Yes, the famous anti-sex-trafficking activist fudged certain facts to gain attention for her cause—but this sorry tale should make us concerned about our own need for photogenic girls to save.
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.