I remember reading Somaly Mam’s stories in Half the Sky and The Road of Lost Innocence as a sophomore in high school. I remember feeling horrified and heartbroken by the traumatic experiences that she shared – experiences that reflected an egregious reality of ongoing sex trafficking and forced prostitution in Cambodia. I remember being inspired by her unfailing commitments to end modern slavery as the CEO of AFESIP Cambodia and the Somaly Mam Foundation, and remember expressing unchecked admiration as she “rescued” trafficked women and girls in brothel raids. I remember voicing my enthusiasm when a friend of mine said that she spent her summer volunteering with AFESIP Cambodia; recall showering compliments on my peers as they organized a local fashion show last April with all proceeds going to AFESIP.
And I remember all too well the incredible shock I felt when I read the Newsweek exposé two months ago, which revealed that her stories were fabricated; remember being unable to conceal my disappointment when the article mentioned that Somaly Mam encouraged girls to lie about their experiences and be depicted as victims of child prostitution.
— Newsweek (@Newsweek) May 21, 2014
For me, the Somaly Mam scandal has unveiled more than carefully cultivated untruths and exaggerations; it has also revealed a regrettable fall in journalistic standards. In addition to the fact that journalistic platforms like The New York Times, CNN, and TIME have failed to validate claims and conduct necessary background checks before presenting reports, this incident has shown that issues affecting women and girls – namely prostitution and sex slavery – often elude appropriate media attention. Simple, yet honest, testimonials from survivors of trafficking always fail to make newspaper headlines. Unfortunately, only when overblown tales of exploitation and abuse bedecked with images and video clips of gouged eyes and crying children are presented to reporters, can these highly relevant issues finally come to the fore and be recognized by our society.
Sensationalist and overdone, embellished and eye-catching, but at what cost? For one, false reporting has elevated Somaly Mam, allowing her to sit alongside a pantheon of anti-trafficking heroes. In the aftermath of these allegations, these well-intentioned anti-trafficking heroes have also been cast into a web of suspicion, simply because of their association with Somaly Mam. Somaly Mam’s deception has the potential to foster a “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” mentality and drive donors away from anti-trafficking initiatives due to justifiably overwhelming doubts about the integrity of the movement.
I will stress that Somaly Mam’s lies and exaggerations must not tarnish the good work or divert attention from the positive impacts that other anti-trafficking organizations and their leaders have achieved. Hundreds of organizations like Nepal’s Freedom Matters, Cambodia’s Agape International Missions, and the International Justice Mission, have ineffably exposed the horrors of the sex industry and helped women and girls who have been trafficked reintegrate into society. For their efforts to be sullied by one isolated scandal would be lamentable – to say the least.
An even more serious corollary of the need for sensationalist stories, however, is that attention is drawn away from the larger issues at hand: Sex trafficking and forced prostitution. I would like to emphasize that this debacle should encourage journalists to maintain a standard of ethics when reporting – just because someone claims to be a victim of human trafficking, does not mean that he or she is one.
In foregrounding falsified stories of Somaly Mam and the girls that she “rescued”, reporters inadvertently fail to spotlight the experiences of millions of women and girls across the world, who face the brunt of forced prostitution and slavery every day. When journalists stick to the over-hyped statistics, funds, and figure-heads, they stop women and girls who have survived trafficking from accessing the help, resources and funding that they genuinely need.
We must never stop believing that the sex trade can and will be uprooted — but for this eradication to take place, women’s voices must be amplified and valued. Even now, it is so difficult for a woman who has survived physical or sexual violence to be heard. Together, we must send the message that speaking out about abuse is not something to be ashamed of, and that having been abused in the past is not something to be ashamed of. The people who should be ashamed of themselves are the loathsome human traffickers and sex offenders – not the courageous, resilient survivors of slavery.
It’s also imperative that journalists take a departure from sensationalist tales, and not only report straight from unbiased, unfabricated data and testimonials, but also call for positive change in their writing without relying on the obligatory “blown out of proportion” statistics and overdone images.
I know there will be a day when writers do not silence the experiences of women who have been trafficked, simply because of the taboos attached to sex trafficking, or because the monetary profits of writing an unadorned, unexaggerated piece on forced prostitution are not high. Because the profits that arise when women and girls are empowered to raise their voices in the name of social change, I assure you, are far greater than profits borne out of deceptive writing, when one considers the bigger picture. I hope that that such a time will come sooner than later. Until then, we must keep making small steps towards positive change, and continue clamoring for these women’s voices to be heard.