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From Somaly Mam to “Eden”: How Sex Trafficking Sensationalism Hurts Sex Workers

After one investigation surrounding an anti-sex trafficking activist, Somaly Mam, sex worker rights activists have been working to expose another former sex worker’s story as a sensational, dishonest trafficking narrative.

(Photo: Blondin Rikard / Flickr)

Megan Griffith’s 2012 film Eden opens with the silhouette of a man lifting the lid of a car trunk. Inside is 19-year-old Hyun Jae moaning through a gag taped to her mouth. Jae and her kidnapper are on their way to a warehouse prison in the remote southwestern desert, where a human trafficking ring keeps a group of teenage girls captive. The next 30 minutes of the movie are a gut-wrenching depiction of sex slavery. Jae, nicknamed Eden by her captors, is tortured into submission, forced to service johns and even chained and whipped in a BDSM film.

With its gratuitous shots of teenage sex slaves living every day in their underwear, Eden could be seen as a dramatic sexploitation flick, but viewers can rest easy, because, the rationale goes, it’s all for a good cause. Anti-human trafficking groups receive a portion of the film’s proceeds, and the film’s producers make it clear that Eden is based on a true story. That story, however, has recently been called into question, and some activists claim that Eden may be based on an outright lie.

Eden supposedly follows the life of Chong Kim, an award-winning writer and activist whose survival story has been trumpeted as proof that sex trafficking is not some faraway, third world problem and must be tackled in the United States as well. Sex worker rights activists, however, have been busy poking holes in Kim’s story, working to expose it as another sexually sensational but dishonest and misleading trafficking narrative – a tale that is good for fundraising juggernauts but bad for human rights and public policy.

On her public speaking agency’s website, Kim is featured next to Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times columnist who recently washed his hands of Somaly Mam, the Cambodian anti-trafficking activist. Kristof championed Mam until her very public fall from grace in late May, when she resigned from her own foundation after a Newsweek investigation revealed that she fabricated parts of her own story of being sold as a teenager and forced to work in a brothel, and even had young women at her shelters rehearse made-up stories about being trafficked for Western cameras.

As the Mam scandal was unfolding in the world media, Kim’s skeptics were quietly combing through her writings and video interviews on YouTube, and another sensational human trafficking story began to crumble under its own weight. Then, last month, as sex workers and their allies tipped off this reporter to the holes in Kim’s story, an anti-trafficking group publicly denounced Kim as an outright fraud who uses a dramatic fiction to milk cash from human rights groups.

Another Sex Trafficking Sensationalist?

In 2004, Kim published an essay titled “Nobody’s Concubine” – a reference to the way her escorting clients viewed her due to her Korean heritage – in a compilation called Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. Kim’s early story is a tough one but has little in common with Eden. Kim writes that she suffered abuse at home and was dumped by her high school sweetheart after being raped by an acquaintance as a young adult. She started working as a stripper and then for an escort service after escaping an abusive boyfriend and falling on hard times. Her experience as a sex worker was not a positive one. She used drugs, was abused by clients and suffered from low self-esteem until she met a boyfriend who helped her leave the sex industry.

Missing from the essay, however, is the desert warehouse full of teenage sex slaves in Nevada and the daring escapes described in her later accounts. Over the years, Kim’s story has grown more lavish and sensational as the bad guys morphed from abusive clients and boyfriends to international gangs of kidnappers, pimps, human traffickers and johns that included law enforcement agents and even an unnamed former state governor.

In 2012, Kim told a Texas reporter that she engineered her escape by earning a spot as a “madame” and gaining the trust of her traffickers by helping run their business. She said that she then escaped the trafficking ring while running errands. In an interview recorded earlier this year, Kim described becoming a madam, and said that she made her escape at a Las Vegas hotel by seducing a maintenance worker into giving her the blueprints to the building, which she used to make a James Bond-style dash through heating vents and a laundry chute. This version of the story also includes descriptions of rape and torture that helped inspire the Eden script.

