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The Somaly Mam Story: What We Still Know About Sex Trafficking

Taina Bien-Aime, CATW, Huffington Post

June 2, 2014
For those of us who know and have worked with Somaly Mam throughout the years, the Newsweek cover story about her alleged fabrications shocked and saddened us. If the accusations are true, we don’t know why Somaly, who commanded love and affection, would have stretched the truth so far. Some have asked whether it matters at the end of the day, knowing that she and her foundation have indeed saved thousands of lives in Cambodia.

When trust is breached, those even slightly involved with the targeted fabricator panic and recoil. The fight or flight response kicks in: Does one stay silent and hide; or support and defend?

We need to take a breath.

The New York Times did not fold when it was revealed that that one of its reporters, Jayson Blair, fabricated stories, nor did The Washington Post or the Associated Press when similar incidences surfaced. Banks rarely falter when rogue traders cheat and the Oprah Winfrey television show did not crumble into a “million little pieces” when its high-profile book club endorsed the author James Frey, also accused of significantly embellishing his memoir.

What the Somaly Mam story highlights is a state of affairs that many of us in the social change movement bemoan, namely that simple stories of exploitation rarely grab the public’s imagination, the donors, or the press. Unless the overdone images of runny noses, torn clothing, or worse, naked children in a cage waiting to be sold, are splashed on glossy pages, the actual suffering of human beings too often fails to trigger widespread empathy or outrage.

In addition to this heightened need for sensationalism, our society craves numbers. Suffering in small quantities is rarely enough. Given the undercover and “hidden in plain sight” crimes of human trafficking, no entity has been definitively able to pin down the actual number of victims. From the United Nations to national statistics, the numbers range widely from 2.5 million to 20.9 million. Irrespective of the range, all agree that the majority of those estimated individuals are women and children with a majority of that group ending up in the sex trade. In a recent report, the International Labor Organization estimated that profits from human trafficking generated $150 billion, two-thirds of which, or $90 billion, stem from commercial sexual exploitation.

Cambodia is designated as a source, transit and destination country for labor and sex trafficking. The U.S. State Department also found that the sale of virgin women and girls continues to be a problem and that Cambodian men form the “largest source of demand for child prostitution.” Regardless of its founder’s personal failings, the Somaly Mam Foundation has plenty of urgent work ahead.

In collaboration with the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, Dr. Melissa Farley, of Prostitution Research and Education, interviewed 133 Cambodian men who purchased commercial sex. The study shows that almost all of these male buyers interviewed in Phnom Penh stated that they witnessed extreme violence inflicted on the prostituted women, more often than not controlled by pimps. The men surveyed also saw children available for paid sexual abuse in brothels, bars and massage parlors. One of the “johns” astutely said that “prostitution is the man’s heaven but it is also those girls’ hell.”

The Somaly Mam episode cannot be used as an excuse to deny or ignore the undeniable exploitation of countless human beings in the sex trade. Nor should it be a vehicle to call, as some mainstream human rights organizations are doing, for the full decriminalization of the sex industry, the equivalent of legalization of prostitution. A vision to end human rights abuses must be applicable to every person whose rights are trampled, including women sold and exploited in the sex trade. The right not to be prostituted cannot be trumped by the purported right of men to purchase women’s bodies. The history of the women’s movement to end violence shows time and again the difficulty for a violated woman, whether in domestic abuse, sexual assault, rape or discrimination, to be heard, to be believed, to receive justice. The proverbial “woman who cries rape” does not negate rampant sexual assault; the woman returning to her abuser does not obliterate the public health crisis of domestic violence; and wearing a tank top is not a green light for street harassment.

These undeniable facts certainly do not condone fabrication, but the revelations about Somaly Mam cannot erase the horrors of the sex trade and the growing movement of genuine, courageous survivors exposing these truths. The misguided excuses to ignore this reality by promoting legitimization of exploitation, including identifying sex trafficked children as “sex workers”, must continue to be met with vigilance and concerted action.

1 Comment

  1. In examining the many facets of Somaly Mam’s career and downfall, Taina Bien-Aime has provided a cogent and courageous analysis of the way that public discourse about prostitution and its inherent violence against women is shaped by the intertwined demands of sex politics, media,and funders.

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