Tonight, I had both the distinct pleasure and the absolute regret of viewing two screenings of two documentaries, both about sex trafficking. One was fantastic. The other was at best offensive, and at worst utterly exploitative.
I will start with the second film: Nefarious: Merchant of Souls, because I’d prefer to end on a good note. This film was absolutely infuriating for me. First, it claims it is a documentary, but is actually shot more in the vein of a witnessing movie… you know the ones – like, the anti-choice documentaries that show gratuitously over-acted scenes from fantasy land showing how everyone who has an abortion will first die and then be sent directly to the eternal hellfires of damnation? Yeah, that was what this movie looked like.
I had – thank goodness – a friend with me. We were able to discuss the film on our trip back to our cars, and we completely agreed on the implications of the film. First, the opening scene is like some kind of hellacious montage, overdramatized depictions of the story a trafficking survivor from Eastern Europe is sharing for the camera. It was obnoxious and distracting from the actual truth in her story. Instead there are screaming, crying women who are apparently there to grab your attention? As if SEX TRAFFICKING needs a HOOK to grab your attention. Right.
From here, it just gets worse. We visit Amsterdam’s red light district, where legal prostitution is mostly run by organized crime the government cannot control, and where legal brothels call up their suppliers when they need a new girl to have one “delivered like pizza.” This is horrendous. But there are no conclusions, just open ends as we move along to Asia. This is where it really gets good.
Racism. It’s an ugly, ugly thing. We are treated to a creepster white Christian “counselor” who appears through most of the film, and who is trying to “save” trafficked children. In itself, this is a noble cause; however, considering that this man is the exact profile – white, western, English-speaking, older – of the men who BUY these young children for sex, from their parents no less, why on EARTH would you think you are the appropriate face of this organization? That is first. Next comes the fact that no one of color or of ethnicity that is an expert is organized, not even in their own countries. This white man, obviously from America, is the only person interviewed about the Asian (oh, and we lump all of Asia together, which is totally not racist, because they’re all HEATHENS! Who are LAZY and don’t work and just SELL THEIR DAUGHTERS FOR SEX!! All of them!) child prostitution and sex trafficking – no actual Asian authorities or NGO workers or government workers are interviewed, at all. Did I mention this white western male do-gooder is Christian? You’ll see why that’s important, soon.
So then we move to good ol’ America. We talk to a couple of ladies who are part of Hookers for Jesus. The founder tells much of her story. She also – along with a few others – talks about the glamorous life she imagined she would live as a high end hooker/escort, and how the reality was beating after beating after beating, drug abuse, sexual and physical abuse at the hands of her pimp and her johns, psychological abuse, and near death. She even attempts to briefly talk about her pimp’s brainwashing and control of her body and mind, and how the cultural glamorization of pimps and prostitutes (think “Pretty Woman” which several women attributed to their own entrance into the world of prostitution). The film glosses over the intense sexual and physical abuse of these girls – 95% of those involved in “sex work” – prior to their entry at the average age of 13 into prostitution in this country.
Now comes the good part. These women are all white. Except the one black woman who returned to prostitution a month after her interview. AND at the end of the film we come to find out that these women have been SAVED by JESUS – that they still hate themselves and pray and apologize to Jesus everyday for what they have done. As if these women have ANYTHING to apologize for – as if it is their fault!? It is absolutely disgusting.
The film portrays the problem of trafficking as a “moral and spiritual problem” (that is a direct quote) rather than a cultural problem about attitudes towards women and sexuality. It portrays other cultures as being in need of salvation, in need of godliness, and of white western Christians as the bringers of redemption. It portrays anyone not white as being incapable of achieving this one their own. They interviewed no persons of color as experts. And the end is a call to arms for Christians to head into battle with prayer. Yes, prayer; because THAT is the action that is needed to help these women and turn over our culture. This film exploits the plight of women and children trafficked and forced into prostitution all around the world, exploits our cultural attitudes of women and children as those most in need of protection (presumably by white Christian men) , exploits the cultural misogyny inherent in a system which punishes prostitutes and gives Johns a free ride (this film, by the way, also says absolutely nothing about Johns, with the exception of one “_” who the director and a friend chase down and tell to never come back to this village) to demand an international prayer movement and a call to action for a battle for souls. Absolutely disgusting. Thankfully, this is the second film we saw, or I probably would not have attended the other. And it was phenomenal. So, to move on to a great note about a documentary done RIGHT –
The first film was called Sex + Money. This film was – I cannot say it strongly enough – phenomenal. I hope to own it when they release it and host showings for everyone I know. I am, already, in fact, planning to approach the group and my local Unitarian Universalist congregation regarding a screening to that group – they would love it.
It was well-done. No dramatizations or acting sequences to depict fantasy land. Instead, the facts are presented, from a number of men and women – still primarily white – regarding the trafficking and prostitution of women in America. This documentary actually discusses root causes instead of crying out for some magical prayer journey. They talk about sexual abuse being prevalent – again, 95% of those in “sex work” – in women in the “industry.” They talk about pornography, sex addiction, and an over-sexualized culture. They talk about the earlier and earlier exposure of young boys especially to pornographic materials, and that the average age of such exposure in persons committing sexual violence towards women is SEVEN YEARS OLD. They talk about the growing trends and popularity of sexual violence and aggression in pornography, and the mixed messages and expectations young boys are learning about sex from porn, and not from parents or school.
The film goes on to discuss really wonderful points, interviewing johns, police force, former pimps, trafficking survivors, experts, legislators and others. They discuss for more than 30 seconds the profound impact of the demand-side legislative and punitive approach that Sweden has taken on reducing both trafficking and prostitution in their country versus the increase in trafficking which is conferred legitimacy in places that have legalized of prostitution. They, in other words, approach this journey towards modern abolition as a multi-faceted fight which requires many different aspects of vigilance – starting, first and foremost, with the way we talk about men and women, and the way we talk about sex.