The Nation, 5 October 2009

nation 5 october 2009We take sexual violence seriously here at Los Thunderlads, and so welcome the first installment of The Nation‘s investigation of sex trafficking and of what’s being done in the name of stopping it.  The first part looks at some projects that don’t seem to be helping; the second part will look at other approaches that might represent an improvement.

At the opening of this first part, Noy Thrupkaew interviews Gary Haugen and Patrick Stayton of International Justice Mission, an evangelical Christian group that stages vigilante raids on brothels in southeast Asia; Thrupkaew then talks with other people who have tried to help the women and girls IJM has “freed,” finding that many of them wind up returning to sex work, if anything finding themselves more helpless after the raid than they had been before.  Not only did IJM dump their “rescuees” with other NGOs, simply assuming that those organizations would somehow take care of them, they made no effort to differentiate between, on the one hand, women who had chosen sex work as the least worst option available to them and, on the other, women and girls who had been forced or deceived into it.  Nor did they choose their allies intelligently; IJM’s strategy of working closely with the Cambodian police seems rather dubious when we read one Cambodian policeman’s confession of the nightly rapes he and his colleagues perpetrated against the sex workers in their district, and when we read reports that many Cambodian policemen are active in sex trafficking rings.  Thrupkaew closes this first part of the series with the voices of two other women who are on the ground in Cambodia trying to help victims of sex trafficking there:

For Marielle Lindstrom, weighing the balance of IJM’s work in Cambodia is a difficult task. Formerly chief of the Asia Foundation’s anti-trafficking project, Lindstrom was in charge of disbursing the major USAID grant on the issue and served as main coordinator on Cambodia’s anti-trafficking strategies, convening a task force of government officials, ministries and more than 200 NGOs. She acknowledges that IJM is “doing a good thing rescuing the children” and could have a strong positive effect should its training be incorporated into the national police academy, but she is torn about the overall impact of the organization’s work.

“In the end,” she says, “it’s the way of thinking that troubles me. Do you want to make a difference in one person’s life, or change the system? Many people are here because they’ve been called to do something, they have a calmness and a conviction. They know this is right. For me, I’m only human. I doubt myself all the time. I need to consider different approaches. I’d much rather say that God tells me to do this. It would be easier.” Lindstrom sighs again. “Because what about your responsibility to a fellow human being, to what they want? Do we ever ask them? Some see proof of their faith in that one person they rescue. That’s my concern–there’s no self-doubt. It didn’t cross anyone’s mind to work with sex workers on the law, for example. And we talk about the minimum standards of assistance, but victims are not consulted in the creation of those standards.”

Before I left Cambodia, I met with the secretariat of the sex workers’ collective. Three of them had been trafficked–although I didn’t ask for details, they provided them, their stories of deception by friends and family.

At the end of our conversation, I asked if they had any questions. They had only one. “Sister,” Preung Pany said, “we tell our stories to so many journalists, so many people like you, but then nothing changes. Still we are raped by the police, still there are young ones in the brothels. There are so many people working on this–the rescuers, the HIV people, people like you–and so much money going into this problem. But why doesn’t anything change?”

In this same issue, Katha Pollitt’s column reviews Half the Sky, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, mentioning Kristof and WuDunn’s story of “Srey Rath, a Cambodian teenager lured from rural poverty with promises of a restaurant job in Thailand, only to be sold into sex slavery in Malaysia, where she was raped, beaten, drugged and, after escaping and spending a year in prison as an illegal immigrant, sold back into a brothel–by a policeman.”  So I suppose Cambodian chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police might be canceling its subscription to The Nation.  Pollitt has been a frequent critic of Kristof’s work in this area, but praises this book.  She does wish it had gone further in some areas:

And what about the West? The book underplays sexism here in the United States, which is portrayed as an egalitarian paradise where “discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay”–oh, that–“or underfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss.” I wouldn’t call the roughly 1,300 American women murdered annually by intimate partners, or the widespread incidence of unwanted pregnancy and childbearing, mere details. If women’s equality is the great cause of our time–and I hope it is–we’ll get further by acknowledging it as a challenge no country has yet fully met rather than by framing it as a Western crusade.

