given the demographic focus of the Oprah show, those “individual Americans” are clearly women and mothers. It’s no surprise that Oprah focused on child sex trafficking rather than on adult women. This allowed her to avoid the issue of chosen sex work. But as we trace the shift in the emphasis in trafficking, it becomes clear that there’s more to it than persuading American women to identify as the mothers of trafficked children.
If looked at closely, the story about sex trafficking and children is also a story about the failure of the family to protect children. This is apparent in the account of Kim Meston, a former Tibetan refugee from India allegedly trafficked into the United States by a Christian minister at the age of 16. Meston has posted her story on the website of Trafficking Victims Outreach and Services, a Cambridge-based organization where she works as the co-director. A slightly different version appears on the website of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance. She also appeared on the Oprah show on child trafficking.
Her tale, while ostensibly about how girls are trafficked into this country, in fact contradicts the stereotypes that Winfrey propagates. (Meston did not respond to my requests for an interview). She writes about growing up happy and carefree in a Tibetan camp in Southern India until the minister convinced her parents that he could give her a much better education and life in the States, assuring them that he would treat her as his own daughter. Meston arrived in a small rural town outside Westchester, Massachusetts and attended school, but had to work as a domestic servant and was forced into sex by the minister. Eventually, Meston married. She was persuaded by townspeople to report the minister when he brought two of her cousins into the country.
There seems little doubt that Meston did go through a traumatic experience. But one aspect of the case bears scrutiny. Meston was not trafficked into the country by a nefarious trafficking ring. She was simply transferred from one family unit to another, even if under false pretexts. Looked at closely, Meston’s story reveals the vulnerability of the family unit to neo-liberal economic pressures and the hypocrisy of and potential danger posed by US faith-based representatives and initiatives in the developing world.
Tibetan families like Meston’s are under double economic duress as refugees in an impoverished country. It’s impossible to discern exactly why her family would allow her to be taken so far away. But the harsh reality in a country like India is that it’s simply not economically feasible for millions of impoverished families to keep hungry children around — it makes more sense to send them away to places where they might be fed and make money as well. By a rough and probably conservative estimate, there are as many as 5 million child domestic workers in India. In that context, it’s not unlikely that Meston’s arrival in the US may well have been part of an implicit economic pact — her labor (intended as sexual or not) exchanged for either a fee or the guarantee of income from her work. It may well also be that her family genuinely thought she would be treated like a daughter, but that should not distract us from the fact that they felt an economic need to send her away.
These details provide a clearer lens through which we can understand how the tropes of innocence, victimhood, and shattered families function in the latest version of trafficking hysteria. Meston speaks publicly as both victim and heroic survivor of sex trafficking but neither she nor Oprah Winfrey, who profits hugely from the suffering of others, can afford to provide a more complex portrait of trafficking.
Such a portrait would involve examining the complicated and tangled relationship between faith-based organizations and neo-liberalism. Governments everywhere increasingly rely on these for social services that states should provide. The carte blanche afforded to people like the minister allows them to openly procure and bring in foreign adolescents for their own use. Meston’s story reveals the kinds of labor, sexual and commercial, that may be extracted from family members under economic stress. It reveals that the lines sometimes blur, contradicting our easy divisions between innocent victims and sexual agents, sex work and domestic labor.
What does this tell us about mothers and daughters and sex trafficking as a threat to the virginity and safety of innocent girls? The fiction of the inviolate bond between mother and daughter and the fixation on violated virgin girls are pretexts for making other economic relations invisible. While only somewhat less problematic than the Oprah show, Frontline’s recent show about trafficking in the former Soviet Union did indicate the economic realities behind the numbers of people who move between borders in search of work. Trafficking exists but it does not require kidnapping or coercion, and it’s not always about sex — the aftermath of a post-cold-war economy ensures that there are more than enough people, men and women, willing to take a chance to earn income however they can. Many of the Frontline women are from Moldova, where 80% of the population lives under the poverty line. One, desperately needing money, tries to return to Turkey to find sex work even after having been snared by authorities.
