Sex, Slavery, And A Slippery Truth
May 21, 2014 6:54 PM   Subscribe

It's not exactly news that Somaly Mam, head of the anti-trafficking non-profit The Somaly Mam Foundation, has been accused of fabricating her own story of sexual slavery and abuse. But today, the story made it all the way to Newsweek. Respected former call girl Maggie McNeill blogged about the issue in 2013 and 2011, and in 2012 wrote about the psychological self-deception that might be at play. Dr. Laura Agustin wrote this piece attacking Somaly Mam's idea of sex worker empowerment over a decade ago, and in this 2011 blog post criticizes a live-tweeted brothel raid carried out by Mam and Nicholas Kristof. Previously. Previously. Previously.
posted by Sarah Aeget (7 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

There are a lot of incentives to exaggerate and even fabricate gory stories, which sadly have the effect of making it harder for someone with a true story to be believed.

That Newsweek story looks pretty damning, though obviously not every detail is settled.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:23 PM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Gee, the Newsweek article sure makes it sound like the real problem in Cambodia wasn't sex trafficking, but poverty. The common theme of these stories and the truth behind them seems to be that the girls' families lacked the means to care for them and asked for charity. Somaly Mam took them in, then demanded they earn their keep by sexing up their stories for rich western donors.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 8:48 PM on May 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

whoa this is a weird situation. although i wouldn't be surprised if it actually *is* difficult to find legitimate former victims who are willing to be photogenic crusaders. but having the ends justifying the means is always a dangerous path.
posted by young_son at 9:29 PM on May 21, 2014

From a commenter who prefers to remain anonymous:
I work with a group in Cambodia, and we have referred clients to and from AFESIP. We also have ex-AFESIP staff. It's important to remember that AFESIP is not the Somaly Mom Foundation any longer, but one of the NGOs funded by SMF. Both have similar funding problems: lot of money coming in and going to staff instead of operations and placing fundraising above the safety and dignity of their clients.

AFESIP is not the worst place and not the best, just average. They are one of the best funded and known though. They should be much better.

SMF is very overpaid at the top and fundraising driven. The stories told are packaged to be shocking and easily understood with clear villains and heroes.

The reality of trafficking in Cambodia is that it is usually small-scale and not by large criminal gangs like in Russia for example. The trafficker will be someone who lives in the same village. Families sell their teenagers knowing where they will go. Medical and gambling debt is the biggest cause of trafficking. There are not enough jobs for barely educated young people in Cambodia.

Also, boys are sexually abused in very high rates in Cambodia. And Westerners and Asian tourists pay the most, but the local demand is the majority for sex work.

Somaly Mam has been pushing an idea of chained up children in brothels that no longer exists but raises funds.

It is much more likely to be a 'godfather' who grooms a child and then 'marries' them as a young teenager, to abandon them a few years later. There are brothels everywhere, but the sex workers have more physical freedom now and are kept in debt to keep them working. Why torture someone when you can give them a zero-interest loan and have them work without complaint?

The reality is more complicated and difficult to fix. You can't do a brothel-raid and rescue the girls and then two years later, set them up as hairdressers.

The article is no surprise to anyone working in Cambodia. What it misses out on is how much damage SMF (and Kristoff) are doing through this false narrative to the people trying to help and the people being hurt in human trafficking.

Boys on streets, young women choosing sex work through family pressure and lack of employment, and grooming and forced early marriage, fishing and domestic servant abuse - that's where the majority of trafficking and exploitation is now.

But I get asked about donating for rescued brothel girls ALL THE TIME. And then I have to explain that no, that doesn't exist now, it's actually these boys and this young bride who need help - people go back to SMF because she offers such a compelling false story.

And I am angry at Somaly for putting false stories out there instead of using all your media access to put real stories of Cambodian sex workers and trafficking survivors out. Their stories are messier but they are true. You don't get to be their voice when they can have their own voices if it meant turning the spotlight on them.
posted by restless_nomad at 9:52 PM on May 21, 2014 [24 favorites]

I get almost incandescent with rage about stuff like this, as someone with a great interest in and history working for aid orgs.

Because so very many people I interact with, both online and in the real world, have the most facile, pig shit ignorant understanding of aid and the aid sector, and it is absolutely premised on cliches about wasted money, greedy fat cats at the top, and fraud -and stories like this make more ammo for them to not bother caring or donating. Argh.
posted by smoke at 12:46 AM on May 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

update: Somali Mam steps down
posted by idiopath at 2:11 PM on May 29, 2014

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