Cambodia: MTV EXIT only told one side of trafficking story

Written by Sara Bradford
Monday, 15 December 2008

The voices of non-trafficked sex workers were totally excluded


By Sara Bradford


Young people enjoy the performances at Friday’s MTV EXIT concert in Phnom Penh, but some say the music channel’s campaign has been too narrow and biased. MTV EXIT, an anti-trafficking campaign funded by USAID, has just finished a whirlwind tour of Cambodia. MTV EXIT has held concerts featuring internationally known pop groups and local musicians in four locations throughout the country to raise awareness of the risks of trafficking in Asia.

MTV EXIT has the potential to be an incredible platform for the issues within Cambodia surrounding trafficking. However, the issue of the heavily-scrutinised new anti-trafficking law has been completely ignored throughout the campaign. Indeed, the campaign has failed on many levels, the most important of which are firstly, their complete disconnect from the needs of the Cambodian community and secondly, the fact that the opinions they have provided to their viewers only represent one small portion of the issues at stake.

MTV EXIT clearly did not do their homework on the implications of running a USAID-funded anti-trafficking campaign. The message the world will receive in MTV’s 24-minute special will fail to address the real concerns over trafficking in Cambodia – the accusations of serious human rights abuses committed against people who have been detained under the new US-backed anti-trafficking law. These abuses are most likely a result of the absence of adequate training for police in regards to how the law should be implemented and enforced, coupled with a lack of oversight by the many NGOs and faith-based organisations in Cambodia who are part of the burgeoning but unregulated rescue industry.

On the MTV EXIT website they list partners such as Transitions Cambodia, an anti-trafficking NGO that has a self-professed Christian conversion agenda, with their main partner being Agape (Hebrew for “the love of God”). The services they provide to trafficking victims include restorative dental care for a brand-new smile and therapy through yoga. While dental care and yoga can be important, this is a blatant example of the aforementioned level of disconnect towards the community’s actual needs.

The campaign furthers its detachment from the community by limiting their possible partners due to USAID funding restrictions. For example, MTV EXIT cannot broadcast the opinions of sex workers who have not been trafficked, who make up the largest part of the entertainment industry in Cambodia. The EXIT campaign’s focus will therefore only broadcast to the world a narrow, biased view of the sex and entertainment industry in Cambodia.

The anti-trafficking movement is fast becoming one of the world’s most popular causes, with many NGOs, churches, universities, charities and the media focusing on it. For MTV, a network with one of the largest audiences globally, to spotlight such a huge subject and only provide selective information on the issue is the ultimate insult to its viewers. With MTV being the only source of information on trafficking for many youth, providing them with half the story can only be one thing: deceitful.

While it is crucial for the anti-trafficking issue to be addressed globally, doing so in a way which silences men and women affected by anti-trafficking groups and laws is not a fair message for the so called “MTV generation”, as it does not encompass all sides of the issue. In order to create a proper broadcast, one should highlight all sides of the story and allow the viewer to draw their own conclusion. As MTV is a hugely influential network, they should take into consideration the significance of excluding the messages of affected people within their broadcasts.

We hope that in future MTV EXIT will learn from their mistakes and better address the needs of the communities in the countries in which they work and portray all the issues involved in trafficking in an unbiased way.
Sara Bradford is a technical adviser to
the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW) in Cambodia.
Link to original



  1. Bradford highlights an important issue here, that the anti-trafficking law has not been enforced fairly or competently, but I was surprised and annoyed by this ranting, less than coherent article. This looks like a great website and I’m all in favor of support to sex workers, I just wanted readers to see another side of this ‘other side’ she writes about.

    I’m a white, western woman who writes and teaches yoga in Phnom Penh. After being here a few months I wanted to volunteer and give something back to the community, so started teaching yoga to teenage victims of trafficking. I love the gig, the girls are great, it’s been a wonderfully theraputic experience for them. This is the group Bradford attacks in her piece.

    Bradford fails to mention that the girls at the center receive job training, life skills training, and social work counseling. Yoga is only a small part of their week, yet Bradford thinks there is something wrong with this. The claim that they are being converted to Christianity I will leave alone for now, but I don’t believe that’s the case. Yoga is not only for rich, western women, and I’m glad I can provide this for them. I do it for free, so no resources have been spent (minus fuel to take them to and from center).

    Bradford’s arguement about missing the voices of non-trafficked sex workers is important and they have clearly been abused by police. This law has made a big mess of things and made it hard for health workers to help sex workers here, and in many cases made their plight much more dangerous. All of this is true. I’m just not sure why she directs her ire at Mtv and my little yoga class as opposed to the people responsible for enforcing the law.

