What I did last Friday night could be deemed unusual. I would often go to the pub, meet a friend, go to the theatre – the standard choices. On this occasion, I went to see The Price of Sex, a documentary about international sex trafficking by Mimi Chakarova, a journalist who has spent ten years tirelessly investigating the global scourge of sex slavery. It was wholly worthwhile and genuinely unforgettable, and I don’t use that word lightly.
I don’t know how much you know about sex trafficking, but I’m going to admit I knew very little, except that it appalled me. The Price of Sex exposes how the poorest countries in Europe have scores of desperate, penniless people rife for exploitation. They have nothing at home, and therefore nothing to lose when they are approached (often by a woman) and offered legitimate work abroad. Of course, when they accept – often with the consent of their parents, as many of the women approached are girls as young as 12 – they enter into a debt. The trafficker will have paid for their travel costs, passport and so on. They cannot object when the trafficker then sells them to a pimp. And once they’re sold, they’re imprisoned – in hotels, in apartment blocks or in basements – and forced to pay rent, for the clothes and food they’re provided with, and even for taking a shower.
The debt starts to mount even further. At one point during the film Mimi talks to a girl, Jenni from Moldova, who jumped out of the window of the apartment block where she was being held. Mimi explains that she assumed that the girls who jump want to commit suicide. Actually, survivors such as Jenni explain that is not the case. It was simply the only way out. They hope to live, and try and climb down the outside of the building as far as they can, knocking on other’s windows, before finally reaching a dead end situation and being forced to jump for their lives. For Jenni, she was partially paralysed and spent a month in hospital before being released back into the custody of her pimp. He continued to sell her despite the fact that she would involuntarily defecate on herself. Finally he gave her up as ‘damaged goods’ and sent her back to her family. In a bleak way, this may seem like a happy ending – she escaped, even if in the direst of circumstances. But actually, on returning to their homes, the girls are faced with ostracision if they ever admit to their ordeal and ostracision if they don’t. Many are bought off with money by their pimps and never speak of it, but they return to the poverty from which they came, with families blighted by alcoholism and misunderstanding. The girls are blamed for having come back without any money. They have to deal with STDs and pregnancies. They return to children who no longer know them. If they do admit what has happened, they are blamed and outcast, their families turned upon. The men of the village knock on their doors late at night demanding services. Their children face bullying. And still, they have no money, no prospects, but vitally, they have lost any support they might have had – they are now failures in the eyes of their nearest and dearest. Jenni breaks into tears as she describes how close she was to her mum growing up. She can’t bring herself to attempt an explanation of where that closeness has gone.
Equally, many women never return. They destroy themselves one way or the other through drugs and alcohol, or they pay off their debt and choose to continue working as a prostitute. This certainly surprised me. Why wouldn’t you leave once your pimp freed you? As with any great human rights crime, the longer these girls are subjected to the torment of sex slavery, of being raped up to 80 times a day for someone else’s financial gain, the harder it is to get them out. They are broken, they think of themselves as prostitutes and know nothing else. They have incredibly low esteem and don’t value themselves as worthy of a better life. They also have nothing to go back to. As Mimi shows through her depiction of Jenni and others – what do they return to? Poverty and shame. At one point Mimi offers a woman from her native Bulgaria, Irene, who has been a prostitute for ten years, a safe return home. She refuses. ‘Return to what?’ she says. ‘My children don’t know me. And I’m ashamed.’
In the Q&A after the film, Mimi explains a recurring story that many women trafficked into sex slavery have shared with her over her ten years of investigation. The ‘good guy’. This good guy is a regular client. For the men who visit these prostitutes, they can see the circumstances she lives in. She’s in the same shabby room and unglamorous clothes. It’s obvious she has very basic living standards. The good guy will ask her questions, listen to her story, understand that she is there against her will. He will normally then allow her to use his mobile phone. Finally after months or years of silence, she can ring home (if there is a phone there) and tell her family she is alive. He will also sometimes give her money. This is so that if she does escape, she has money for public transport to get away. Mimi would ask whether this good guy, who has got to know the woman, may even consider her a friend, still sleeps with her? In every case the answer was yes. Knowing she was there against her will, imprisoned, forced to sell herself and without the resources to escape – without any chance but a jump from the window, he still slept with her. Why? Because he’s already paid the pimp. He might as well get what he’s paid for.
It’s hard to understand why a woman would sell another woman into sex slavery. Mimi spoke to a woman who had been caught and arrested for just that. Why did she do it? Because she herself had been trafficked into prostitution, and her pimp had offered her half the amount of clients in a day (15, down from 30) and a packet of cigarettes if she sold other women. She also (unwillingly) showed Mimi the scars on her body. Women who are trafficked are often physically abused and beaten, burnt with cigarettes and left with lifelong scars. This wasn’t the case here. This women had inflicted these wounds upon herself. My first thought was self-harm, a relief, a small way of exerting control when somebody else owns your body. But no. She had done it in an attempt to devalue herself. The documentary reveals that different types of women fetch different prices. For instance, in Dubai, a Chinese woman fetches the lowest price. A Middle Eastern women fetches the highest. This woman was attempting to cover herself in so many scars that her asking price would fall to the point where she was no longer worth selling and her pimp would release her. Instead, she had to resort to trafficking others. She was arrested for trying to traffick her own neighbour, whose son she was close to.
