Saturday, July 7, 2012

Right Cause, Wrong Message:
Demi and Ashton speak out against sex slavery and trafficking

It's been well over a year since I've posted anything on this blog that wasn't related to fundraising, but thanks to a friend's Facebook post and the ensuing dialogue this topic sort of fell into my lap (it may also be a stall-tactic to avoid more daunting writing projects) so here we go!

I've had what you might call an earnest, if amateur, interest in human trafficking for the past few years. While working at the Harvard Kennedy School I helped plan a series of webinars which focused on combating the problem (click here for an early example), and currently I'm working on a novel that features two central characters who are, or were, prostitutes and victims of human trafficking: There's Eury, who is trafficked from Moldova, and Badra (just decided on that name last night) trafficked from a yet-to-be-determined Near or Middle Eastern country.

Last night, in the early stages of fleshing out the Badra character, my creative brain grew weary and so I began tooling around on the Web to brush up on the latest human trafficking data. Today, by coincidence, a Facebook post drew my attention to the Demi and Ashton (or DNA) Foundation and their "Real Men Don't Buy Women" campaign, the goal of which is to "create a cultural shift around the implicit societal acceptance of child prostitution, and thus, child sex slavery."

The crusade features photos of Ashton, Demi, and several of their celebrity friends, each holding up the sign emblazoned with the campaign message. The photo caption lauds the celebrity's support according to their gender, e.g. "Bradley Cooper is a real man," and "Jessica Biel prefers a real man." The associated Facebook page encourages users to "Like" the campaign and upload their own "Real Men…" video --- there are no suggestions guiding what the video should include besides a sign, and if there are correspondent celebrity videos to accompany the photos I can't find them.

In short, the campaign strikes me as simple, no-frills awareness-raising that leverages Ashton Kutcher's purported savvy for viral internet promotion. The formula (as I understand it): Identify a worthy cause,get famous friends on board,make it hip, Tweet and Facebook the hell out of it. The architecture for spreading this simple message seems to be working --- the DNA facebook page already has 110,000 followers --- and I imagine the campaign would do some serious good, if only it featured a message that was on target.

First, let me say I admire DNA's efforts. I will assume that Ashton and Demi are reasonably well-informed about human trafficking, are valuable spokespeople for the cause, and I concede they have already done more than I have or probably ever will in terms of activism around this issue.

And they could not have selected a cause that is more worthy and urgent. Statistics on human trafficking vary widely (this fact sheet nicely summarizes what info we do have) but the UN estimates that roughly 800,000 people are trafficked each year, many of whom are women and children who are subsequently indoctrinated into the sex trade. Most activist organizations claim that human trafficking is one of the largest, and possibly the fastest-growing, criminal industry in the world.

My criticism of the DNA campaign concerns the message, Real Men Don't Buy Girls, which seems intended to shame customers (aka "johns") and potential customers away from paying for sex. But the shaming is redundant. I don't have data to back this hypothesis, but my instincts compel me to believe that paying for sex is, at least for many men, an act of shameful desperation. They can't get sex, or sex with the kind of woman they want, legitimately, so they resort to paying for it, an act that is not only illegal but considered by many to be immoral and even pathetic. That's why it's done in secret.  I assume exceptions exist, but I personally don't know anyone who brags about sex they pay for.

An awareness campaign that targets men should instead aspire to raise awareness of the coercion, extortion, and brutality that often accompany prostitution, a reality to which many men may be completely oblivious (typical victim scenarios can be found here). Those who profit most from the sex trade, the traffickers and the pimps, typically remain behind the scenes, which allows the john to naively conclude that the prostitute has made her own life choices, independently and free of undue pressure, is not a victim, and that the laws prohibiting prostitution are implemented primarily to preserve a standard of sexual morality, rather than to protect girls from harm.

Granted, the truth will not be a deal-breaker for everyone, but one must wonder:  Would the average, first-time john be as likely to pay for sex if he knew the horrific road the girl had traveled to be inside that hotel room (or inside that curtained cubicle) with him?  Would he be as likely to enable such malevolent forces if he knew what the girl's life was like when she was not busy fulfilling his sexual needs? Or what her life would be like,in five or ten years, when her body is aged and her spirit is broken? I doubt he would.

I'll go further, and argue that male sexual insecurity is part of what creates demand in the first place, in which case the DNA shaming-message may be exacerbating the problem. Having beautiful celebrities doing the shaming just makes the campaign absurdly ironic on top of everything. Look at the photos. Who among them has ever been truly desperate for sex? I mean come on, Justin Timberlake??? Having Justin Timberlake say "Real men don't buy girls," is like Warren Buffett preaching "Good folks don't steal from the tip jar." If you insist on the shaming route, you might at least find some famously un-attractive people for your campaign (How about Michael Moore? Or Tom Petty?), people who, before they were famous, may have had to weather the occasional dry spell, but forewent paying for sex, deciding instead to heed their better angels and remain "real men."

So what's the right message, then? Awareness, I repeat, is not cure-all, but it's a vital component in any effort to reduce and prevent this atrocity. Moreover, awareness may be the "low-hanging fruit," so to speak, our opportunity to exert the most influence using the fewest resources (the virtue of the "Real Men" campaign is that it probably didn't cost a dime to implement). The consequences of paying for sex, in terms of its facilitating the victimization of women and children, should be as clear to potential johns as lung cancer and heart disease are to potential smokers.

In that spirit, I suggest the following alternative.

Attention MEN:
Prostitution is not a victimless crime.

It's not as pithy (eight words instead of five), but it accomplishes two things the current DNA message does not. (1) It corrects a popular and pernicious misconception. (2) It evokes an urgent question—why not?—for the under-educated recipient, a question that may inspire curiosity... enough curiosity to, say, click a link, peruse some facts about trafficking, read some victim stories, and so on. In other words, it asks the recipient to do some work, and to meet our well-intentioned informers (Demi and Ashton, et al) halfway.

Like most, I believe Justin Timberlake is a talented and infallible boy-god, so if I'm a john, I'm not especially moved when you hit me with bad news I already know: You're not a "real man" like JT over here.  Ha!  No shit.

If, on the other hand, you show me a photograph of Justin Timberlake brandishing new information, about people who are suffering, you can bet your ass I'm listening, and that I'll want to know more.

*Photos from