From Somaly Mam to Chong Kim: How Sex Trafficking Sensationalism Hurts Sex Workers

Jul 9, 2014
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Megan Griffith’s 2012 film Eden opens with the silhouette of a man lifting the lid of a car trunk. Inside is 19-year-old Hyun Jae moaning through a gag taped to her mouth. Jae and her kidnapper are on their way to a warehouse prison in the remote southwestern desert, where a human trafficking ring keeps a group of teenage girls captive. The next 30 minutes of the movie are a gut-wrenching depiction of sex slavery. Jae, nicknamed Eden by her captors, is tortured into submission, forced to service johns and even chained and whipped in a BDSM film.

With its gratuitous shots of teenage sex slaves living every day in their underwear, Eden could be seen as a dramatic sexploitation flick, but viewers can rest easy, because, the rationale goes, it’s all for a good cause. Anti-human trafficking groups receive a portion of the film’s proceeds, and the film’s producers make it clear that Eden is based on a true story. That story, however, has recently been called into question, and some activists claim that Eden may be based on an outright lie.

Eden supposedly follows the life of Chong Kim, an award-winning writer and activist whose survival story has been trumpeted as proof that sex trafficking is not some faraway, third world problem and must be tackled in the United States as well. Sex worker rights activists, however, have been busy poking holes in Kim’s story, working to expose it as another sexually sensational but dishonest and misleading trafficking narrative – a tale that is good for fundraising juggernauts but bad for human rights and public policy.

From Somaly Mam to Chong Kim: How Sex Trafficking Sensationalism Hurts Sex Workers

Somaly Mam & Chong Kim

On her public speaking agency’s website, Kim is featured next to Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who recently washed his hands of Somaly Mam, the Cambodian anti-trafficking activist. Kristof championed Mam until her very public fall from grace in late May, when she resigned from her own foundation after a Newsweek investigation revealed that she fabricated parts of her own story of being sold as a teenager and forced to work in a brothel, and even had young women at her shelters rehearse made-up stories about being trafficked for Western cameras.

As the Mam scandal was unfolding in the world media, Kim’s skeptics were quietly combing through her writings and video interviews on YouTube, and another sensational human trafficking story began to crumble under its own weight. Then, last month, as sex workers and their allies tipped off this reporter to the holes in Kim’s story, an anti-trafficking group publicly denounced Kim as an outright fraud who uses a dramatic fiction to milk cash from human rights groups.

Another Sex Trafficking Sensationalist?

In 2004, Kim published an essay titled “Nobody’s Concubine” – a reference to the way her escorting clients viewed her due to her Korean heritage – in a compilation called Not For Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography. Kim’s early story is a tough one but has little in common with Eden. Kim writes that she suffered abuse at home and was dumped by her high school sweetheart after being raped by an acquaintance as a young adult. She started working as a stripper and then for an escort service after escaping an abusive boyfriend and falling on hard times. Her experience as a sex worker was not a positive one. She used drugs, was abused by clients and suffered from low self-esteem until she met a boyfriend who helped her leave the sex industry.

Missing from the essay, however, is the desert warehouse full of teenage sex slaves in Nevada and the daring escapes described in her later accounts. Over the years, Kim’s story has grown more lavish and sensational as the bad guys morphed from abusive clients and boyfriends to international gangs of kidnappers, pimps, human traffickers and johns that included law enforcement agents and even an unnamed former state governor.

More on how sex trafficking sensationalism hurts sex workers…

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Ernest Greene
Ernest Greene
7 years ago

No surprise here. Many “anti-trafficking” groups have much in common with AHF – they profiteer from human misery. The more misery, the higher the profit. If there’s a misery short-fall, they invent some. I am, in some respects, a hard-headed ex-police-beat-reporter who gets it that people aren’t, overall, a bunch of Boy Scouts and I don’t expect them to be. Life is tough and they do what they must to get by. But there are three things I really cannot abide. Human trafficking is one of them. I don’t ever want to see it taken lightly or efforts to prevent… Read more »


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