Mimi has been publicising her film all over the world for the past year and there are various articles you can read about her, or places you can hear her speak, which I’ll link to at the bottom, but what she did mention was that in touring this film people would say, ‘Oh how terrible, that this happens in these places.’ She would say ‘These places?’ Open your eyes. It’s all around you. I live in the UK. Look at the picture of the phone box above. Do you think all those ‘call girls’ are there out of free will? The instance Mimi cites was in Toronto. So she spent 20 minutes on the internet researching trafficking in Toronto and found 5 cases in the previous 3 weeks. Those are just the cases that were known and reported on. 1.5 million girls are trafficked each year. We think. It’s so hard to estimate because these women often disappear, untraceable. And often there’s no one looking for them, because they come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, from families with no resources to look for them. Sometimes the families don’t look anyway because where they’re from, everyone goes abroad. They don’t ask what their children and grandchildren are doing abroad. Mimi explores the ghost towns of Bulgaria, Moldova and other countries and talks to the elderly left behind. They simply don’t know where their offspring have gone.
However, in cases like Toronto, the US, in western ‘civilised’ society, trafficking is also a problem. It’s what they call ‘happy trafficking’. Happy trafficking is when the force used to keep the girls broken and remaining in prostitution is mental, rather than physical. Teenage girls are targeted at malls and bus stops – wherever it is that teenage girls hang out. The traffickers approach the girls who are alone, excluded from giggling gaggles nearby and compliment them in some way – Mimi uses the example of ‘You have such beautiful eyes’. If the girl says ‘thank you’, they leave her alone. If the girl says ‘no, I don’t’, then they target her. They pose as her boyfriend, gaining her trust, and then they force her into prostitution, moving her from state to state. Being young, naive and with low self-esteem, they strive to please their ‘boyfriend’ and they will never report him, they will never complain. They comply. And they will never have a mark on them to prove any abuse if they were to.
It was only in 2003 that the Palermo Protocol was implemented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. So it’s only nine years ago that we actually agreed that this kind of activity should be punished by law. Unfortunately, in the common countries women are trafficked into, in Greece, Spain, Italy, Israel and in Turkey, the corruption of the police makes tackling this problem very difficult. The police will return girls who have run away and go to report it back to their pimps. The police use the services of the prostitutes. The police take bribes and profit from the criminal activity by taking money to turn a blind eye to it. Mimi interviews a top policeman in Greece who testifies to this. She interviews policemen in Turkey who don’t want their faces shown on camera, but admit to sex tourism trips to the place the prostitutes are commonly from. They find ‘freedom’ in using the prostitutes in their countries of origin. They also claim to respect the girls becasue ‘they’re working’. They are open and boastful about their use of prostitutes. True enough, it is legal in Turkey. But trafficking, which they also admit knowledge of, is not. In Moldova, the man Mimi interviews in charge of the anti-trafficking department reveals that they receive a great amount of money to combat trafficking. All of it goes to pay public sector employees and none of it to the people who need it most. Corruption is a huge problem.
But mainly Mimi highlights capitalism. A human rights campaigner in Dubai says how they are just the latest to get on board with capitalism. And although prostitution is technically illegal there, it is everywhere. Unlike in Turkey, where it is ghettoised to the red light district, it is in the most lavish and glamorous hotels and bars of Dubai where prostitution is most obvious. And the authorities turn a blind eye for fear of turning off international business deals and tourism. The film starts with the fall of the Berlin wall bringing about the end of communism. For many young girls that Mimi highlights, this is the start of a completely different life, a life where they are prey to a highly adaptable criminal network, a criminal network that immediately sought out the most vulnerable, desperate people and sold them, without their consent. And once you’re in, as the film shows, it’s so hard to get out. Would you jump out of that window to escape?
So, what can we do? The main thing Mini says is TELL EVERYONE. Point them to the Price of Sex website. Point them to the articles I list below. Get everyone aware and angry. That way, together, maybe, just maybe, we can start to change opinions and put pressure on the people at the top who can make the international decisions that may influence these young women’s fates. Get involved – how can you not?
- Undercover filmmaker: Trafficker priced me up (thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com)
- The Price of Sex, official website of the documentary (priceofsex.org)
- Unseen, a charity challenging human trafficking (www.unseenuk.org)
- Sex Trafficking: Women for Sale (nerinxhallways.wordpress.com)
- Human Trafficking Definitions, Again (globalaffairsblog.wordpress.com)
- Ten Years Underground: A Photojournalist’s Quest to Expose the Sex Trade (www.hercircleezine.com)
- Child sex trafficking case police arrest 13 in Oxford (www.bbc.co.uk/news)
- Britain’s child sex trade (www.guardian.co.uk)