Penelope Saunders, a harm reduction and human rights activist with the Best Practices Policy Project, has been reflecting on Kim and Mam. For nearly two decades, Saunders has been casting a critical eye toward wings of the anti-human trafficking movement that routinely use questionable statistics and horrific tales to raise millions of dollars in donations.

“There’s a sensational desire to tell more and more graphic stories. Once you get caught up with that, there is so much pressure to keep the story going,” Saunders said. “It’s like a machine, and it is linked to other kinds of fascinations in other kinds of media.”

Recently, Breaking Out, a small human trafficking “rescue” group that had considered working with Kim, released a statement accusing Kim of “fraud, lies, and most horrifically capitalizing and making money on an issue where so many people are suffering from.” Breaking Out deleted its original online statement after receiving legal threats from Kim’s lawyer, but soon released another statement on Facebook cataloguing blatant inconsistencies in Kim’s statements about her past. Breaking Out activists suggested that unraveling Kim’s story was as simple as reading her memoir and then typing her name into Google.

The group also dug up court records revealing that, in 2009, Kim pled guilty to a felony “theft by swindle” charge and was ordered to return $15,000 to another human trafficking victim and activist in Minnesota.

Eden publicist Jim Dobson recently told Truthout that he had not heard from Kim or her representatives and could not comment. Dobson did not respond to follow-up emails from Truthout. Kim said she would discuss questions from Truthout with her attorneys but did not respond by the time this story was published.

Dobson also did not respond to questions on how much of the proceeds from Eden benefited the anti-trafficking cause, but a look at the benefiting organizations listed on the Eden website reveals that fundraising to stop modern-day slavery can be lucrative. ECPAT-USA, a New York-based anti-child trafficking group that lists Kim as a member of its advisory board, brought in $2.1 million in revenues from 2010 to 2012. The Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) reported $2.1 million in contributions in 2012, and the Polaris Project brought in nearly $7.3 million during the same year.

Kim has never named names, for fear, she says, of retribution from her alleged pimps and traffickers, who have apparently never been busted. At this point, it remains unclear which version of her fragmented story is true. Trauma, of course, can have serious and confusing impacts on the mind, and if Kim is working to end the exploitation of woman and minors, then what’s wrong with embellishment?

There’s more than one answer. Groups like Breaking Out may say that anti-trafficking activism should be humble and honest, not a sensational, moneymaking machine. For the sex workers rights movement, however, the implications of sex trafficking sensationalism are much more dire.

As journalist Melissa Gira Grant recently pointed out in The New York Times, Somaly Mam’s campaigns may have provided wealthy Westerners with some feel-good philanthropy, but her “portrayal of all sex workers as victims in need of saving encouraged raids and rescue operations that only hurt the sex workers themselves.” Sex workers in Cambodia have told human rights activists that they were detained and assaulted by authorities during police crackdowns on brothels, and some of Mam’s so-called victims have even attempted to escape from her shelters.

It’s no wonder that Kim, who has worked directly with law enforcement and groups that conflate many types of sex work with human trafficking, is now a target of sex workers’ scrutiny. Sex worker advocates routinely debunk the alarming statements and statistics shared by anti-sex trafficking groups, which are good for fundraising campaigns but often based on conjecture because underground economies are so difficult to study.

Such advocates, along with human rights groups like Amnesty International, have long argued that when sex workers are lumped into the panic surrounding human trafficking, they face an increased threat of exploitation and human rights abuses. Labeling anyone in the sex trade as a “victim” in need of “rescue” robs them of autonomy and agency while ignoring the fact that many sex workers are marginalized and just as likely to experience violence, abuse and harassment at the hands of NGOs and police as they are pimps and traffickers.

“When sex worker rights advocates start sounding alarm bells, listen and be careful about what you are supporting – often where your tax dollars are going, and where your individual donations end up, is in the hands of the vice squad,” Saunders said.

