The tragic political trajectory of the old feminist anti-pornography movement (now largely converted into a campaign to fight trafficking) has reached a new low. At the premieres of the 2008 movies Trade and Holly—respectively sponsored by NOW-NYC (the New York City branch of the National Organization for Women) and CATW-International (Coalition Against Trafficking in Women)—I watched in amazement as both groups endorsed appallingly sexist portrayals of damsels in distress and of gallant men riding to the rescue, all in the name of feminism. Worse yet, in neither case were the organisers concerned that their chivalrous knights appeared disturbingly fixated upon the teenage women whom the camera and script sexualized again and again.
Trade, starring Kevin Kline in a lack-luster performance, is a film about a hard-nosed cop with a heart of gold who saves a group of enslaved girls. The fantastical premise of this movie begins when a sweet 13-year-old virgin (and yes, it is important that she be a virgin) is literally chased down and kidnapped while riding her bicycle through the streets of a poor neighbourhood in Mexico. While the movie is supposed to be based upon Peter Landesman’s much criticized New York Times Magazine article about ‘sex slaves’ (which itself featured a suggestive cover photo of a purportedly underage victim), even Landesman’s creative reporting techniques failed to dig up any such incident. The kidnapping-sex trafficking story is little more than the addition of organized crime to the old “The man in the bushes is gonna getcha” myth. The truly creative element is passing this classic B-movie hokum off as ‘feminism.’
In perhaps the most original departure from Landesman’s text, the movie’s gay director, Marco Kreuzpaintner, personally insisted on including a scene in which a boy is also presented as a victim of sex trafficking (most writers seem to find male rape too unsettling to include). However, the sexual demands of the straight audience seemingly prevented him from giving too much screen time to this victim. Instead the movie goes through several scenes in which the sexual horror that girls and women experience as a result of sex trafficking is explicitly revealed. In one unlikely scene, the victim’s older brother catches up to his sister just at the very moment that she is forced to pose provocatively for a photo session. (Do not brothers sometimes sneak peeks at their sisters? He does watch the scene from the bushes!)
Wouldn’t you know it, the only way for our heroes to rescue the young damsel in distress is for them to pose as sex clients who wish to have sex with her (Relax. I’m sure it has nothing to do with unconscious fantasy, despite the fact that the police know the address of the brothel and—in real life—would raid the place in a second). In the movie, however, the good guys get to participate in an online sex auction, and…. they successfully buy the virgin!
Scenes in which real-life ‘rescuers’ pose as clients as they conduct their ‘investigations’ are all too common. It is a standard practice of the Christian group International Justice Mission, and New York Times editorialist Nicholas Kristof has written numerous times about two Cambodian women whom he ‘purchased’ before freeing. The possibility that posing as a client—or that ‘buying’ two young women—hides something more than a benevolent desire to help is simply never broached (have none of these people even heard of Freud?!). And in real life, the fact that many ‘victims’ fail to share in the erotic fantasy life of their rescuers is revealed by the fact that many run away from the rehabilitation facilities where they are taken in order to return to work in the brothels.
But back to our movie. Having successfully purchased this virgin 13-year-old through the online auction, the Kline character shows up at the brothel where he is told at gunpoint that—get this—he must have sex with the girl directly in front of the traffickers, or else! He doesn’t want to, but now…well, he has no choice! The script writer Those evil traffickers are forcing him! Fortunately, our clever hero figures out a way out of this, but not before the helpless heroine ‘mistakenly’ expects him to rape her. Our hero is so tragically misunderstood!
Holly is a far better movie than Trade, but it is even more laden with sexual innuendo. It’s actually quite a good movie if you are looking to see just how creepy the “rescuers” can be. Unfortunately it was not taken this way by CATW, which used the movie as a simple fund raiser, nor by the US State Department’s top anti-trafficking official, Mark Logan, who spoke after the film along with the co-producer and co-screenwriter Guy Jacobson.
Jacobson explained that the movie was based on his experiences in Cambodia, where he ‘happened to stumble upon’ a group of young children (5 to 7-year-olds) who offered to sell him sex and blow jobs. Where one has to be in order to just ‘happen’ across such a scene, I do not know. But I am pretty sure it is not listed in either the Michelin Guide or Lonely Planet. (The film itself invokes a guilty conscience about this matter. When the hero, played by Ron Livingston, tells off a ‘genuine’ client, saying “I don’t sleep with little girls, you sick fuck,” the man replies, “I beg your pardon. What are you doing here then?”)
Subsequent to his disturbing experience of being solicited by truly young children, Jacobson did what any normal person would have done: he spent a great deal of time investigating the matter in as close-up and intimate a manner as possible. According to a review in the JewishJournal:
Jacobson drew on his experience in Israeli intelligence during the Lebanon War to research "how a 12-year-old prostitute really feels" in Phnom Penh. While posing as a pedophile client, he chatted with the girls, their pimps and clients in cafes and "bought" a time upstairs with various girls in order to photograph their rooms, which were tiny, dirty, and decorated with magazine cutouts of puppies and kittens (he would ask them to take a shower so he could snap pictures and tell them he wasn't in the mood when they returned.)
This is the man the CATW wishes to hold up as a role model? This is the man the US State Department endorses? Are there any male anti-trafficking crusaders who do not find it necessary to pose as clients?
Holly features yet another virgin, this one a 12-year-old (you’d be surprised at how many virgins wind up in the sex biz). This one lives in a brothel, but has not yet been forced to sell sex. Will our hero be able to save this sweet pre-teen before her virginity is sold on the open market? Sadly, no. But along the way he spends a lot of quality time with the still untouched virgin, somehow befriending this 12-year-old Cambodian girl who speaks little English and initially rejects him. Despite this, she somehow ends up in his arms again and again (was this part based on real life too? No? Just an imaginative plot device? Hmm…).