Indeed, it is where the goal of liberating women confronts US foreign policy that the book is weakest. Poverty is not the only cause of women’s subjugation–look at Saudi Arabia–but it’s a crucial factor. When America was poor we too had fistula and 14-year-old brides and street children. Where will the money come from to give millions of third world women–and men–education, healthcare, good government and so on? Probably not from US foreign aid, currently just 1 percent of the budget. And probably not from abandoning trade policies that protect US cotton and sugar at the expense of African farmers either. Kristof and WuDunn breeze past the West’s role in creating and sustaining global inequality, as they do the matters of US wars and support for repressive governments. Instead, they offer heartwarmers in which small donations and inspired volunteers work miracles: a girl stays in school because Camfed gives her a uniform; a visit from Heifer International sends a girl to college, a $65 microloan from the Pakistani Kashf Foundation turns a battered wife into a respected partner. To be sure, these groups do good work, as do many others–CARE, Women for Women International–but individual philanthropy can go only so far.

Half the Sky makes such a strong case for gender justice, it demolishes so successfully the unthinking moral relativism that shrugs at atrocities, and it fills the reader’s heart with so much sympathy and indignation that its modest prescriptions come as quite a letdown. What if, for example, instead of spending $650 billion annually on “defense,” we were to build schools and clinics throughout the developing world–and keep them staffed and supplied? What if we dedicated ourselves to safe childbirth for everyone, and contraception, and electrification, and clean water and, sure, microloans–but not at the 30 percent interest rate typical today. If all that were to happen, before long we’d be living in a different, better world–for everyone.

Elsewhere in the issue, Stuart Klawans reviews Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds, pointing out that “It came as no surprise that every reaction to Inglourious Basterds came as no surprise.”  Rather than trying to pretend that we need to read a review to decide whether we will see the movie, Klawans gives a concise summary of the Hollywood business model which explains the fact that we don’t need to read a review of it.  Hollywood, Klawans explains, releases two sorts of movies.  The two sorts are alike in that they make their profits from people who watch them at home.  The difference is in the role theatrical release plays in their profit structure.  Tier One releases, big-budget popcorn movies, need to make $60m in their opening weekends to recoup their production costs; Tier Two movies, the so-called “independent films,” use theatrical release primarily as a device to build word-of-mouth.  Tarantino, officially an “independent filmmaker,” gets to have it both ways, making an action movie starring Brad Pitt that opens on 4000 screens, but having a reputation as an auteur that insulates him against a slow start.  Klawans then moves on to 35 Shots of Rum and Bright Star,  a couple of European films which are not subject to Hollywood’s two tier model.  “Entertainment reporters would call them niche films.  I’d say that niche is as big as all outdoors.” 

Alex Cockburn has a column about the apparently pandemic level of outright lunacy in American political life that includes some snappy lines:

Now move from the nuttiness of his detractors to the madness of Great Ones, in this case President Obama. His rhetoric is decorous, but the delusions are just as ripe and far more lethal than those of the Glenn Beck demonstrators under his window. How is one supposed to rate the rationality of a person who wins the White House in large measure because of popular outrage at the disastrous war in Iraq and who then instantly ratchets up another war in Afghanistan–an enterprise for whose utter futility history both ancient and modern offers copious testimonies?


The 1970s are back, or so claims People magazine. I can see why. It’s nostalgia for the last sane decade in American political life, when people assayed the state of the nation amid the embers of the ’60s and of the Vietnam War and elected politicians who passed some admirable laws. It seemed America might totter into the warm sunlight of sanity. It was Ronald Reagan who truly credentialed nutdom, setting the national thermostat at max degrees F, for Fantasy. The Republican Party is now entirely populated by mad people. Walk through the Congress and watch them babble and throw excrement at the walls. Then survey the “good” inmates mustered in the Democratic aisles, led by a president who at least once in the last campaign invoked Reagan as a positive force. They’re less rambunctious but just as lethal, perhaps more so, in their depredations.

People start to go collectively crazy when they know that all the exits from our present state into the world of constructive reason are locked. Just think–a president elected on a huge wave of popular hope, unable to twist a single arm in his own party; unlikely even to pass financial reform amid the greatest wave of public hatred of Wall Street since the ’30s; trying to pass off as healthcare “reform” a gift to the insurance industry of 30 million new customers, to be required by law to pony up insurance premiums and then be cheated. Doesn’t that make you crazy too?

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