Human rights agencies like IJM and Amnesty International (AI) play their part in perpetuating myths about trafficking. These popular organizations garner public support and funding because their causes look so worthwhile. But a closer look reveals that they don’t critique the systemic conditions that lead to phenomena like trafficking in the first place, making them at least partially culpable. I spoke with IJM’s Paula Livingston since her organization claims to have helped rescue hundreds of young sex trafficking victims across the globe.
When I asked Livingston why IJM did not engage directly with the systemic conditions of poverty in different countries rather than resorting to “rescue,” her response was that they chose to leave that work to local NGOs and governments. But when pressed, IJM did not have a list of these NGOs handy, and failed to provide it despite my requests. So, while its website claims that it “empower(s) local authorities to stop … abuses” (with no rationale about its right to do so), IJM provides no real facts about its work. It emerges instead as a Kristoff-like heroic entity, providing its supporters with an attractive vision of American heroes rescuing desperate brown people.
IJM’s missions of rescue as a Christian organization allow it to ignore the economic machinery that surrounds the people it claims to help, except when advancing the US government’s policies. Gary Haugen’s response to Amanpour’s question about what Americans might do was that “we” needed to let other countries know of the consequences in their relations with the US. Haugen was referring to economic sanctions. But sanctions only allow the US to exercise economic, cultural and moral dominance. And nations can justifiably resist. In 2005, Brazil decided to forego $40 million from the United States Agency for International Development so that Brazilian AIDS organizations could continue distributing condoms to prostitutes. This came after the US demanded that “foreign recipients of AIDS assistance must explicitly condemn prostitution” or lose funding, according to the NYT.
Similarly, AI condemns the effects of war; its work on human rights abuses often centers on war-torn places. But it has so far refused to condemn war itself, surely the main cause of many human rights infractions. At the same time, AI, through celebrity spokespersons like Sorvino who seek public attention, creates and exploits tenuous links between issues like domestic violence against women and “sex trafficking.”
Hysterical narratives about sex trafficking raise our sense of personal vulnerability and ignore neo-liberalism’s effects of crushing local and foreign economies in the name of free trade and consumer choice. People -- women, men, and occasionally their children -- are compelled to move through borders to look for work. That work might well involve some amount of sex work — it’s hard to discern the exact amount. But such migrations are incidental to the search for work, not brought on by demonic sex trafficking rings. It’s easier for sex workers to claim being kidnapped and forced into sex rather than admit to looking for sex work — the former might result in deportation but the latter might land them in jail. Such are the results of sexist and moralistic trafficking laws that induce judgments about “innocent” victims versus those who supposedly “deserve” their suffering by seeking sex work. And sometimes, yes, “our” children are kidnapped and abused — often by family members or people we know, not by sex traffickers preying upon innocent victims. Examined closely, the new hysteria about sex trafficking exposes difficult truths about family, sex, and work. None of these is more precious or purer than the others and the distinctions between them frequently collapse.
In the ’70s and ’80s, stories about incest and satanic abuse of children fired our imagination. Today, sex trafficking stories are symptomatic of our uneasy relationship with a new global economy. But we avoid making the connections between an abstract set of economic relations and their effects on our lives. Instead, a return to the pure American home becomes the panacea for all our woes. There’s nothing like the specter of shattered domesticity to ensure that women and children are fixed in their roles as either creatures in need of rescue or perennial caretakers. Ultimately, sex trafficking is the latest urban legend that polices women’s lives and keeps them almost hysterically attached to their children — “very, very careful with their daughters.”
For further sources on the myths about sex trafficking, see:
Laura Agustin’s website:
Cockburn, Alexander. “Nicholas Kristoff’s Brothel Problem.”
Nathan, Debbie. “Oversexed.”
Nathan, Debbie. “The Teen Sex Slave” Scams: ABC’s Primetime Fakery.”
For a critique of Lifetime’s Human Trafficking, see Kerwin Kaye’s take on the AI website: www.amnestyusa.org
For related essays, see Regulating Sex: The Politics of Intimacy and Identity. Eds. Laurie Schaffner and Elizabeth Bernstein. Routledge, 2005.
Yasmin Nair is an academic and writer based in Chicago. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org