Livingston’s character eventually catches up to the no-longer-virginal girl, paying for the girl’s time though she seems to no longer even recognize him. To the hero’s horror (no doubt!) she treats him like any other client and offers to have sex with him. Livingston’s character attempts to win back her friendship, and in a scene that might well have been directly inspired by Nabokov’s Lolita, he takes the 12-year-old shopping for clothes. These efforts eventually pay off, and the rescuer finally has a ‘breakthrough’ moment with the girl. Yelling at her that he only wants to help, he pulls her into the shower with him in order to wash off her make-up, enabling her to break down and cry despite her initial feeble attempts at resistance (Paging Dr. Freud, there’s a shower scene in Theater 2).
But the offers for sex are not yet over. The still ‘whorish’ girl victim soon declares her love for the hero, and suggests marrying him, saying “I want you buy me” and “Go America. I wife you” (Good thing Jacobson did all that research in order to make the movie more realistic!). Livingston’s character of course rejects these suggestions, but it’s truly amazing just how many opportunities for sex with young girls the rescue business offers a guy! The JewishJournal adds (apparently without irony) that “The filmmakers included neither sex nor nudity in order to avoid exploiting the subject matter.” Phew! No nudity = no exploitation. Glad we got that cleared up!
There are still more suggestive scenes in Holly, to such an extent that at least some reviewers, such as Jeff Shannon of the Seattle Times, note that the movie “discreetly hints” that the hero’s attraction to Holly is “not entirely platonic.” Nevertheless, these clues seemed entirely lost upon the crowds with whom I saw the movies—at least the point was never brought up in the post-film discussion—and other reviewers offer such oblivious praise as “‘Holly’ is about what happens when you’re too personally touched to leave it at that” (LA Times).
The constitutive power of rescue fantasy
It seems even those who recognise the not-so-hidden desires of the protagonists fail to see how this same illicit desire structures not only the movies but much of the anti-trafficking narrative as a whole.
Despite their deep-seated prurience, both films were presented by feminist, anti-trafficking groups in New York, and both films featured premiere screenings at the United Nations. No one less than Hillary Clinton sat as an honorary member of the host committee for the UN showing of Holly (which was also sponsored by the feminist group Vital Voices, a group Clinton co-founded; Trade, meanwhile, was co-sponsored by Equality Now, for which Gloria Steinem acts as a trustee).
Far from being treated as the sexual fantasies they so clearly are, these films have been treated as if they were highly realistic instances of investigative journalism. Trade is a “so-so” movie, says Entertainment Weekly, “but as an exposé of how the new globalized industry of sex trafficking really works, it's a disquieting, eye-opening bulletin.” Paste Magazine claims that “Holly exposes child sex trafficking,” while the New York Times labels it “a documentary-fiction hybrid.” The JewishJournal goes so far as to suggest it offers “the hyper-realistic portrayal of such a child's life.”
Sex workers are usually paid to enact the fantasies of their clients. Here, these fantasies are imposed through both popular acclaim and policy initiative. While I genuinely do not care what gets people off—people enjoy watching horror movies like Saw all the time—having a good nose for the distinction between fantasy and reality should be a prerequisite for fantasy-play. Yet none of the people in charge seem to be able to discern the difference. Instead, this prurient trash is passed off as humanitarianism and applauded.
For clarity’s sake, let me acknowledge that there are indeed people who suffer enormously within the sex industry, people who are coerced into prostitution and who are kept in conditions that amount to slavery. Perhaps there are even a few kidnapping victims out there. But while these small numbers exist, the vast majority of sex workers experience labour conditions that are entirely unlike these fantasy-fuelled scenarios. As has been documented by the GAATW (Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women) and other researchers, the majority of people who migrate for sex work are well aware of what their future jobs entail. Many, perhaps most, have done the work before in their home countries.
The difficulty with sexual-fantasy-as-news-reportage is that it promotes policies that may help a few individuals—by all means, send in the cops if someone has been kidnapped—but ignore the actual needs of the majority. Indeed, in many ways these policies make the situation worse for the majority and effectively promote ‘trafficking’. An example would be when anti-trafficking policies take the form of anti-migration laws, thereby pushing migrants directly into the hands of criminal networks to circumnavigate the controls. Even in cases of child prostitution, the projected fantasy life of mass culture does more to generate counter-productive policies than to help genuine victims. The new US focus on ‘domestic trafficking,’ for example, will simply result in even longer prison sentences for black men as ‘pimps/traffickers,’ while doing little to nothing for children fleeing sexual abuse within their homes.
Let us not forget this last point, because—as feminists were keen to point out when they first raised the issue of child sexual abuse—it is within the family that the overwhelming majority of ‘child sex slaves’ exist. It is ultimately these children, the ones who are trapped and effectively enslaved within their homes, who will pay the price for the unrecognized and un-dealt-with sexual fantasy known as ‘child sex trafficking.’ It bears repeating again and again: daddy, not the man in the bushes, is the biggest rapist.
Those who care about 'child sex slavery' would do well to turn their efforts to challenging on-going patriarchy within the home and to offer active support for children who run away from abusers rather than to punish near-mythical (and invariably non-white) offenders. As for the male heroes and rescuers, many of these guys seem like creepy dads to me. The feminists who help enable them to have literal close contact with prostituting girls and young women ought to wake up and notice with whom they’ve gotten into bed.
A version of this review appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of $pread, 3(4): 51-2