The Haugen Factor

I’ve been bothered by another article from The Nation (see my recent post on “Shotgun Adoption”)–this one on the subject of Gary Haugen and the International Justice Mission’s efforts to bring attention to the plight of women and girls trafficked into sex slavery in Southeast Asia.

You may recall that Haugen’s “tactics”–which included raids on brothels with the assistance of local police–led to a 2003 Dateline NBC special. On that occasion, Haugen and his associates carried out a dramatic raid on a brothels where very young girls were being forced to provide sexual services to sex tourists. Colin Powell himself was interviewed at the end of the documentary, and expressed his outrage and disgust at the sight of American tourists visiting foreign countries to exploit underage girls.

The September 16 Nation piece, by Noy Thrupkaew, is highly critical of Haugen and his team–dismissive, even derisive, of their religious fervor and their belief that it is worthwhile to liberate even one person at a time.

See for example this kind of language:

As for IJM’s symbolic quest to provide individual rescue, finding “the one” for whom the group toiled and whom IJM had “saved” would prove nearly impossible. She is a cipher, a repository of innocence and redemptive hope that seemed to call more loudly to the IJM staff than the voices of trafficking victims and sex workers who decried the raids and their experiences of police brutality. “The one” was a symbol that IJM staff would always be driven to break free, even if she would wind up running away from her rescuers in the end. The shepherd claimed to have benevolent aims but did not always know the way to safety.

The article points out the fact that what comes after these raids is often not very positive–police corruption and brutality remain, the girls often have no place to go and no other work to do–as well as the fact that the Thai government in particular is likely to deport the  girls set free from the brothels to their country of origin–often Burma.

These criticisms are valid enough–but I can’t help but give Haugen a lot of credit for shining the spotlight on this hidden and forgotten population. Haugen called this kind of sexual slavery for what it was and is–he expressed a kind of impassioned commitment that is all too rare. Even if one accepts the idea that IJM should alter some of its methods, it seems absurd to essentially blame Haugen for the fact that the police and judicial systems in Southeast Asia are completely unresponsive to the needs of these enslaved women and girls.

The article focuses heavily on an issue that divides many when talking about sex trafficking–the dispute over whether prostitution can ever be voluntary. I find it hard to imagine that sex work is ever valid work–and am interested in the approach taken by Sweden on this–but I was very put off by the assumption in the article that the international community should accept the scope and scale of sexual exploitation in Southeast Asia (or indeed elsewhere),  ask young women and girls what they want–and then back off. (What does volition really mean in such a context?)

It is a bit too easy, too glib, to accuse the Bush administration of having wanted a “soft power strategy” to complement the war on terror. I had no love for the Bush administration, but on this issue I think they began (unusually) to put sex trafficking on the front burner in international relations–and that was surely a good thing. The issue got demoted over time–but it was my impression that Colin Powell actually cared about trafficked women and girls.

If religious faith took the form of anti-trafficking enthusiasm more often (as opposed to some of its other manifestations), we might all be better off. As often happens in the anti-adoption context, this article asks why activists like Haugen don’t “deal with the inequality that gives rise to the problem”. Of course, that should be happening at many levels in the international political system. But is it? And in the meantime, do we just accept that brothel sex is part of the landscape and work to provide better “regulation”?  Is better regulation genuinely possible or likely, given the sort of abuse, corruption and general horror described in the Thrupkaew article itself?