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Cellphone or freedom?
January 21, 2004 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Buying prostitutes. Nicholas Kristof (of the NY Times; reg. req.) bought the freedom of two young Cambodian prostitutes in order to return them to their villages... but it wasn't as simple as you might think. It's easy to be cynical (yes, he's using it as grist for columns; yes, it's a drop in the bucket), but isn't it better than doing nothing? Anyway, it's a fascinatingly messy story. (He discusses why he picked these particular girls, and addresses some of the moral issues, here—scroll down to January 20.)
posted by languagehat (22 comments total)

 
"And I wanted someone who was young and not allowed to leave, someone who had been trafficked rather than who was voluntarily selling herself. And I wanted someone who was articulate and was willing to tell her story."

While Kristof's actions are good in nature, the form still annoys. At least he is sincere: old, innarticulate prostitutes are fair game, he wants someone that will look nice on TV and print. But yet I don't think an "Adopt a young whore" campaign would fly very far into the homes and hearts...
posted by nkyad at 12:43 PM on January 21, 2004


I am unclear on how these prostitutes got into their particular situation. Says he:
That, in turn, meant that girls who had been sold to the brothels by their own families were typically not suitable. If a girl had been trafficked once by her parents, she might be again – and in any case it would be difficult to return her to the very people responsible for her servitude in the first place.
How did they get into this situation? It sounds like they are in a position of indentured servitude to their pimps, but how did they accrue their "debt" in the first place?
There is another article here that goes into a little pre-story but doesn't answer any of this and Kristof's 1/10 article seems bereft of any comment How We All Found Ourselves Here.

As to the question, "is it better than doing nothing?" Perhaps. Not knowing the general situation, the reader is required on faith to believe this is so. Kristof himself asks the same question:
Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels?
Has the condition that caused their decision to commit to servitude resolved itself? Then perhaps -- we do not know. Perhaps Kristof's actions are actually worse than we know. He's an Op-Ed writer, after all, not an expert on such things. He made a fairly arbitrary decision to spring two girls based on their desire to get out -- two girls was more important than who, as his preferred Second Girl was unavailable at his time of action.

I mean, for all we know, they'll be rejected by their villages, return to drug addiction and resume their lives in the brothels, remembering this as just another failure in their miserable lives.

I mean, not to be all cynical, but if he felt compelled to action, couldn't it have been part of a more compelling and organized effort?
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:58 PM on January 21, 2004


As to the question, "is it better than doing nothing?" Perhaps. Not knowing the general situation, the reader is required on faith to believe this is so.

But that wasn't the only benefit though, as Kristof also points out. Highlighting the issue has cosiderably more potential benefit if it at all contribtues to the eventual halting of enslaved prostitution.

I mean, for all we know, they'll be rejected by their villages, return to drug addiction and resume their lives in the brothels, remembering this as just another failure in their miserable lives.

So nothing lost except Kristof's £x00 then.
posted by biffa at 1:05 PM on January 21, 2004


Am I the only one who felt the description of this escapade was creepy?
So now I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We'll see.
I realize he's decrying the situation he's describing. But his language so strongly buys into it. From the forthright, almost entitled "I have purchased.." to the flippantly closing "We'll see", it was just creepy.
posted by Nelson at 1:47 PM on January 21, 2004


It was a messy story, indeed. Nelson, it made me cringe in much the same way. But - on the other hand - Kristoff is trying to do the right thing, as he perceives it. He could have not purchased their freedom but still wrote his story decrying chattel prostitution. You could make the case that he is - opportunistically - trying to capitalize on the titillation factor to make a wider name for himself as a writer. Maybe so, but didn't he cover the fistula story as well?

I think Kristoff is as messy as his subject matter, a person with complex motives : at once both a paternalistic big daddy and a humanitarian. So, he's human.

I still cringed, though.

He has his podium. He could do far worse with it. He could be another Friedman.
posted by troutfishing at 2:05 PM on January 21, 2004


There is a more subtle point too - most of us who live in the affluent developed world could choose to exert our financial clout for the good of the world's suffering and exploited poor - and do so in ways more effective than Kristoff's.

Most of us choose, by default, to not do so. Think about it in these terms - pass up that newest chunk of consumer crap, and transform a life or a whole family's wellbeing, even.

Pass up that $60,000 Lexus SUV, buy a $20,000 vehicle, and build schools for eight mid-sized villages in Nepal.