Nationwide FBI Crack Down

In June, the FBI worked with local law enforcement agencies in 106 cities across the country to conduct its annual, weeklong crackdown on child sex trafficking known as Operation Cross Country. The FBI began the sweeps in 2003 as part of The Innocence Lost National Initiative, a multimillion-dollar effort to rescue minors from prostitution and sex trafficking. The FBI hailed its 2014 Operation Cross Country as a great success, with 168 minors recovered and 281 “pimps” arrested.

A 2008 study on underage teenagers selling sex in New York City found that only 9 percent of males and 23 percent of females said they had a “market facilitator” or pimp, and the vast majority worked alone. So why do the FBI’s numbers seem to imply that every underage prostitute has at least one pimp or trafficker, if not more? Operation Cross Country’s most impressive statistics, it turns out, are not directly related.

To track down the sex trafficking victims, local cops staked out casinos, truck stops, “street tracks” and escort websites to apprehend sex workers and then glean information on efforts to exploit minors. In each city where the FBI publically released the results of the stings, the number of adults selling sex who were apprehended by authorities greatly outnumbered the minors. In many states, minors cannot be prosecuted for prostitution, but anyone 18 years or older certainly can.

In eastern Tennessee, no minors were recovered during the stings, but eight women were arrested for prostitution, four women were arrested for promoting prostitution, three men were cited for soliciting, and two women were arrested for “human trafficking,” although the nature of the alleged trafficking offenses are unclear. In Portland, one minor was recovered, and police cited 20 adults for prostitution.

In Arizona, five minors and 42 adults “who were being victimized through prostitution” were recovered during the sting. Like his counterparts in other cities who were contacted by Truthout, FBI spokesman Special Agent Perryn Collier in Phoenix did not know how many of the suspected adult prostitutes were handcuffed, detained or charged with crimes. A spokesperson for the local prosecutor also told Truthout that he didn’t know if charges had been filed and failed to respond to several follow-up emails. An FBI statement made it immediately clear, however, that 21 “pimps” and 41 “johns” were arrested on state and federal charges.

FBI statements from other cities were similarly opaque. Adult prostitutes were “identified” and “interviewed,” but it’s unclear if they were detained, arrested and are now caught up in the criminal justice system. When the FBI was more transparent about who ended up in jail, feminist blogger Emi Koyama crunched the numbers and found that, for every few dozen minors the FBI “rescued” from selling sex, hundreds of adults were arrested for doing the same.

“On average, there have been 1.5 minors identified in each city and 10 to 50 sex workers, which places this year’s estimate at about 2,000 sex workers arrested and placed into forced diversion programs,” said Carol Fenton, a Portland-based social media activist and blogger who follows Operation Cross Country. “The number of ‘pimps’ arrested continues to increase, as fellow sex workers, friends, boyfriends and spouses who’ve driven [workers to clients] or placed ads are now being arrested.”

Collier said the FBI’s sex trafficking enforcement is “pimp-centric” and prostitution “victims” of all ages are offered services such as counseling, safe shelter, food and medical care. He said the FBI has “victims witness specialists” on the scene of busts to address emotional and psychological harm, and give them the option of participating in prosecutions against pimps and traffickers.

Fenton is skeptical of the FBI’s victim specialists, and pointed to a recent news story on Operation Cross Country in the Bay Area that described a specialist interviewing a sobbing 16-year-old girl in a hotel while she was handcuffed to a chair.

“There are proven harm reduction solutions to these issues, and grabbing someone off the street and scaring them in a hotel room, and cuffing them, and interviewing them while they are cuffed, and allowing a reporter to quote them in a newspaper is probably not OK,” Fenton said.

Collier said the FBI is simply trying to “rescue” victims. He portrayed interacting with law enforcement as akin to therapy, as opposed to a situation that could potentially land someone in mandatory diversion classes or, for repeat offenders, behind bars. Harm reduction activists like Saunders and Fenton say that interacting with law enforcement and the criminal justice system can seriously interrupt someone’s life and even be traumatic. As Truthout has reported, cops in cities across the country have been called out for abusing suspected sex workers and profiling LGBT youth, women of color and gender non-conforming people as prostitutes.

