One thing Obama can ignore in his first week in office

(In light of the continuing debates about how US sex workers understand trafficking, I’m crossposting this from my personal blog.)

Nicholas Kristof has been issuing ad-hoc Presidential guidance on the sex trade for years now. The archive of his editorial column in the New York Times serves as a record of his proposals. In 2004, he “bought the freedom” of two women working in brothels in Poipet, Cambodia with the intention of returning them to their villages. Kristof wasn’t prosecuted under US law for the purchase of sex slaves – he wrote of this sale as an “emancipation,” and in 2005, he was back in Poipet to check up on the women. One had returned to prostitution, prompting Kristof to offer another round of recommendations to President Bush, pleading with him to commit the United States to a New Abolitionism.

Now he’s back with his 2009 agenda, delivered like the others, as a kicker to his column. In it, he asks that the Obama administration pressure the Cambodian government to bust more brothels, on the premise that the risk of going to jail for selling sex will hurt brothel owners’ profits and will protect more women from abuse and violence. Yet such stings and raids are already the centerpiece of a disastrous crackdown on Cambodian prostitution. The Bush administration has supported the raids of Cambodian brothels for at least as long as Kristof has been demanding they step up a fight they are already in – and losing.

It was under threat of sanctions from the United States that prostitution was outlawed in Cambodia. The resulting government-sponsored raids on brothels did not lead to a great improvement in the lives of women and girls. Instead, the same police tasked with “liberating” women from Cambodia’s brothels have been accused by human rights groups of abusing these same women.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

In a video made by members of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), one survivor of what was called a “rehabilitation center” relates the story of being gang raped by six members of the police force: “They raped me from one after the other… the last one didn’t use condom because I got only five condoms. I told him that I have HIV but he was not believe me. He said if I had HIV, would have scar on body, not so smooth.” Another woman survivor describes her time in the Koh Kor rehabilitation center. It sits on the same island that was once home to a Khmer Rouge prison and execution camp. She explains that when she asked questions about why she had been taken in against her will, and what was wrong with what she was doing, she was repeatedly beaten by her captors – the police. These are the people – the police, and the government officials who have operated brothels in a network of corruption – that Kristof would like us to trust to combat violence.

Setting a human rights agenda for the United States will be an enormous challenge for Barack Obama and his incoming administration, with a host of failed Bush campaigns to contend with. His handling of so-called “sex slavery” will be but one. When considering how he ought to proceed, to undo damage done, and to improve human rights around the globe, Obama should look not to Kristof and his urgent cries, but to those women who are currently imprisoned and violated by the people who were supposed to “save” them. To endorse brutal, violent raids and “rehabilitation” as a solution to the brutality and violence of coerced prostitution ignores the evidence that raids do nothing to discourage abusive conditions — they perpetuate them.

11 Responses

  1. The so-called “New Abolitionism” is nothing but another form of Western imperialism over poor nations.

    It’s so easy to pick on Cambodia, an extremely poor country recovering from it’s genocide in the 70’s. Just raid the brothels and send the women to Khmer Rouge concentration camps.

    Mr. Kristof, do us all a favor and start spending your holidays in France in Spain or Italy.

  2. Here’s a little gem that I picked up from the comments section over at the Times:

    >>>Nick, you can join the cops who lock up hookers while letting johns go free because journalistically, that’s what your articles are doing.

    You cover the victims, the mamasans and the police, but not the johns. You cover the poverty and corruption that allow sex trafficking to flourish, but do not address the specific form of sexism that gives rise to it. This is no more “amorphous” an issue than the other two.

    I might go so far as to say that taking on such issues as corruption and poverty in the world is noble of you, but not particularly effective given how engrained they are. And yet you propose concrete solutions: micro financing, governmental pressure, etc.

    How about putting sexism right up there with poverty and corruption in your coverage? Don’t tell me that it’s too broad an issue to dissect. You’re a brilliant NYT journlist. If you –and the NYT–can’t elevate it beyond being a topic for women’s concerns and women’s magazines, who will?

    Please PLEASE do this. You’ll get a lot of people yelling at you all over again for doing so, but you should be used to that by now.

    I will keep reading–and waiting.

    — Vickery>>>

    If Vickery thinks long and deep about this, she’ll realize the reason why Nick doesn’t focus on the johns.

  3. Rather than focusing on the clients, I think the bigger issue is how Kristof is promoting policies that are resulting in major human rights violations against sex workers under the guise of fighting human trafficking.

