How Not to Report on Sex Trafficking

Last month's CNN piece on sex trafficking in Cambodia was notable because it represented a common failure of the media to report effectively on issues like trafficking in ways that do not compound the harm to those most affected.

We start with bad mothers and we end, in the piece with, an editorial sigh of relief: thank god (literally) for men like Don Brewster who can envision, unlike these women with whom he is juxtaposed narratively, “the transformation” that girls experience when they are “saved.” CNN

Last month, CNN published a story on sex trafficking that made a common—and dangerous—mistake: blaming the victims of poverty for the circumstances in which they find themselves. Titled “The Women Who Sold Their Daughters Into the Sex Trade” and written by Tim Hume, Lisa Cohen, and Mira Sorvino, the lengthy and descriptive piece represents a common failure of the media to report effectively on issues like trafficking in ways that do not compound the harm to those most affected.

The piece seemed to want us to know that Cambodian mothers are doing terrible things to their daughters, but that help, in the form of a nice American man, is on the way. This may not have been the intent, but it is nonetheless the main takeaway. I get the human-interest angle of attempting to understand what makes a mother sell her child. But the tone, language, and construction of the piece ultimately failed in that regard. The piece undermines its own efforts to communicate the “why” in its delivery of the “what” of some forms of sex trafficking in Cambodia.

And that is just one reason the piece fails.

To understand sex trafficking of minors everywhere, you have to put trafficking into the broader context of global capitalism, patriarchy, and the ways in which misogynistic practices such as these are economically profitable. Eighty percent of trafficked persons are girls and women, and their sale, as products, is worth a lot of money to a lot of people. The United Nations estimates that the market value of this trade is $32 billion annually. For a point of comparison, that is more than twice Twitter’s original IPO valuation. This is the context in which parents, not just mothers, sell their children, in a world in which everything is considered a viable resource for distribution.

The article featured photos of three very sad-looking women and began with these lines:

When a poor family in Cambodia fell afoul of loan sharks, the mother asked her youngest daughter to take a job. But not just any job.

What do you associate with the words “loan sharks”? It’s fair to say that most people think of shady businesses and illegal activity, not grinding poverty and desperation. The title was provocative enough, the first line of the piece, jarring.

But then there’s the “lying women” message that comes next; our introduction to these women is that they are mothers who lie to their daughters and trick them into “jobs” and then leave them to be raped. What is the correct way to tell your daughter that she is going to be raped so that you can eat? CNN doesn’t address that question.

This sets the tone for the piece. Instead of pitting mothers against their daughters, CNN could have analyzed the complexity of systemic violations against women and their rights with an entirely different narrative. While the piece was long and detailed, and it discussed several factors contributing to the trafficking of children, it did not address girls’ and women’s perceived worthlessness, their economic insecurity, their physically vulnerabilities, or their subjugation in a thoroughly globalized patriarchal system that cultivates racism, relies on women’s free labor, and exploits their sexuality for profit—all of which accrue to produce and sustain this vicious trade. Instead we get “Women Who Sold Their Daughters Into the Sex Trade.”

The women in the article uniformly identify poverty as a root cause of their actions. The authors of the piece remarked on this, providing a quote from the first person in the piece who is not a trafficked girl or her mother, Dan Brewster, a 59-year-old American abolitionist living in Cambodia. Instead of reflecting on the economic and cultural forces fueling this trade, he explains:

“I can’t imagine what it feels like to have your mother sell you, to have your mother waiting in the car while she gets money for you to be raped … It’s not that she was stolen from her mother—her mother gave the keys to the people to rape her.”

CNN failed to address the complete and utter devaluation of female life that affects mothers and daughters and perverts every part of the equation described: safety, love, parenting, health, poverty, sex trafficking, economics, tourism, and the effects of globalization.

