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Dear Friends: I'm sending another long epistle today.

Kristof has continued his series of articles (BELOW THIS NOTE) about sex trafficking in Cambodia with the piece below, "Striking the brothel's bottom line."

While he's on the right track (I fully support combating demand for commercial sex), there are some important observations to make about this article.

First, (and this is not a critique of Kristof) note that the brothel keeper in this story is a woman. This is not uncommon. There are many women who play roles as pimps, brothel keepers and traffickers. Some of them have actually moved up from prostitution to run the establishments that at one time treated them like meat for dogs. Such was the case with a woman I met several years ago in Bangladesh. She had been sold into prostitution at age twelve, but years later was running the brothel. Her survival strategy can be summed up in the old expression, "If you can't beat them, join them."

In Kristof's article, it is unclear how Ms. Khorn came to be a brothel owner. Whatever those circumstances may have been, there is nevertheless, great irony in her reported frustration with her husband for having sex with women/girls in the brothel. The very purpose of her business was to allow men (many of whom have wives) to purchase sex. So, it's okay for other women's husbands to pay for sex, but not her own (I actually imagine he didn't bother paying since he was one of the bosses)! The irony is heightened all the more by her expressed concerned about her 13-year-old daughter growing up in an atmosphere of leering, drunken men. Again, it's okay for other women and girls to be used by drunken and lustful men, but not her own daughter! It would be worse if she had lacked concern for her daughter and allowed her to be prostituted. Still there is heartlessness in her double standard of concern for her daughter, but disregard for the lives of those she so freely bartered with.

Second, Kristof again makes the classic error of believing all that meets the eye. While discussing the brothel keeping practices of Ms. Channa, he says she appears not to be enslaving anyone!

My friends, if you had been prostituted from the time you were 11 or 12 (or God forbid even younger) I can assure you, that you too would by the time you are 18 look every bit the "professional" prostitute. You would be resigned to your life in the brothels; you might even want to stay there. And why not? What education have you had (other than how to give blow jobs, etc)? How would you learn a living? You've had no formal education, you have no job skills, your family expects you to contribute to the family income, you may have developed a drug addiction, and the only life you can remember involves men sexually abusing you. Congratulations! You are now what Kristof and many in the world call a "voluntary prostitute."

My guess as to why Ms. Channa doesn't have to beat or torture anyone is because she using "seasoned" women, or women desperate to feed themselves and their children and desperation is hardly a marker of liberation.

In July 2008, I circulated an article to the list by Kathleen Maltzahn about a major trafficking case in Australia. Ms. Maltzahn's article was excellent and portions what she articulated are very relevant to this discussion. She wrote: "The alternate view is that being on "contract", being forced to pay off imaginary debts of up to $50,000 through unwanted prostitution, is indeed a modern form of slavery. We should not look for shackles - the enslavement tool of the transatlantic slave trade - but rather at the impact of the slave traders, at their power to reduce a person to a commodity.

We often think of slavery in terms of ill-treatment, and imagine that violence is unrelenting. But slavery does not necessarily mean constant abuse. Eighteenth century slave trader Humphrey Morice had firm views on the treatment of slaves - he thought they should be treated well. "Take care your Negroes have their Victualls in proper Season and at regular times and that their food be well boyled and prepared," he told his captain in 1721, "and do not Sufferr any of your Shipp's Company to abuse them".

She continues thus: It doesn't matter if women have mobile phones, it doesn't matter if they are taken on outings, it doesn't matter if they have food and drink. If a person's agency is taken away, if their identity is stolen, if they cannot remove themselves from violence, and if they can be bought and sold at whim, they are slaves. This is the reality of many women on "contract" in Australia. Whether or not we can see this present day form of slavery, and not just look for its past manifestation, is a test of our capacity to recognise a crime against humanity.

At the end of the day, however, it is perhaps not our views that are most important. The final word should go to the women who say they have been trafficked, and in the McIvor case, the women's statements are very clear. "I don't know why they treated me that way," one woman has said in her victim impact statement, "as if I was not a human being."

The point is that if you are looking for chains and fetters on prostituted women you are looking for 18th century signs of slavery in a 21st century world. Sex traffickers of today have modernized tactics that don't depend on the extreme forms of violence Mr. Kristof is so fond of writing about. Don't get me wrong. Sex traffickers use violence all the time, but that violence is only one tool in their arsenal.

Moreover, women/children quickly realize that acquiescing to the demands of traffickers is their sole means of surviving, as these women testified to the U.S. Congress: “Janna told us that we would work as prostitutes and that there was no sense in resisting or complaining ? in fact, it would be dangerous to do so. She threatened that if anyone tried to escape to the police she would be severely beaten since they have their own people in the police and runaways would be returned regardless and punished. I decided not to behave aggressively and pretended to be completely compliant; I even tried to demonstrate frustration when clients did not select me.” (Testimony of Masha Gnezdilova, for the U.S. House International Relations Committee, June 15, 2006.)

