Across the globe, a new variety of ‘spiritual’ leader is arising to cheers from the grim faced populace. The ‘moral’ guardian. We have no truck any longer with men in long black dresses, with books full of unbelievable factoids and fantasies, as guides for what is right and wrong. They cannot be ‘trusted’, they cannot be believed.
In their place, we have a new variety of celebrity ‘spiritual’ leaders. We are encouraged to accept everything they say; they ‘know more than they can reveal’, they are privy to the innermost secrets of dark and dangerous practices that we must be protected from. We cluster round them, anxious to hear more of their factoids and fantasies, as guides for what is right and what is wrong. Can they be any more believed than the men in black dresses? Does it actually matter if their claims are any more believable than that of feeding the five thousand on five little fishes? Surely the ‘good’ that they are achieving in righting wrongs matters more than whether the back story that led them to prominence is accurate or a flight of fantasy?
When you appoint yourself the ‘moral guardian’ of a ‘vulnerable child’ or ‘vulnerable adult’ by the very label of ‘vulnerable’ you have undermined their ability to think or act for themselves. You have invalidated whatever decisions they made in life in a manner that they can only escape by going along with your solution. The ‘moral guardians’ have a veritable lexicon of emotive words – trafficked, enslaved, trapped, abused, disempowered – that they use to place their chosen victims in a trap of the guardian’s choosing. Is that trap any better than the one they are apparently being rescued from? If we are to believe that it is, then it is important that we have total faith in the ‘rescuer’, the moral guardian. We cannot have that faith if they are not truthful.
Is there any difference between the qualitative value of a priesthood that takes the spare cash, to support itself, of a deprived population on promises of a better future in the hereafter, the lawyer that takes a chunk of charity money, to support itself, from a damaged population on promises of a better future with ‘compensation’ or the NGO who takes government money, to support itself, from a damaged population on promises of a better future working in a sweat-shop? The NGOs, the lawyers, the priests, the moral guardians, all have a similar ability to prey – or pray – on people enslaved by their chosen labels.
It has taken us hundreds of years to question whether the victims of the priesthood (and though I use the term priesthood, I actually refer to all organised religious groups) might actually have been better off without their tender ministrations; fortunately, there are still a few determined journalists who are questioning the morals and motives of those NGOs who support their lifestyle by claiming never ending grants for saving ‘vulnerable adults’ – in the latest case, that of the ‘victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia’. Simon Marks, his name is, and a brave man he is too; he will no doubt be labelled a ‘rape apologist’ for daring to question the behaviour of those who seek to ‘rescue trafficked women’ from a life of ‘enslaved prostitution’, for it is out of the question that any mere woman could have chosen to let herself be so ‘abused’ by evil men, nor that any sort of life would not be better than ‘selling her body’.
Simon has been following the progress of Somaly Mam as she rose to prominence on a tsunami of emotive credentials built on her back story of a tragic survivor of sexual abuse in a mysterious world of tribal villagers and sacred spirits. It was a world as unknown to most of us as is the hereafter – we had to trust the story teller. Mam was able to escape her alleged life of servitude by her own efforts – she met and married a Frenchman, Pierre Legros. It is strange how often the moral guardians are themselves untouched by the supposedly inescapable evils that others must be protected from.
Mam and Legros formed an NGO, one which appealed to the media. They were going to rescue the helpless, hapless Cambodian girls from a lifetime of being forced to sell their bodies. The very idea that this might be a choice for some of the girls was a heresy; that they may chose to ‘escape’ of their own volition unthinkable. A moral guardian on the warpath is a near unstoppable force. Only a rape apologist could possibly voice such a thought.
Somaly Mam produced victims with excruciating stories for the media’s delectation. Long Pross, who ‘had an eye gouged out by an angry pimp’; Meas Ratha – ‘sold to a brothel and held against her will as a sex slave’. Mam herself claimed when she was invited to speak at the White House that she was ‘sold into slavery, aged 9, and spent a decade in a brothel’. Money and resources poured in to defeat this evil, these stories that ‘any journalist would want’. The focus of the US State Department shifted from counterterrorism to anti-human trafficking – many of the staff transferred from one department to another. Same people, different funding source. There is big money in fighting the good fight.
This good fight was little more than a Chimera; Meas Ratha has admitted she fabricated her story; Long Pross has suffered the indignity of being proved a liar when her medical records were unearthed and it was seen that her damaged eye was the result of a childhood tumour; Somaly Mam has resigned from the foundation after publication of more of Simon Mark’s meticulous journalism finding her old school friends testifying that she not only finished secondary education but then went off to teacher training college with them…
Now a few lies in the back story of those who are apparently doing so much good in the world might not matter, were it not for the inconvenient truth that those apparently ‘saved’ by Mam are then implanted into sweat shops – working for low wages for men producing cheap t-shirts worn by college students studying ‘gender issues’ in the US. It is just possible that some of those rescued had actually escaped from the sweat shops to a chosen lifestyle of sex worker. It’s scarcely progress is it – except for those carefully positioned in the middle, who pick up awards and grants along the way.
[Mam] was named a “Hero of Anti-Trafficking” by the U.S. State Department in 2007, Glamour’s “Woman of the Year” in 2006, and one of Time’s “Most Influential People” in 2009.
The counterpart to Mam’s evocative stories is Thomas Steinfatt, a professor of statistics at the University of Miami, who has done several reports on sex trafficking for the U.N.’s Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking.
In a 2008 study, for which he spent months conducting surveys in all corners of Cambodia, he estimated there were no more than 1,058 victims of trafficking in Cambodia and has said the situation has improved markedly since then.
The number of children, both those observed as sex workers and those mentioned by management or by sex workers in the 2008 data, was 127, with 11 of the children verifiably under age 15 and six under age 13. The high-end estimate for the number of children likely involved in sex work in Cambodia in 2008 was 310 children.
There is money and resources out there for those willing to do or say the right thing. Like the young women who lied for the media at Mam’s urging.
“A large number of organisations get sucked into using children to raise funds: making them talk about the abuse they survived in front of a camera, having their picture in a pitiful situation published for everyone to see. In worst cases, the truth is distorted or the stories invented to attract more compassion and money. The impact on the lives of these children is terrible: If they come from an abusive situation, such a process re-traumatises them and in any case it stigmatises them forever.”