    Another important this to remember is that sex work is certainly a choice willfully made by some here, but it is vastly different than in the west. A western woman can choose to attend school, choose to work as a cashier, a teacher, a phone operator, a lawyer, or a sex worker. Women here have very few options and choose sex work out of desperation. There is little or no access to education, widespread poverty. Also, the teenage girls I work with did not choose anything, they were sold, by their parents or relatives, to brothels since the ages of 6, 7, 8, etc. for between $100-200. Again, I have to say, a vastly different case than in the west. I know that men and women sex workers in the western world have their own stories and reasons, and possibly trauma in their lives as well, things just look very different from over here.

    I think sex work serves an important social function here, and I don’t wish to see it outlawed, I only wish sex workers could charge more, be more safe and healthy, and have better viable options for employment. The new law absolutely makes this more difficult, but this needs to be addressed at the proper level.

  2. Thanks for commenting, WIC. You make some good points, and I commend your teaching yoga to the young people you work with.

    I believe Bradford also lives and works in Cambodia, or at least spends a lot of time there, and works with the Asian Pacific Network of Sex Workers (APNSW), so her view isn’t necessarily solely that of a Western outsider’s.

    One of the reasons for her (and all our) anger towards MTV is that for most teens it is the only view they may get of Cambodian culture, as well as of the issue of trafficking. It is a simplistic, one-dimensional snapshot of an incredibly complex situation that will likely only be made worse by the type of attention that MTV will bring.

    Furthermore, it is the same old played-out process: white (corporate) people saving brown women from brown men, with loads of fanfare and very little substance. Read Laura Agustin’s book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets, and the Rescue Industry to see why this Exit campaign will make a lot of money for a lot of “rescuers”, but do very little of any consequence for those it purports to do this for.

    Meanwhile, the harm caused by such campaigns is far-reaching. The media attention and US approval of Cambodia’s measures will only further foment the abuse and persecution of sex workers. And it’s not just the abuse by Cambodian authorities. Groups such as the International Justice Mission barrel into brothels like bulls into china shops, “rescuing” women who have no desire to be rescued. Those women are then detained (locked up) by the local authorities, keeping them from their livelihoods and their families for however long it takes for them to either escape (risking life and limb) or be “processed”, and end up making kitchen doilies for far, far less than the money they earned doing sex work. (One of the APNSW’s slogans is “Don’t talk to us about sewing machines, talk to us about worker’s rights!”). Often these raid-and-rescue operations happen in areas where NGOs have been working with sex workers on HIV/AIDS peer education projects, and the trust that has been built between the NGOs and the sex workers- which can take several years- is thereby destroyed, as the sex workers perceive the raids to be a result of their participation in the NGO project. Lives are disrupted, communities are destroyed, and families are thrust further into poverty.

    You are correct in that the decision to work as a sex worker is made under different circumstances in different cultures and socioeconomic situations. But also consider that what to white Westerners often seems like the most appalling thing one can do with one’s body may be seen only as a job to someone from a different culture. Westerners’ objections to prostitution usually (if not always) stem from a Judeo-Christian revulsion for any non-monogamous, non-heteronormative sex outside of marriage, even more so when such sex is transactionalized as it is in prostitution. Sex is not equally sacred across all cultures and across all socioeconomic levels. So the decision to do that work may be as troubling for Cambodian people as it is for white Westerners who decide to work as janitors or door-to-door magazine salespeople.

    As for those who never had a chance to decide to begin with, I think we can all agree that it is an entirely different situation, and the one we all wish to address when it comes to anti-trafficking work (in ALL industries). But sex workers don’t believe the current methods being used are very effective. On the contrary- we feel they are more harmful than helpful (as illustrated above). Far more effective than penal missions and police responses would be programs that focus on increasing economic opportunities for the poor (along with perhaps a food subsidy for rural families so they won’t have to resort to selling children they can’t feed, and while we’re at it, access to reproductive care). Why doesn’t MTV do that instead of lending its considerable public image to a system that will only further harm more that it helps? Because it is much sexier to make videos about strippers on spit-roasts.

    For sex workers, it has been extremely frustrating to have our voices silenced again and again by bad US policy, and the way that policy makes us the lepers of the nonprofit world. The requirement to sign the anti-prostitution oath in order to receive funding to fight AIDS or trafficking, along with the 30% abstinence-only earmark, has literally caused the deaths of thousands of people across the globe. Many effective HIV/AIDS organizations have had to close because they won’t or can’t sign the oath, leaving entire networks of marginalized people without access to prevention or anti-retroviral treatment. With its campaign funded by USAID, MTV not only condones this deadly policy, but subscribes to and perpetuates it.