Women in Cambodia enjoy more legal protections than those in other countries in the region but still encounter debilitating limitations related to their gender. Seventy percent of all poor rural households in Cambodia are headed by women. Women ages 20 to 24 are almost twice as likely to have been denied education than their male peers. Lack of education and lack of awareness of their rights leaves women at a disadvantage in many ways, including the distribution of property and in divorce settlements. All of this takes place in an environment where gender-based violence is common and shrouded in silence.

While the article describes sex trafficking, it does not explain that girls are being sold and raped and physically abused in every aspect of life, including as a function of child marriage and marriage in general. Domestic violence against women is pervasive and acceptable. In a study conducted last year measuring attitudes about violence against women, researchers asked, “Sometimes a husband is annoyed or angered by things which his wife does. In your opinion, is a husband justified in hitting or beating his wife in the following situations: (1) if she goes out without telling him, (2) if she neglects the children, (3) if she argues with him, (4) if she refuses to have sex with him, and (5) if she burns the food.”

Nearly 47 percent of Cambodian women said men were justified for at least one of these reasons.

In addition, sexual assault is pervasive but largely unreported, and includes incredibly high rates of recreational gang rape. Cambodia is still conducting Khmer Rouge trials and annual public hearings to give victims of wartime rape a voice. Even UN peacekeepers have been implicated in pervasive abuses. It is estimated that they have fathered more than 24,000 children in Cambodia. What percentage of bad mothers selling their children have themselves been raped or beaten?

In the section titled “Virgins for Sale,” there was no discussion of why virginity is valuable and why men not only pay for it, but demand it. “Virginity control,” in any context, has implications that link the sale of girls with other practices, such as child marriage. Child marriage is common in Cambodia: 10.7 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 are married, divorced, or widowed, compared to 1.5 percent of boys in the same age range.

The minute a reporter hears “value of virginity,” he or she should be thinking about masculinity and how patriarchal norms police the sexuality of girls and women. Otherwise, what’s the point? Virginity control and gendered shame, as related to masculine honor, are central aspects of male domination and indivisible from violence against children and women—whether it’s abstinence-only sex education in Texas, early marriage in India, or sex trafficking in Cambodia.

However, in this article, men were really not that present, despite their roles in providing, trafficking, and demanding children for sex. It describes the men—including tourists, but mostly Cambodians—“buying sex.Children make up roughly one-third of Cambodia’s sex trade. What about the other two-thirds? These are adult women who are sold, and then raped and gang-raped. We hear in a cursory way about pedophiles, “situational” offenders, and sick fathers unable to work. As a matter of fact, every mention of a father noted illness—her “husband’s tuberculosis,” “your dad is sick,” “serious health problems”—but not one mention implicated fathers in the sale of daughters, despite the fact that multiple studies show that most financial decisions are made by men and fathers. Instead, we get a section titled “Mothers as Sex Traffickers.”

All of this violence against girls and women occurs in a context also neglected by many in mainstream media: decades of policies that restrict women’s access to abortion, birth control, sexuality education, and other needed health services. As the Society for Medical Anthropology put it, our failure to take seriously our responsibility to women’s health and bodies “resulted in tyrannous global reproductive disparities, and increased maternal and infant mortality.” These practices are inseparable from the statement made by the Cambodian mother of a trafficked girl: “Life with so many children is hard.”

“Often, we, as journalists, don’t pay enough attention to the power dynamics involved in exposing these stories, and … beyond just documenting injustice, sometimes we aren’t taking a step back to contemplate the narratives we are forming,” Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, a freelance journalist who is writing a book about women’s empowerment, with a focus on the global south, told Rewire. “To me, it boils down to: How do you expose this kind of abuse in a way that actually helps?”

It is possible to marry genuinely moving personal narratives with a clear-eyed assessment of the systems that produce them. Mainstream media outlets are, generally speaking, loathe to consider the profound depths of misogyny, and are uncomfortable even using the word. However, words are important,especially when you are writing about the trafficking of children in order to satisfy the sexual needs of adult men with money, power, and the resources to buy them. If CNN really wanted us to understand these women’s lives and motivations and to help eliminate the truly horrific sex trafficking of children and women, this wasn’t the way to do it.