They took my passport and informed me that there was no waitress job and that I was expected to work as a prostitute. When I objected, they told me that if I wanted to go home I had to pay back the 1000€. I tried to rrefuse and they beat me. When I threatened to go to the police, I was warned that the police had been bought off and that without my documents I would be considered a criminal. They said that all the pimps are working under the protection of the police. They control the girls with the help of the police. They showed me photographs of dead girls who had tried to go to the police. I was terribly shocked and afraid. I decided that the only way to survive was to cooperate . . . . Viktor and the other pimps reminded all of us constantly that they knew where our families were and they would kill our children if we tried to escape. (Testimony of Irina Veselykh for the U.S. House International Relations Committee, June 15, 2006.)

Finally, Mr. Kristof calls for sting operations to arrest buyers and sellers of virgin girls. I fully support efforts to arrest buyers of commercial sex, and those that traffick women and children to meet their demand for sex. However, if I didn't know better, I would think I was reading some piece of 19th Century literature where men venerate the virtue of young ladies, but have no problem shunning them once someone has taken advantage of them. Virgin sales are despicable.

But so too is the trade in women and girls whose virginity was stolen from them long ago.

Striking the Brothels Bottom Line
POIPET, Cambodia

In trying to figure out how we can defeat sex trafficking, a starting point is to think like a brothel owner. My guide to that has been Sok Khorn, an amiable middle-aged woman who is a longtime brothel owner here in the wild Cambodian town of Poipet. I met her five years ago when she sold me a teenager, Srey Mom, for $203 and then blithely wrote me a receipt confirming that the girl was now my property. At another brothel nearby, I purchased another imprisoned teenager for $150.

Astonished that in the 21st century I had bought two human beings, I took them back to their villages and worked with a local aid group to help them start small businesses. I've remained close to them over the years, but the results were mixed. The second girl did wonderfully, learning hairdressing and marrying a terrific man. But Srey Mom, it turned out, was addicted to methamphetamine and fled back to the brothel world to feed her craving.

I just returned again to Ms. Khorn's brothel to interview her, and found something remarkable. It had gone broke and closed, like many of the brothels in Poipet. One lesson is that the business model is more vulnerable than it looks. There are ways we can make enslaving girls more risky and less profitable, so that traffickers give up in disgust. For years, Ms. Khorn had been grumbling to me about the brothel — the low margiins, the seven-day schedule, difficult customers, grasping policemen and scorn from the community.

There was also a personal toll, for her husband had sex with the girls, infuriating her, and the couple eventually divorced bitterly. Ms. Khorn was also troubled that her youngest daughter, now 13, was growing up surrounded by drunken, leering men.

Then in the last year, the brothel business became even more challenging amid rising pressure from aid groups, journalists and the United States State Department's trafficking office. The office issued reports shaming Cambodian leaders and threatened sanctions if they did nothing.

Many of the brothels are owned by the police, which complicates matters, but eventually authorities in Cambodia were pressured enough that they ordered a partial crackdown. They didn't tell me to close down exactly, said another Poipet brothel owner whom I've also interviewed periodically.
But they said I should keep the front door closed.

About half the brothels in Poipet seem to have gone out of business in the last couple of years. After Ms. Khorn's brothel closed, her daughter-in-law took four of the prostitutes to staff a new brothel, but it's doing poorly and she is thinking of starting a rice shop instead. A store would be more profitable, grumbled the daughter-in-law, Sav Channa. The police come almost every day, asking for $5, she said. Any time a policeman gets drunk, he comes and asks for money. ... Sometimes I just close up and pretend that this isn't a brothel. I say that we're all sisters.

Ms. Channa, who does not seem to be imprisoning anyone against her will, readily acknowledged that some other brothels in Poipet torture girls, enslave them and occasionally beat them to death. She complained that their cruelty gives them a competitive advantage. But brutality has its own drawbacks as a business model, particularly during a crackdown, pimps say. Brothels that imprison and torture girls have to pay for 24-hour guards, and they lose business because they can't allow customers to take girls out to hotel rooms. Moreover, the Cambodian government has begun prosecuting the most abusive traffickers. One brothel owner here was actually arrested, complained another owner in Poipet, indignantly. After that, I was so scared, I closed the brothel for a while.

To be sure, a new brothel district has opened up on the edge of Poipet — in the guise of a karaoke lounge employing teenage girls . One of the Mama-sans there offered that while she didn't have a young virgin girl in stock, she could get me one.

Virgin sales are the profit center for many brothels in Asia (partly because they stitch girls up and resell them as virgins several times over), and thus these sales are their economic vulnerability as well.

If we want to undermine sex trafficking, the best way is to pressure governments like Cambodia's to organize sting operations and arrest both buyers and sellers of virgin girls . Cambodia has shown it is willing to take at least some action, and that is one that would strike at the heart of the business model.

Sexual slavery is like any other business: raise the operating costs, create a risk of jail, and the human traffickers will quite sensibly shift to some other trade. If the Obama administration treats 21st-century slavery as a top priority, we can push many of the traffickers to quit in disgust and switch to stealing motorcycles instead.

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground.

Please also join me on Facebook, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

This message is forwarded to you by:The Initiative Against Sexual Traffickingc/o The Salvation Army
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