  4. Another issue Kristof doesn’t consider is that journalists and anti-trafficking agencies that walk into brothels that “don’t have virgins in stock” in order to buy them for a story or a sting operation might actually be fuelling the demand for the very girls they aim to save.

    The incidence of child trafficking in Cambodia has hugely decreased in the past 5 years, largely due to a pragmatic policy of focussing scarce resources on child trafficking- a policy undermined by the new anti-trafficking law that spreads out scarce resources to “rescue” and save everyone involved in the sex industry.
    By offering poor people huge amounts of money for virgins, much higher than locals would be able to afford, people like Kristof and agencies like IJM probably lead brothel owners who wouldn’t otherwise do it to weigh up the risks with the dollar benefits and go out and get some poor kid to sell.
    Don’t the anti-trafficking types call that “fuelling demand” ???

  5. Yes, that’s true, Andrew.

    Kristof goes into a brothel and asks for a virgin, and the owner says she doesn’t have one but she can get one for him.

    Now everyone knows how easy it is to get an under-aged virgin in Cambodia.

  6. What he fails to mention or even consider is when he asks for a virgin, someone has to go out and find one- so maybe there is now a girl sitting in a brothel in Poipet who was kidnapped or bought off desperately poor parents just for Kristof.

    I think in this lot of stories and his earlier ones in 2005 and before, he broke a number of Cambodian and US laws- which at the very least puts this into the realm of highly unethical journalism- although I think it’s actually much worse.

    The whole thing seems highly stage managed and timed so that the stories reached a saturation point in the media just as Hillary was before the Senate committee. And his call for greater crackdowns and more raids in Cambodia come just as the Cambodian government has started to respond to our complaints and listen to our alternatives to the current law.

    I don’t think it is a coincidence.

  7. AH said: I don’t think it is a coincidence.

    No its never a coincidence. Slave owner Kristoff, is a very savvy media person and any media savvy person knows how to time their piece for maximum effect.

    One of the reasons I feel so passionately about labor school for hooker, is because we have to get our minds wrapped around the above level way of organization for ourselves in combinations with some actual skills, like media skills. And I’m not talking about being a media whore for the cause, I’m talking about employing labor rights perspective and principals to expose these levels hypocrisy with the goal of getting at least equal time. I think prop k opened up lots more media options for us and we ought to be working to get more articles and interviews out there and that takes some team work.

  8. Can anybody provide an update on the situation in the Phnom Phen detention center where sex workers were (or perhaps still are) being raped, beaten, and robbed by police and guards? The last I heard, sex workers were released in late June.
    Have any more sex workers been arrested and taken to this detention center?
    Are the law enforcement abuses against sex workers in the detention center continuing?
    Are sex workers continuing to die in the detention center due to being denied needed medical care? Have the police and guards who perpetrated the abuse ever been held accountable?
    I would greatly appreciate any information people could provide.

  9. I’m reposting these two links because they provide evidence of the bad effects of the TIP in the place under discussion, Cambodia. These don’t come from sex worker activists but from mainstream local media:

    http://www.nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin/us-anti-sex-trafficking-law-causes-police-violence-in-cambodia

    http://www.nodo50.org/Laura_Agustin/cambodia-ladyboy-rescue-effort-goes-wrong

  10. One of the centers was closed, but at the other we got reports from sex workers who escaped that they were forced to sign statements that they were there voluntarily.
    The Cambodian Deputy PM has said that police found guilty of abuses will be charged, but that sex workers have to make official complaints. They are too scared of reprisals to do that; and the govt says that they cannot accept a ocllective complaint from WNU as the legal union representing sex workers. WNU and APNSW are pushing for them to do an internal investigation based on the huge amount of evidence we have collected- but under the Cambodian legal system this is apparently quite difficult, as it is based on the French civil code which requires a complaint for a magistrate to investigate.

    There are still sweeps of sex workers going on in Phnom Penh- but less of them. The government has declared a drug war (again under immense international pressure) and are now busy rounding up street drug users- many of whom sell sex to earn a living.

    We do have some good news though, some provincial governors have ordered raids to stop, we have been told that HIV positive sex workers are to be released and that no more are to be sent to the centres; and the big news is that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs have reportedly asked for further implementation of the law to be suspended. We have a lawyer in Phnom Penh who is working on what this actually means and how we can push the process- and I’ll send out updates on this in the next few days.

  11. Hopefully their whole funding base will disappear between the billion dollar bailouts and new administration.
    I rather like the idea of the haters having to go to Hilary for money with nothing to show for their 8 years of war on the whores. pathetic

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