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


Sarah K. said...

Interesting point. But wouldn't the age of these girls clue the Johns in to the fact that they are not there of their own free will? As I understand it (and please correct me if I have the facts wrong), most of these "women" are actually very, very young. I would even go so far as to call them "children."

Ink and Beans said...

Sarah: I imagine the supposed age of the girl is enough to evoke doubt, on some level, as to how "free" she is. But denial is a powerful psychological force, and can make age seem quite arbitrary. After all, children can run away from home of their own free will, and can have sex of their own free will, so why can't they decide willingly to have sex for money? Who's to say the girl didn't approach the pimp, for protection, instead of vice-versa? Who's to say how young is too young? These are the kinds of mental acrobatics I suspect many johns perform in order to justify their own decisions. And while the girl's age may be estimated by sight, one can never be sure --prostitutes are trained to tell the john whatever he wants to hear.

Julie said...

I love your post! These thoughts may come out in a jumble, as I am up thanks to some pregnancy insomnia =)

I agree with you that while I am over the moon that such recognizable people are drawing attention to the issue, the average person does not think 'sex slave' when they hear the word prostitute. Instead the word, at least among many women, is met with disgust and an impulse to distance yourself from such a repulsive activity. Or maybe I am just a prude =) I was pleasantly surprised to see a booth at our local farmer's market, dedicated to trying to raise awareness about human trafficking and sex slave trade. I watched the booth for a few minutes while at a nearby farmer's stand and was not surprised to see how many people fled the vicinity once they realized the booth's message. Nobody wants to think about such ugly things while shopping for organic veggies on a beautiful Saturday morning.

As a mama to a young daughter, I find myself drawn to learning more about why our culture (and others) views women the way that we do, and a lot of it is incredibly disheartening. The sex slave trade thrives on the willingness of people to forego viewing women as people, instead viewing them as objects of pleasure, whose will and opinions are trivial at best. Taking an honest look at some of the widely accepted media (tv shows, movies, magazines, advertising, even children's toys and dance studios), it is easy to see why these messages are so ingrained into people's minds. {And it starts at such a young age, which is why my daughter's media consumption will be tightly controlled until she is old enough to have the critical thought processes and media literacy to process harmful messages from advertising!}

I have lived a rather sheltered life and I have no idea how many normal, everyday dudes end up being Johns, but I agree with you that most of them would probably think twice if they thought they were not with a willing participant. Other than serious jail time, there is probably no way to dissuade some of the fetishists, who would actively seek out a very young girl or men who know the girls are not willing to be prostitutes and enjoy the feeling of power derived from taking another's power.

An interesting side note to this issue is looking at the motives of women who actively participate in the enslavement of other women. I feel like it might have something to do with the underlying sexual objectification of all women in our society, in at least two different ways:
1. This culture sets up everyone, even women, to view women as objects and gauge their value on a sexual basis, making it easier to ignore the human aspect of their crime.
2. This culture encourages competitveness and among some women, which I think is at least partially motivated in trying to be the one to get male attention and approval by subverting another women. Jokingly called 'being catty' by some, I think it is really harmful for women to behave this way to each other.

Or people just suck. But I'd like to think there is hope for changing some of the bad things that go on in the world. As a mother, I am terrified of something like this happening to my daughter. Not only of the physical violence aspect of it, but of someone treating her like an object, less than a person, stomping on her strong and beautiful little spirit and opinions. And I am pissed and heartbroken at the same time for all of the spirits that have already broken under such treatment.

Thanks for giving this so much thought.

Ink and Beans said...

Thanks Julie! It's really nice to get this concerned mother's perspective.

I realize I never mentioned the "john schools" in my post, the first of which was started in San Francisco in 1995. Normal Hotaling, the founder, was one of our webinar guests. I love progressive models like this in criminal justice.

Maddy said...


I found your blog very interesting to read after watching a tv programme on trafficking ( I also find it great that such recognisable people are drawing attention to this awful matter, and also agree that their slogan could be better. You also make a good point that the types of men who would pay for sex wouldn't necessarily be 'real men' in this case, and feel rather ashamed in some cases. People should be made more aware of trafficking, as I had not really heard of it properly until recently (naive I know). However, is it ever going to be possible to stop trafficking completely? Sometimes it is the people in power who are also paying for sex (correct me if I'm wrong as this is just a thought), therefore, it would require a lot of skill to rid the world of trafficking. Your blog was very interesting!

Ink and Beans said...

Maddy: Thanks for reading and for your kind words! I agree -- it may be impossible to eliminate it completely. And it doesn't help that, yes, people in power are sometimes the ones paying for sex.

Lesly K said...

Very interesting article. I feel as though when celebrities endorse certain causes, they should also try to do something brick and mortar to alleviate problems. Perhaps DNA could've raised funds to give to charities or even trafficking crackdowns so that the money will be used to provide safe and caring environments for these women and girls, therapy and counseling, and perhaps even education and resources to help them get on their feet.

Emily H. said...

ok, so a half a year later… i read your post and you did get me thinking…
Jim, i'm real happy that you are bringing attention to this! It is a good cause to highlight and fight for (or should I say against?)
my thought is this - the people that are being targeted with these campaigns are probably not just the perpetuators (or perpetrators), but all the people who don't like or agree with it. bringing those people together, making that force bigger, making enforcement against it stronger is how the change will be made. trying to convince the perpetrators who want to take advantage of it to not want it any more is a tough battle (hence the massive cigarette addicted population today)
a small portion of the males who pursue these things, I'm guessing, will change their actions from these ads, regardless of what they say. in fact, if they are real desperate, i question if they may even enjoy the harm they do, in their own torturous, sick way. i hate to even say that. i hope i'm wrong! maybe i just don't understand the whole culture. but for the rest of them, as you explain, the shame is probably already there.
in that case, i really want to applaud your slogan because i think it touches on the right point. it gets my attention and gets me wanting to be involved, and i'm happy to say i'm not even a real man, but a woman! so think of how many more people that slogan speaks to. it speaks to the masses who can make the change! and it might even speak to the (real) men.
thank you for posting this!
i hope you're doing well jim, can't wait to read more of your writing :)

Aaron Hernandez said...

Lol... sean penn's gotta have quite a set on him. I guess he forgot about the time he tied up Madonna and beat her for hours.