Humans and their "needs". Hmmm. Kristoff can be criticized, of course. But he bothered to give a damn when it was not absolutely necessary.

How many of us here can say the same?
posted by troutfishing at 2:12 PM on January 21, 2004


No, I also found it somewhat disturbing, as if he were simply conducting a social experiment instead of selflessly freeing these girls from sexual slavery.

I'm not cynical enough to decry the effort, but I am cynical enough to decry the motive. I have to agree with Ogre Lawless.
posted by FormlessOne at 2:32 PM on January 21, 2004


Speaking of helping Cambodians: Jolie funding Cambodia program to buy cows.
posted by homunculus at 2:37 PM on January 21, 2004


How did they get into this situation? It sounds like they are in a position of indentured servitude to their pimps, but how did they accrue their "debt" in the first place?

Sexism. It's not like SE's Asia's traditional culture (including mosts religions religion) doesn't paint women as inferior in every possible way. Which, BTW, also explains part of the "willingness" issue. Not all hookers in Asia are slaves, and many (including Westerners) make very impressive amounts of money, by any standard you care to measure it. In any event, many more find themselves the job empowering - at the cost of breaing a taboo. (Not all by far fall into this picture, but tens of thousands certainly do).

Classism. In neighboring Thailand, the locals say that half the country serves the other half. Nobody sees a problem with that (although obviously everyone knows which half they want to be in).

There are a host of other circumstances, some hard to grasp from the distance . But perhaps the sometimes shocking perspective on life exhibited by SE Asians can be better understood if we do not lose view of the fact that once again, local culture kicks in. Many Asians believe in reincarnation, as their ancestors have believed for centuries. This might be a somewhat simplistic explanation; but at the end of the day, your long-term outlook varies quite a bit if you've got more chances coming up.

/Not an Asian, loves an Asian woman who wants to reincarnate into a handsome man - which leaves me where exactly?
posted by magullo at 2:47 PM on January 21, 2004


I also found Kristof's approach creepy and morally ambiguous. At the surface level he is being humane, but his language and actions objectify the women he is supposedly trying to help. There's something narcisistic going on. It's hard to fault him, but...yech.

For a much better take on the same subject, read Sold as a sex slave in Europe: MSNBC.com exposes a thriving market of human flesh. It also covers the angle of the reporters trying to get involved, but it is much more sincere. It is heartbreaking. And if you want to do something about it, join up with an organization like Equality Now.
posted by alms at 2:51 PM on January 21, 2004


Humans and their "needs". Hmmm. Kristoff can be criticized, of course. But he bothered to give a damn when it was not absolutely necessary.

How many of us here can say the same?


Your points are well-taken but it seems he didnt fully understand the implications of what he was doing. He might have, for example, done more harm to these girls than good (if for example they return to a 'worse' brothel) and so I agree with Ogre Lawless in that he might have benefitted from at least consulting with organizations that might have educated him on the right way to go about this, otherwise it seems irresponsible to me and, yes, opportunistic.
posted by vacapinta at 3:07 PM on January 21, 2004


It sounds like they are in a position of indentured servitude to their pimps, but how did they accrue their "debt" in the first place?

This National Geographic article sums it up nicely - their "debt" is what their pimps paid for them.
posted by Jimbob at 3:07 PM on January 21, 2004


Hrm... Spends thousands of dolars to fly himself and his crew to Cambodia, then won't spend $50 on a cellphone. That seems like quite a bit of money for a 3rd worlder, then again $8,000 seems like a lot to a poor collage student, but that's how much my Car is worth.

Anyway, Kristof came across (in what I'd read) as extremely condescending. He feels he's being manipulated by the girl crying about her cellphone. Maybe he is, but so what? Its hardly that much more money. I can understand wanting to haggle with people he found "evil" aka their pimps, but $50 shouldn't be much money for him at all.

And yeah, I think the story had as much to do with power tripping and fascination as it did with trying to help people. For that much money, or maybe a little more he could have counter-bribed the local constabulary to shut down the brothels and release all the women.
posted by delmoi at 4:20 PM on January 21, 2004


Yes, he really starts to come across as a jerk at the point where he gets all put out about her wanting a cell phone. And then her jewelry god forbid!

