Somaly Mam, one of the world’s most famous anti-sex-trafficking activists, resigned as head of the Somaly Mam Foundation on Wednesday, after Newsweek published an expose by Simon Marks accusing Mam of lying about her background and fabricating some of the sob stories of underage sex trafficking she used to gain attention and funding for her cause. Marks detailed how Mam’s story of being forced into prostitution as a child—her age for when she first started shifted in each telling—didn’t jibe with the memories of her from classmates and family members. More troubling, Marks also accused Mam of encouraging young women who had not been trafficked to lie about it, coughing up lurid stories of rape and abuse in order to get wealthy donors to open their wallets.
Are there larger lessons to be learned from this whole sordid tale? Marks resists anyone who might use this to deny that sex trafficking is a serious problem, though he does argue that “the scale and dynamics of the situation are often misunderstood, in part because of lurid, sensationalistic stories such as those told by Mam and her ‘girls.’” But this should be a wake-up call, an opportunity for people in the feminist and non-profit world to seriously consider some troubling trends that may hamper the long-term ability to enact change. Namely, there’s way too much emphasis being put on heroic figures overcoming adversity and too little attention paid to systems of oppression. In addition, there’s a serious problem of issues being highlighted not because they are the most pressing or widespread issues, but because they are the least likely to draw controversy that might run off wealthy celebrities who only want the safest causes to publicly support.
It’s easy to see why non-profits trying to fundraise, as well as the media industry used to raise attention to various social justice issues, are drawn to the “heroes beating the odds” stories that Mam told not only of herself but of the various girls she used for media and fundraising appeals. It’s simply easier for audiences to connect with the story of an individual than to examine dry, statistical data charting economic, public health, or educational outcomes. The fantasy of being able to rescue some beautiful, charming girl from the hell of sex slavery and put her on the road to a “normal” life has the kind of power that a chart detailing maternal health outcomes after various public health interventions will never have. The faces of young heroes who have overcome adversity make for good magazine covers. All the economic incentives are in place.
Unfortunately, the need to hear a relentless drumbeat of tales that start in horror and squalor and end in uplift and hope also creates incentive to fudge the facts, as Mam’s story shows. It might also mislead people about what problems are most pressing. As Marks writes, activism like Mam’s causes people to overestimate the severity of the issue of sex-trafficked minors in places like Cambodia.
Thomas Steinfatt, a professor of statistics at the University of Miami, has done several reports on sex trafficking for the U.N.’s Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. In a 2008 study, for which he spent months conducting surveys in all corners of Cambodia, he estimated there were no more than 1,058 victims of trafficking in Cambodia and has said the situation has improved markedly since then.
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.
This isn’t just a matter of a few Hollywood celebrities. By only focusing on the handful of women who are forced, as girls, into sex work, the larger questions of the rights and health of sex workers generally are ignored. So are the issues of safety and health for women who aren’t in sex work but are also subject to being marginalized and dehumanized for their gender and sexuality.
What women around the world need is not just people who stand up for them when it’s easy, when the villains are predatory pimps and faceless rapists. Women around the world need people to stand up for them when it’s hard. When the villain is the beloved leader of the Catholic Church, continuing to stand against the basic right to contraception and abortion that saves lives and helps families achieve economic stability. It’s easy to be against sex traffickers, but not so easy to stand up against the corporate employers eager to snatch up young factory workers to be paid a pittance to work in dangerous conditions. It’s easy to take a stand against Boko Haram for stealing hundreds of Nigerian girls right out of school, but not so easy to discuss wealthy American interests that threaten the health and wellbeing of many Nigerian people through environmental destruction.
All these issues matter. I’m certainly not saying that the morally easy issues should be shunned for the more difficult ones. But it’s important not to give into the urge to see the Somaly Mam ouster as an anomaly, so much as the inevitable result of a culture that puts more emphasis on heroic tales of triumph than on bigger picture questions of health and inequality. Mam made up tales of woe because she knew it would attract attention and fundraisers that a more sober assessment of realities would not. That she was right should give us all cause to wonder about reorganizing our social justice priorities.