Monday, April 6, 2015

A Cautionary Tale for the Storyteller

I could talk for days about the need for accountability and transparency within organizations that deal with the problem of sexual exploitation. I could spend this entire post arguing for why "Men's Rights" campaigns are doing anything but promoting men's rights - instead, they, on the whole, chastise and criticize anything and everything to do with women's rights. I even could make broad, sweeping predictions for the future of anti-trafficking work after the Somaly Mam scandal broke last summer.

If those are the topics you are interested in, read more from these various sources:

If the name "Somaly Mam" is completely new to you, please do not use my coverage as your only source. It is not at all detailed enough. Here are the highlights and multiple sides to the story:

In this post, I will not reach a conclusion about what was true or not true about Somaly's stories. Nor will I discuuss any of the topics listed above. Instead, I recommend that you read the sources I've provided to reach your own conclusions. Today I want to talk about a very specific issue that the Somaly scandal has brought up for me: the danger of storytelling in this work. I will do so by summarizing her story from the perspective of her ex-husband, Pierre Legros. I had the incredible opportunity to chat with him earlier this week to ask his opinions on the dangers of telling survivors' stories after witnessing its consequences firsthand.

It would be nice if aftercare could exist in its purest form: survivor-focused and evidence-based. However, organizations providing aftercare have to get money from somewhere. Unfortunately, these sources often want the invasive details of their beneficiaries' pasts. This is what sells.

Now, there is a therapeutic place for storytelling. In fact, it is a vital component of most trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy programs (TF-CBT), and these programs have been shown to be effective for survivors of sexual exploitation. There is something incredibly healing about sharing your story with someone you can trust. However, this is always done in safe environment, and the story is rarely (in responsible organizations) published or reproduced for the sake of fundraising. All of this also requires fully informed consent.

But this is a dangerously fine line.

My conversation with Pierre, who co-founded the anti-trafficking NGO, AFESIP, in Cambodia with Somaly, ranged from topic to topic. One of which was his predictions for the future of NGO's as a whole. He is a self proclaimed pessimist after his experiences, and I am still processing the advice he gave me at the outset of my career.

The topic of focus, however, was the events that led to Somaly's resignation from her own foundation after it was revealed that parts of her story and other survivors' were fabricated. But her dangerous step into storytelling began long before this incident.

Pierre spearheaded the creation and publication of the Somaly's book, which began selling in English during 2008 under the title, "The Road of Lost Innocence." At the time, he says, he wholeheartedly believed the stories Somaly told about her past. Looking back, however, he says "she speaks what the people want to hear." Because donors and celebrities seemed drawn in by stories of young girls' oppression, that is what she told. Whether true or not - she told these stories for the sake of fundraising and fame.

This is one of the three factors that Pierre described to me as the roots of the scandal - Somaly, unfortunately, prioritized achieving notoriety above victim protection. The second factor he describes is the world's demand and reception of these stories. Somaly's fame exploded within the U.S., which Pierre believes points to a serious problem:

"Americans are more - I don't want to be rash or hard with Americans - but they are more perceptive with this type of person - person and personality and what she represents and what she is and what she intend to show the people she is. You know what I mean? She's an actress. In U.S., actress - they like it."

It is a sobering observation. Pierre is certainly not blaming the U.S. society for the situation, but our obsession with icons certainly promotes an environment where sensational stories are more regularly told, without concern for consequences.

Finally, he explained that the public understanding of the term "trafficking" has become far too broad, and this opens loopholes for NGO's to claim that they do this type of work when they are not. He says, "We translate trafficking to 'violence against women'. Yes, it is violence, but physical violence or psychological violence is quite different from trafficking. Trafficking is quite complicated." His point is that there is now a trend to be 'anti-trafficking,' and organizations that work with children or women in any capacity are beginning to take on this label. In this situation, it is very tempting for an organization to manipulate stories to fit this mold so that they can receive funding from trafficking-specific grants or donors interested in this issue.

Our conversation eventually reached the question of 'How?' I wanted to know how these stories came to be. Pierre confirmed my suspicions. When a victims is interviewed by someone like Somaly, there is an inherent power differential. Even if she tried to ensure informed consent for the story to be shared, there is a pressure on these survivors to share their story in order to please someone in authority over them. That says nothing about the alleged explicit pressure placed on these survivors to tell a story that fits the image for trafficking.

Once again, I am not going to tell you the conclusions I have reached about the truth of the Somaly scandal. I am happy to talk about that privately, and nothing that Pierre told me contradicts anything he is quoted to say in the articles I have linked here. Since I am not a journalist and do not have the resources to investigate this further, I do not feel comfortable writing a conclusion about the incident in this public format.

I have, however, reached some clear conclusions about the dangers of storytelling for those providing care to survivors of sexual exploitation:

  1. The demand in our society for sensational stories about trafficking victims combined with the pressing need of NGO's to raise funds creates a dangerous scenario, where these victims' stories are at risk for being handled irresponsibly or even completely falsified.
  2. The power dynamics and other intangible factors must be considered in the process of gathering information from victims if this is done at all.
  3. Responsible organizations that make victim protection their utmost priority should establish clear policies regarding storytelling and information sharing for the sake of fundraising.
  4. Donors, celebrities, and everyday supporters of the anti-trafficking movement should carefully research organizations regarding their policies on storytelling and victim protection before donating or promoting these entities.
  5. As a whole, I do not believe the ends justifies the means. Just because money raised through questionable methods goes to a good cause does not excuse problematic storytelling - especially in the case exploited individuals. Frankly, irresponsible use of an individual's story of exploitation in order to raise funds is exploitative in and of itself. Organizations must wake up to this hypocrisy.

I am grateful to Pierre Legros for his time and honesty to talk about a very personal experience for him. I hope that people more influential than I will reach similar conclusions and begin addressing the growing problem of irresponsible storytelling in this work.


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