I mean, this a woman who has lived through years of abuse, and who is leaving everyone she knows travel with an American she met the day before. It was pretty ungrateful of her to want her cell phone and jewelry.
posted by alms at 7:04 PM on January 21, 2004


I would remind everyone dissing him for the dickering over the cellphone that Kristof himself gave you the ammunition; he could perfectly well have omitted it, smoothed out the story, made himself look like a knight in shining armor. He's deliberately showing his less attractive side, and we would all do well to reflect on how sure we are that we would behave better in his situation. Doing hands-on good (as opposed to writing checks) is not always a simple matter. I think troutfishing nailed it:

I think Kristoff is as messy as his subject matter, a person with complex motives : at once both a paternalistic big daddy and a humanitarian. So, he's human.
posted by languagehat at 7:27 PM on January 21, 2004


I know that Kristof could have done better and agree that he should have learned a bit more about the situation he chose to charge into. Isn't he the classic idealistic American, naive and adrift from his cultural moorings?

But I can't judge Kristof without judging myself just as harshly.

That's not an argument, by the way, against such judgements.

I also agree with Ogre Lawless' take, but Kristof is sketching out - at best if it was truly spontaneous - a heartfelt impulse. His piece would have been well accompanied by links to the websites of nonprofits working in the region.
_____________________________________________

Kristof was power-tripping, I'd say, and it's a sad commentary on our times that such comes across so well now.

But it does. American non-religious philanthropic giving to world charities is at the very bottom of the list as compared to all other developed world nations. Americans are less selflessly generous than they feel themselves to be. I know I am.

So paternalistic and even inappropriate giving such as Kristof's now looks good, in context.

This is a shame, for the US has so much money - why can we spare so lilttle?
posted by troutfishing at 8:36 PM on January 21, 2004


Interesting stat there are more slaves in the world today than 400 years taken from Africa. The problem is one of poverty, global poverty is the number one global problem. More important than WMD or Korea or terrorists. Global poverty does not have to be, there are solutions. It is the biggest challenge facing ours and future generations. Former generations faced the great depression and National Socialism and then the Cold War and then in the 1950s we achieved a nation of majority middle class. All of those were good fights but they are nothing compared to the fight we face now, taking on Global Poverty and raising the entire world to middle class.
posted by stbalbach at 10:58 PM on January 21, 2004


Cambodian union leader shot dead
posted by homunculus at 11:04 PM on January 21, 2004


It's not like he has no clue about the ineffectiveness and moral ambiguity of what he's doing. Here's his own justification:

I’m sure some readers will protest that buying girls is not a solution the problem of modern quasi-slavery, and they’re right.

Paying for the girls’ freedom simply increases demand for the girls and raises their market price, making trafficking more profitable. In southern Sudan, for example, well-meaning rescuers have been buying slaves from Arab traders and setting them free, and this has helped those individuals who are freed. But all in all, it only encourages more slave-raiding, and the same would be true of trying to end slavery in the brothels by buying the girls’ freedom.

“Stealing” the girls away from the brothels would in a sense be more effective, in that it would undermine the profitability of the business. But I worried that if I rescued a girl from the brothels and took her home without paying her debts first, the brothel owner might go and find her and harm her.

So while I chose to try to buy the freedom of Srey Neth and Srey Mom, I recognize that that’s not a broad solution to the problem. Any long-term approach is going to involve a mix of economic development, literacy programs for girls, improved police and judicial systems, and constant crackdowns on the brothels that confine girls against their will. It’s critical that governments do more to raise the status of girls and women so that they are not second-class citizens, for so many of these problems arise from power disparities between males and females in poor countries.

But the first step has to be awareness of the problem, and that's why I'm writing these columns.

posted by fuzz at 11:22 PM on January 21, 2004


Playing Kristof, what would Jesus do ?
posted by troutfishing at 8:15 PM on January 22, 2004


Pass up that $60,000 Lexus SUV, buy a $20,000 vehicle, and build schools for eight mid-sized villages in Nepal.

Or how about, in this case, open a school for these at-risk Cambodia girls and give their parents a yearly $50.00 stipend for "loss of income"? If they make it equally (or more) profitable for these families to "sell" their daughters into education as it is prostitution, with the possibility of their daughters bringing in more money from skilled labor in the future, I think that most parents would jump at the chance.
posted by echolalia67 at 12:14 PM on January 23, 2004


Now, that sounds like a great idea.
posted by languagehat at 3:50 PM on January 23, 2004


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