Why did Somaly Mam tell those vivid, awful and unverified tales?

Part 1: The trap of saving Cambodia

Part 2: Why would anyone coach teenagers to lie about being sold into prostitution?

Short answer: Because everyone can agree that girls who were sold or stolen to be prostituted are innocents, who deserve charity.

Longer answer: Studies demonstrate that donations are driven by specific kinds of information. Stories that are about one victim draw more donations than stories about systemic problems. An earthquake that topples a neighborhood is a crisis; 5500 people lost to AIDS every day is a statistic.

When you run a social welfare non-profit like the Somaly Mam Foundation, you have to make some choices about what best serves your clients. The choice that many Cambodian NGOs make is to lead with stories of suffering–their directors have observed that almost-unbearable, horrifying tales get money to run their programs. (Whether this is best for the people they serve is another question; see Part 3.)

The particular fabrications delivered to a foreign audience by Somaly Mam, arguably the most famous reformed prostitute in the world, are startling. Because they could be true. As it happened, her self-made legend was made up to validate her approach to the problem of sex slavery, but it wasn’t implausible.

Hundreds of young ladies, some 13 or 14, are sent by their own families to make desperately needed income by tricking in Phnom Penh. Some girls Somaly has rescued from sex work are too young to be living on their own. None of them had an alternate idea to support their families the day they started selling sex. What happened to those teens, what happens every day in Cambodian cities, is sad, shocking and wrong. Why wasn’t it enough to simply say: This is what’s going on, and your help is needed to give these girls options?

Somaly said it herself, in the film ‘Half the Sky’, produced by Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: “I’m not trying to interfere with those who choose this, but only to help those who were sold into this life.” Innocent victims are the more compelling ones, because victims of systemic inequality who’ve made the best of a bad hand by choosing sex work (as her former husband suggests Somaly herself did) aren’t innocent enough to elicit sympathy, or need to be rescued.

The stories were designed to support a certain way of looking at the problem (involuntary sex work) and its solution (rescue and a release from debt). Another way to frame what Mam wants to save the children from is a future in which girls have so few options that selling sex appears to be a good solution. Without the narrative about trafficking, all Cambodia has is a problem that requires vocational support and economic development to tackle.

Development work is not glamorous. It wouldn’t make a very interesting movie of the week. It looks like a beautiful, made-up young lady taking a moped taxi to the micro-finance storefront and depositing a portion of her earnings from the weekend, knowing that she is getting closer to owning a sewing machine that will allow her to work at home and pay school fees for her children. It looks like the oldest sister regularly attending school, where donor funds are used for that most boring and pedestrian of purposes, sending her home with a bag of rice each month. It looks like boys pumping water at the schoolhouse to free their sisters’ time and labor so that both can learn to read, write and count.

It’s dull and repetitive and the only people I’ve met who will do it, year in and year out, are driven by a spiritual glow that they call by various names, among them ‘God’s will’. They are not going to be honored at a gala with celebrity partners, or written up by the New York Times, for their rescue work as the daring saviors of the innocent.

Next: Are all those charities trying to rip off foreigners, then?

Leave a Reply