“Most of the people being rescued are adults and there is no way of finding out what’s happening to them,” Saunders said. “They are caught up in the criminal injustice system, getting processed, getting a criminal record . . . you know they are not getting helped at all.”

But what about the minors “rescued” by law enforcement? The FBI reports that its Innocence Lost initiative has rescued roughly 3,500 minors “from being exploited” since 2003, although the agency’s definition of exploitation is unclear. The FBI does not release information about these cases because they involve minors. Subsequent investigations lead to 1,450 criminal convictions (in comparison, more than 3,300 adults were arrested during Operation Cross Country from 2005 to 2012).

Fenton worries about what happens to the children after they are “rescued.” Will they be returned to an abusive family or foster home that they were running away from? If they have nowhere to go, will they simply end up in a miserable shelter or detention center before facing the foster care system?

In a recent article on surviving sex trafficking and the perils of the foster care system, survivor Tara Burns points out that the so-called “rescue industry” that has sprung from the anti-trafficking movement causes so much harm that the Global Alliance of Trafficking in Women wrote a 250-page report about it in 2008.

Burns also references The Bad Encounter Line, a participant-driven research project on violence experienced by girls in the Chicago sex trade, released by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project in 2012. The group found that police were responsible for the highest number – about 30 percent – of violent encounters, and the local family services department was responsible for 6 percent of violent encounters. Pimps were responsible for 4 percent. Police were also responsible for 11 percent of violent sexual encounters, almost three times as much as pimps. Statistics like these can explain why sex workers, even those who are underage, may not be crying tears of joy when the cops bust in to “rescue” them.

The World’s Oldest Debate

The questions surrounding sex workers’ rights and the effort to end sex trafficking revolve around one of the oldest and fiercest debates in the women’s movement, and if feminist Twitter disputes are any evidence, that debate is still raging today. Some believe the sex trade is inherently exploitive of women and that most sex work must carry the distinct markings of coercion, manipulation and violence that define human trafficking. For others, human trafficking has nothing to do with sex work, which is simply work that some people choose to do for a variety of reasons, most often to simply get by.

Survivors with stories like Somaly Mam’s and Chong Kim’s are celebrated by the prostitution-abolitionist feminists who have made unlikely bedfellows with conservative Christians to form the wing of the anti-trafficking movement that often finds itself at odds with sex worker advocates. These heart-wrenching tales paint prostitution as a male-dominated world of torture, pain and exploitation that woman must be saved from, even if that means working with police. Sex workers cheer when these stories fall apart because police put sex workers in jail.

Activists like Saunders, however, recognize that the worlds of sex work and sex trafficking should not be painted in black and white. She said that stories like Kim’s are much more exciting than the real experiences of people involved in the illicit sex trade, but those real-life stories are just not good enough for the evening news.

“I’m not skeptical about [sex trafficking] abuses, but there is something very wrong in the trafficking framework in the way that it turns people into silent victims rather than people who are active with rights,” Saunders said. “There is more than a 100 year history of the anti-trafficking and white slavery narrative being used to lull an unsuspecting and unconcerned public into thinking that they are doing the right thing.”

Saunders said that she believes that most activists, regardless of ideology, are trying to do the right thing. But when it comes to human rights and sex work, she said, doing the right thing is often much more complicated than calling the cops or donating 75 cents a day to a starving child on TV.

“Something that sex workers rights advocates do very well is to make people think very hard about this, and harm reductionists as well,” Saunders said. “We are not doing police ride-alongs to pull people off the streets for their own good, which, in some ways, gets you a lot of media coverage and a lot of funding. But we’re here for the long haul to find meaningful solutions.”

In the meantime, you can safely bet that the world’s oldest profession is not going to disappear anytime soon, and neither will the controversy surrounding it. The same goes for Chong Kim, who is scheduled to publish a new edition of her memoir Broken Silence under the new title In My Own Words by the spring of 2015. You can also bet that sex workers will be reading it, red pen in hand.

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