In 2009, New York Time’s Nicholas Kristof told the story of Long Pross, a young girl forced into prostitution whose tortured, abused, and mutilated body bore witness to the deep scars left by the predatory sex trade: “Anyone who thinks it is hyperbole to describe sex trafficking as slavery should look at the maimed face of a teenage girl, Long Pross. Glance at Pross from her left, and she looks like a normal, fun-loving girl, with a pretty face and a joyous smile. Then move around, and you see where her brothel owner gouged out her right eye”. According to Kristof, the empty socket which marred the beautiful face of young Pross was only one of countless scars left by indurate brothel owners and pimps on the prepubescent bodies of tortured sex slaves.
Following the archetypical narrative of many of the victims Kristof writes about, “Pross was 13 and hadn’t even had her first period when a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh”. Kristof claims that Pross was tortured with electric current, locked deep inside the brothel, allowed to move only to pleasure Johns, denied the rights to keep her pay or wear condoms, and ultimately forced to undergo two “crude” abortions. According to Kristof, when Pross begged for rest, the brothel manager “gouged out Pross’s right eye with a piece of metal…Pross’s eye grew infected and monstrous, spraying blood and pus on customers”.
Eventually, Pross was rescued by Somaly Mam, a well know Cambodian activist whose 2009 memoir The Road of Lost Innocence brought attention to sex trafficking through her own harrowing story of exploitation in the sex trade. Due to her marketing savvy and chilling narrative, Mam attracted the attention of multinational organizations, celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, journalists like Nicholas Kristof, and was even listed among Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009. By 2011, the Somaly Mam Foundation attracted $2.1 million in revenue and incurred $3.67 million in expenses ( CNN 2014 ). Mam, a woman who claimed to have been sold by her grandfather into sexual slavery at the age of 14, became the face of the fight against sex trafficking.
However, in May of 2014, a Newsweek cover story exposed Somaly Mam for allegedly fabricating her own story and the stories of the young girls she championed. According to Newsweek, Somaly Mam was never sold for sex. Nor was Long Pross. When Pross was 13, a nonmalignant tumor which covered her eye was surgically removed. There were no electrical currants. No rape. No torture. No piece of metal gouged deeply into her eye. Those were lies. Lies propagated by Somaly Mam. And to some extent, lies encouraged by the Western media who had been captivated by increasingly horrific tales of sexual predation.
Like Pross, Meas Ratha’s testimony shook the Western world. Through tears, in 1998 she told the world about how she was sold as a sex slave to a brothel and held against her will. However, in 2013 Ratha also confessed that she had never been a sex worker. Her story was carefully crafted by Somaly Mam. Ratha auditioned for the part, rehearsed the details, practiced the tears, and ultimately performed the tragic tale for the cameras. Ratha came to Mam not to escape from the violent abuses of an evil pimp, but rather from the far less lurid (yet far more prevalent) quotidian violence of poverty.
When New York Time’s editor Margaret Sullivan asked Kristof to explain how he failed to see through Somaly Mam’s dissimulation over the years (as he steadfastly wrote about her heroism in multiple columns), he responded that despite the accusations of Somaly’s fabrications, “I am certain that the larger problem of trafficking in Cambodia is real”. He continued, “You ask about verifying facts in the developing world. Ages, names and histories are sometimes elastic…”. Here Kristof does essentially what each and every one of his columns does – sees the truth of exact events, dates, and ages as immaterial, inconvenient obfuscations of the Truth. “I’ve seen children for sale in Cambodian brothels,” Kristof argues. Somaly’s story may have been a lie, Pross’s story may have been one too, but they are mere fictionalized accounts of nonfiction, Kristof seems to reason. And this metanarrative of predation and stained innocence, that’s the Truth. The truth that matters.
The problem isn’t that Kristof was unlucky enough to be duped by a source, rather, that each week Kristof looks to feed his readership superlative suffering, traveling the world in search of ever more captivating victims and the heroes who save them. Long Pross was a perfect victim, and in turn, Somaly Mam the ideal savoir. Indeed, Somaly Mam was able to create and propagate fiction so easily because those listening believed her stories even before they heard them.
Like the dynamics surrounding the fistula industry, Somaly Mam’s story highlights the way in which the more violent and horrid a girl’s story, and the younger the girl, the more effective she is in raising awareness, indignation, and most importantly, money. As NY Mag’s Kat Stoeffel puts it, “It’s easy to see why news outlets and do-gooder celebrities flocked to Mam’s cause. The American media worries about no one as much as it does young women, in particular their sexual exploitation. The younger, the more fuel for our outrage”. “Mam brought to the cause the credibility of a survivor — however dubious — plus telegenic good looks to rival her celebrity advocates. It seemed like a perfect package”.
Despite the liberties she had taken with her own life story, Somaly Mam and “her girls” have raised money and heightened attention worldwide to sex trafficking in Southeast Asia. So, how important are the details? What’s a white lie when the illusion saves lives? Well, some believe that Mam’s loose relationship with the truth has ultimately hurt rather than helped Cambodian sex workers. After Cambodia was placed on a State Department watch list in 2008 (thanks to some degree to Mam’s advocacy work), brutal raids and “rescue operations” were carried out by the State. According to a Human Rights Watch report, rather than rescued, sex workers were abused, beat with sticks, fists, and even electric shock batons (at least two were reported to have been beaten to death), extorted and frequently raped at the hands of authorities during rescue operations and in detention centers.
In development and humanitarian aid advocacy, “white lies”, fabrications, embellishments, and souped-up stories masquerade as true reflections of suffering, justified by the belief in a greater good. But ultimately, this race-to-the-bottom competition for attention may only succeed in benefiting the industry carefully built around pet causes (be it sex trafficking, female genital cutting, or fistula) rather than the victims themselves.