    Personally, I found it horrifying to read and watch the videos of the tragic stories of the Cambodian sex workers who’d been beaten, gang-raped, and denied their medications by police in Cambodia’s rush to please the US, juxtaposed with the story of Condoleeza Rice praising Cambodia for doing such a good job in “fighting trafficking”. The stories of the abused sex workers never made any big press that I could see, yet Cambodia’s draconian anti-prostitution measures and Rice’s praise of them were all over the news. It was galling and obscene. And this sort of unfair coverage and silencing is exactly how sex workers and our issues- from any country- are dealt with every day. It is so common that when someone actually gives sex workers a fair voice in the press, it is celebrated by our communities.

    So while MTV did not make the laws, and does not enforce them, they are the most visible face of them to the rest of the world. And by ignoring (silencing) the other side of the sex industry, they are perpetuating a stigma and misperception that regenerates the marginalization and persecution of sex workers. By not making the distinction between trafficking and sex work, MTV implicitly endorses the abuse.

  3. One of the things Cambodian sex workers were protesting about was this false dichotomy of “trafficked and willing” sex workers.

    Some of the questions they raise about this are:
    why are they treated so badly when they were effectively sold into prostitution by the neo-liberal economic policies forced on Cambodia by the UN, IMF and US in the 90’s; while those sold by individuals, or themselves(debt-bondage) are seen as poor victims?

    Why is it OK for the government to privatise everything- selling schools, hospitals, education etc, while it is not ok for them to sell sex using their own bodies?

    There is a much, much larger grey area between the so-called trafficked woman and the so-called “willing sex worker.”

    To address the rights of all these women, men and transgenders in the sex industry, proper labor laws, human rights standards, anti-child labor laws and laws against slavery would suffice if properly enforced. Special laws targeting sex workers and “trafficking” seem only to lead to further stigmatisation and abuse of all those in the sex industry.

    The other issue that the sex workers (many of whom used to work in Cambodia’s garment factories) and garment workers protesting about the MTV Exit Campaign is that the most common vocational training offered is sewing. This will get them one of the lowest paid jobs in the world in one of Cambodia’s notoriously exploitative and violent garment factories. Great choice!

    It was Cambodian sex workers who, in 2001, came up with the APNSW slogan- Don’t talk to me about sewing machines- talk to me about workers rights!

    Pity the Cambodian and US rescue industries have failed to listen to them- for years…. and continue to marginalise them because they “chose” to be sex workers.
    As one of the sex workers on the WNU secretariat said “In Cambodia, sex workers are women who chose not to die.”

  4. Thank you swoplv and Andrew for taking the time to write such thoughtful, insightful comments. There’s a lot to digest here, and I agree with much of what you’ve said. I didn’t take Bradford to be some white chick who popped in here for a volunteer-vacation. She’s clearly well-versed and knowledgeable in the culture and circumstances here, and dedicated to helping the people she works with.

    Myself and everyone I know is deeply concerned with the human rights violations as a result of the hugely flawed anti-trafficking law. I’m sorry to hear those stories have not made US news, they are well-documented in the English-written Cambodian newspapers and everyone has been troubled by them. It’s frustrating to see people trying to help in the issue of trafficking, because, as you say, the solutions involve huge, sweeping changes to society: economics, education, culture, family planning, that cannot be solved easily or quickly. These are not usually mentioned.

    I worked in family planning in manhattan and the bronx for 7 years before moving here, so I’m very fluent in these issues. In order to reduce unplanned pregnancy, increase safe sex practices, etc., you have to move the lens way out and deal with so many facets of life, it’s quite overwhelming! Incidentally, I’m writing something now (I write fiction) that deals with commercial sex workers, specifically a woman who moves from working in the reproductive health industry into the sex industry, two sides of the same thing as far as I’ve come to believe.

    And the whole ‘rescue industry’ thing (great term) is a big mess as well. I have friends who work there too, they’re good people, they mean well, but yeah, there’s clearly a lot of problems there. Some big, serious issues as well, that you’ve documented above, and worse that I’ve heard. The proselytizing issue probably makes me the most upset (hey, want this sandwich? then accept christ as your personal savior!). Exploitation on top of exploitation, incredibly frustrating.

    I appreciate your comments about Mtv’s involvement specifically. That they don’t ‘get it’ I figured, but I didn’t realize some of the deeper negative consequences of their actions, and I’m much more aware of that now, so thank you.

    Andrew mentions a ‘grey area’. This whole place is one big grey area. It’s like the wild west, totally free and open. There is so much opportunity, so much freedom from the constraints of society, it’s a beautiful thing. However on the other side of that there is so much room for abuse and exploitation, it’s frightening. Everything is for sale, and there are so few laws and means of protection for people.
    Basically trafficking, and commercial sex work is a huge, complex issue, as you also stated. And it is dire to have all voices at the table. I don’t think I’ve met Sara but I know other people who work for similar groups, so I’ll make more of an effort to keep in touch with their issues and the work they’re doing. Hey, maybe I’ll end up teaching a yoga class for sex workers.
    Thanks again.

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