Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Reader, I Bought Her

Assumption of privilege, much?

White man's burden.

Blow me, asshole.

6 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Why is this guy an asshole? Writing an article about his deed is less than humble, but getting a girl out of slavery and not attempting to control her afterward is still a good thing. 

Posted by Jim

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to think of a good analogy...

Five years ago, I wouldn't have blinked an eyelash at this - now that I've been in South Africa, and studied and seen what colonialism and "the colonized" is all about (we do very well at pretending the legacy of this doesn't exist in America), I have serious issues with white men from western countries being so arrogant as to walk into a foreign country and purchase a woman in order to "save" her.

Purchasing a woman, a sex slave, was more about making himself feel better than about solving the problem. He brought to the table assumptions about his power, about who he was, and no matter how great it is that she's "free," she is, ultimately, giving a haircut to this guy at the end of the article.

There will always be a subservient/dominant aspect to their relationship. He hasn't gone on to actually "solve" any problems regarding sexual slavery in the country, because he hasn't actually worked with the people. He found a short-term quick fix. He's using her as a tool to feel better about himself, to affirm his place in the world, so he can write up an article in the NY Times about what a great White Male Protector he is. Those heathens! What would life be like without the great hand of the civilized oppressor!

You don't buy women from captivity. That's not a long term solution, and to assume a moral high ground by doing so, without engaging in the larger culture, without addressing the larger issue, is western arrogance in the extreme... 

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

Whether he made assumptions or not - it's better that it happened than that it didn't, wouldn't you agree?

Were I a male slave, and my obligation for being freed was to give a haircut, I'd take it. Being enslaved is far worse, and really, there's nothing that dishonorable about giving haircuts, if that's what you like to do.

To his credit, he could have just walked away. I think the world would be a better place if every single reporter and celebrity that came within proximity of sex slaves paid to free them (without obligation), even if it meant they'd run their mouths about it.

The fact that he didn't come up with a larger solution is unfortunate, but it still counts as a positive event, even if it's just one woman that escapes the system. 

Posted by Jim

Anonymous said...

Um, I thought he wrote all these articles for the specific purpose of goading someone to find a long-term solution. Because he can't do a damn thing, in that regard, without help. 

Posted by Omar K. Ravenhurst

Anonymous said...

I'm standing by the "this was a crass article written with absolutely no self-introspection as to the narrator's motives," but the morality of "save the heathens" is definately up for debate, cause it's a really interesting issue. The power dynamics are really fascinating.

My biggest issue (and likely the one he'll address in the follow-up article) is that the reasons that this woman was sold into slavery are still present. Nothing in her life had changed. He gave her money, set up something that didn't work, got something else set up for her, which appears to be working right now, but may not work longterm: because her situation, the one that put her there, the society she's in, has not essentially changed. It was a quick fix that he could write an article about.

Now, then I stopped and thought about this and said, "Well, what about when Oprah went into South Africa and gave a Christmas to 500,000 kids and donated $16M to people?"

In this case, I felt that the power dynamics were different - Oprah was a poor black woman: American, yes, but there was that undercurrent there, and she's also good friends with Nelson Mandela, who has done similiar good works in SA (the guy's practically a religious figure). Her going in and giving gifts to these kids was also about hope, about providing an example, saying "your life can be really good. You can be fucking amazing." She's of the "with great power comes great responsibility" belief.

But she's still American. Couldn't that be seen as imposing?

Then I remembered the example: a girl came up to Oprah, tracked after her while she was being shown around one of the townships, and said "Here's my family situation. I've got no money. I want to go to school. I want to be a doctor. Can you help me?"

And Oprah said, "Sure, I can give you the money. But you need to do the work. This isn't going to happen unless you do the work."

For me, this was an exchange between equals: this was, here's what I want, can you help me?

When he bought this girl, he sent her back to her village and said there was "our" plan about what she'd do next.

And when some guy just bought you, you better believe you'll do whatever the hell he says.

Luckily, he got a local agency on board, but the impression I got with this, as well, is that there was very little personal input from the girl, very little, "What do you want? What do you want to do?"

Instead, she's had a life imposed on her from the outside. I don't believe that buying and selling people is an ultimate solution, because you're not giving them any sort of agency. They come away believing they're still being bought and sold: in this case, she's just in a "luckier" position. She doesn't have to sell sex to make her owner happy.

Just provide a good NY Times article.  

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Anonymous said...

Kameron: Great post. I had to hold back the vomit when I read "I bought her" too. I know Big Daddy Kristof is
trying to impress us with the strangeness of the situation, but would "I bought her freedom" or "I paid a ransom" be too much to ask?

With every column Nicholas Kristof publishes, I hate his smug, patronizing, patriarchal ass even more.

Jim & Omar: in addition to agreeing with everything that Kameron has said about Kristof's article (or rather, series of articles--it isn't just that the guy wrote one article, but that it is the latest of six or seven now about his one-man crusade for the emancipation of Cambodian child prostitutes), I also wanted to add that Kristof's adventures in Cambodia aren't just a Victorian revival in the sense of colonialism; they're also a revival of Victorian moralism towards "fallen women." Katha Pollitt got it exactly right:

"To tell you the truth, I thought those columns were a little weird--there's such a long tradition of privileged men rescuing individual prostitutes as a kind of whirlwind adventure. You would never know from the five columns he wrote about young Srey Neth and Srey Mom, that anyone in Cambodia thought selling your daughter to a brothel was anything but wonderful. I wish he had given us the voices of some Cambodian activists--for starters, the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)--both of which are skeptical about brothel raids and rescues, which often dump traumatized girls on local NGOs that lack the resources to care for them.


"You can see the narrative in the process of creation: Third World women are victims; American men are saviors. Right-wing Christians care about Third World women; feminists only care about themselves. Meanwhile, Equality Now fights the good fight on "spit and a nickel," as Bien-Aimé says, and gets ignored."

This is connected with Omar's comments. Yes, Kristof is allegedly trying to prick our consciences into moving for a larger solution to the problem of sexual slavery. Good for him, but the problem is that in the midst of endlessly telling and retelling the tale how he became the Great Emancipator of lovely Srey Neth and Srey Mom, he forgot to say much of anything about how this might be done. You'll have trouble finding any discussion in his articles of the existing Cambodian groups, or international feminist NGOs, that have been doing the hard work on the ground of combatting sex slavery and the trafficking of women; the only groups he seems to be aware of at all are domestic anti-trafficking pressure groups on the Christian Right. You'll also have trouble finding any discussion whatsoever in his endless ruminitions on sex slavery of the privileged men--for example, men from China, Japan, the United States, Australia, and Europe--whose "sex tourism" drive much of the demand for child prostitution in Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. How can we change the material conditions that women and girls face so that more women have options other than prostitution or starvation? How can we change men in our own culture and elsewhere so that the demand for child sexual slavery is eradicated? What can we do to aid organizations that have already begun to do this work in piecemeal fashion? These are all hard questions, but they are essential questions for any serious progress to be made. And they are questions that Big Daddy Kristof completely avoids. This is an important issue that deserves to be taken seriously, and Kristof is using his highly visible position in the Op-Ed page of the Times to inform us of the virtue and the money that he's got to spread around.

In other words, he's a useless wanker. To hell with that, and to hell with him.

Posted by Rad Geek