Controversial Cambodian Activist Fights Sex Trade with Commentary By The Author of This Blog Following

Controversial Cambodian activist fights sex trade

Sold into a brothel as a child, Cambodian activist Somaly Mam has become one of the most recognisable, glamorous and controversial faces of the global anti-sex slavery movement.

Friday 25 May 2012, 11:17AM

Cambodian Somaly Mam speaks on a tour of the New York City Family Justice Center on March 12, 2010. Photo: AFP
The quirky, energetic campaigner boasts a string of celebrity supporters and has been named a CNN hero of the year, but she is as divisive among anti-trafficking activists as she is beloved by the international press.

Most recently, Mam kicked up a storm of controversy when she allowed her “old friend,” New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof, to “live-tweet” a brothel raid in the northern Cambodian town of Anlong Veng in November.

“Girls are rescued, but still very scared. Youngest looks about 13, trafficked from Vietnam,” Kristof wrote to his more than one million followers on the Twitter microblogging website, in remarks that trafficking experts say raised questions of safety and consent.

For Mam, who created the anti-trafficking organisation AFESIP and now runs an eponymous foundation, the benefit of the attention Kristof brings to trafficking issues outweighs the security concerns.

“Even if you’re not tweeting it is also dangerous… but if (Kristof) tweets it, it’s better because more people get awareness and understanding,” Mam told AFP in an interview during a visit to Vietnam.

Tania DoCarmo of Chab Dai, an anti-trafficking group working in Cambodia, said the raid coverage was an “unethical” PR stunt which broke Cambodian anti-trafficking laws and which “sensationalises” a very complex issue.

“Doing ‘impromptu’ coverage of children in highly traumatising situations would not be considered ethical or acceptable in the West…it is inappropriate and even voyeuristic to do this in developing nations such as Cambodia.”

AFESIP says it has been involved in rescuing about 7,000 women and girls in Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam since 1997.

In Cambodia alone, there are more than 34,000 commercial sex workers, according to a 2009 government estimate.

Mam, who is in her early-40s but does not know her exact year of birth, was sold into a brothel in her early teens by a man who she says was either her grandfather or an uncle and then repeatedly raped and abused until, after watching a friend be killed in front of her, she managed to escape.

Within the anti-trafficking field, Mam takes a controversially hard-line stance: all sex workers are victims, whether of trafficking or circumstance, as no woman would really choose to work in a brothel.

“Sometimes a woman – she tells me she is choosing to be a prostitute (but if you ask) how about your daughter? You want her to be? She’ll say: No, no, no’,” said Mam. “(they) have no choice”.

This position, which underpins Mam’s reliance on brothel raids as a tool to fight trafficking, enrages other activists, such as the Asia Pacific Sex Worker Network, which argues consenting adult sex workers need “rights not rescues”.

Sweeping raid-and-rescue operations and police round-ups of street-based sex workers are not only ineffective, experts say, but lead to “systematic violations of sex workers’ human rights,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a 2010 report.

Mam’s organisation, AFESIP, has also been criticised for accepting sex workers picked up during Cambodian police round ups which HRW has said constitute “arbitrary arrests and detentions of innocent people”.

Mam dismissed HRW’s assessment.“The first time (a sex worker) come to the shelter she don’t want to stay … because she don’t know us,” Mam said, adding that women are so “broken” by sex work they want to stay in the familiar surroundings of the brothel.

“I always say: please, can you just stay one or two days, treat it like a holiday,” she said, adding that if women chose to stay in the brothels she respected that decision.

Mam says she tries to listen to and learn from criticism of her tactics and approach, adding that she has “made a lot of mistakes in my life,” and has never claimed to have all the answers to how to end sex slavery.

“What I know how to do is just helping the women.”

Commentary by The Author of This Blog:

I take a very strong stance on why not all sex work is victimizing to women. For a 13 year old girl, I definitely see that it is wrong for her. For women who are forced into Prostitution, it is equally repugnant, but for many sex workers, especially, here in the United States, we have chosen this work not because we were somehow forced into it. I, myself have 2 degrees – 1 in Social Work and a Master’s in Rehabilitation Counseling. I chose, of my own free will to become a Cam Girl, and I not only enjoy the work I do, but I see it as an extension of not only the Independent Living Movement, as someone with a disability (I have Bipolar Disorder), as an expression of my Sex Positive status, and as an exercise of my freedom of expression. In our country, we have the right to do this work, and I am exercising my right as a free American woman to choose what I love to do. I see nudity as something to be celebrated, not as something shameful. I see men, not as the enemy but as fellow human beings. That we both happen to desire sex is fabulous and not negative. I have given what I do a lot of thought. As a 43 year old disabled woman, I was terribly unhappy doing traditional work, and I believe very strongly in my work and support the work of others, such as Violet Blue and Tristan Taormino. These 2 women approach not only Sex Commentary, Education, and Pornography from a well-informed, intelligent, and feminist perspective, but are also educating many people – men and women, included about how to approach sex from an open-minded perspective. In the 21st Century, sex work has transformed into something to be celebrated and not as something to be feared. I also think that it is too easy for people to simply tow the political line of the past by conforming to traditional views of sex.

I also want to make another statement about whose body this is. My body is mine, and I should be able to choose what I do with it. What I find highly offensive is when anyone – man or woman decides to tell me what I can and cannot do with my body. I like to be in control of my own destiny. It is not up to someone to choose for me what I do, with whom I live, how and with whom I have sex, what type of sex I choose to have, or what views I can have regarding sex. In the way that you cannot decide for me what religion I choose to believe in, what friends I choose to have, or even whether I choose to give birth or not; it is up to me to decide how I express my sexuality. It is too bad when anyone makes assumptions about who we are, because I have a good grasp of the larger issues at hand, and I also spent many years fearful of making any mistakes, so I stayed too safe, and now I am enjoying every minute of my new life as a free woman.

What Somaly Mam is doing probably seems right to her based on her experiences, but I do not share the same ones, therefore, my choice to do this might seem strange to her. I was not raped, sold into Prostitution, or forced to use my body in the way that, I assume she was. I do not have the benefit of asking her this, directly, but I did read what she wrote, and it sounds to me like she thinks she is doing the right thing. I will say that I find Child Pornography offensive, but I leave it up to Law Enforcement to handle that problem. It would be inappropriate for me to try to do their jobs for them. When I chose to do Social Work, I did not choose to be a Generalist. That, too, is the mature choice I made. If people still want to shake their fingers at what I do, let them criticize, but I am doing something I firmly believe in, and I also want to support other women in their choices, because sex between consenting adults is not only legal, it is a lot of fun, too.

Thank you,

Stephanie J. Golden, B.S.W., M.S.R.C.