Prohibition and Prostitution. The chapter begins at a bustling border village between India and Nepal, where thousands of Nepali girls are trafficked. Kristof strikes up a conversation with an Indian intelligence officer, who says he is monitoring the border for stolen goods as well as terrorist suspects, as security has increased since 9/11. Kristof asks if he also looks for trafficked girls, at which the officer chuckles and says that prostitution is unfortunate but inevitable. Plus, the officer adds, trafficking peasant girls keeps “good” middle-class girls safe.
Kristof’s conversation with the intelligence officer highlights cultural obstacles toward gender equality. Women, especially women of lower class, are often so devalued that law enforcement may be less concerned about their wellbeing than about the recovery of stolen goods. The officer’s dismissal of trafficked women reflects the ethic of slavery, in which humans are literally commodities. Here, however, the officer regards humans as worth even less than factory-made commodities.
The authors write that modern slavery exists for the same reason African American slavery existed: slaves are considered subhuman. It’s possible to end modern slavery, they argue, “but the political will is lacking.” Western societies are not culpable for this slavery, since most Western men who patronize prostitutes do not go to brothels, they explain. Rather, the authors call for the West to act because its “action is necessary to overcome a horrific evil.”
In the transatlantic slave trade, Western societies were directly responsible for the institution. In modern sex slavery, on the other hand, the authors think the West has a duty to respond to global sex trafficking not because the West is directly culpable, but because intervention is both morally right and necessary for slavery to end.
While there have been successful U.S. bipartisan efforts to raise awareness of sex trafficking, the authors write, generally the issue has been divisive, which has weakened the modern abolitionist movement. They explain that the U.S. left is less judgmental of sex workers, while the right views all prostitution as demeaning. These are ideological differences that keep party members from collaborating to solve the injustices they all condemn.
Some obstacles to giving successful foreign aid, the authors point out, start at home. This fact gives a broader perspective to the repercussions of political discord in the U.S.—repercussions that often go undetected—and to what could be achieved if that discord were set aside.
Kristof and WuDunn pose the question, what policy would end slavery? They explain that, at first, they believed that legalization and regulation of prostitution would be better than flat-out prohibition, but their views evolved—now they think prohibition is best, a stance supported by empirical evidence. Crackdowns on brothel operations, when paired with rehabilitation services for former prostitutes, can largely succeed, they argue.
The authors lend credibility to their argument by showing another example of how their views have evolved. This demonstrates their serious consideration and admission of past errors. Here, what might seem like the more empathetic and progressive solution—viewing prostitution as inevitable, and therefore demanding regulation for sex workers’ protection—is shown to be incorrect by empirical evidence.
Kristof and WuDunn write about a crowded, sprawling network of brothers in Kolkata, India, called Sonagachi, often cited as a successful example of legalized and regulated brothel operations. A sex worker union called Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) was founded there in the 1990s, encouraged the use of condoms, lowered the AIDS rate, supposedly blocked forced prostitution, and even began giving tours of Sonagachi. Models like Sonagachi, they mention, have the indirect support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In order to weigh the different arguments for and against prostitution regulation, the authors introduce the reader to a much-praised example of regulations in practice. Sonagachi’s history of good publicity and some real achievements shows the nuance needed in determining when policies fail or succeed—what looks successful on the surface may have well hidden failures.
Yet, further examination shows that Sonagachi’s success is more modest than advertised. Kristof and WuDunn acknowledge that, after Kristof criticized Sonagachi, liberals in India accused him of undermining the self-ownership of sex workers, who are trying to make better lives for themselves. One liberal wrote, “Your stance . . . smacks of the Western missionary position of rescuing brown savages from their fate.” But, the authors argue, many sex workers in Kolkata have contrary views.
By noting the criticism of Indian liberals, the authors acknowledge a popular counterargument of the “white savior.” A common trope, the white savior is a white person who imposes his or her own values on people of color in a patronizing way that dismisses cultural differences and degrades their autonomy. However, the authors try to show that their argument derives from the experience of sex workers, not from their own Western self-righteousness.
Kristof and WuDunn introduce the reader New Light, an organization that supports current and former sex workers, and to Geeta Ghosh. Geeta has seen a very different side of Sonagachi, they write, and was kidnapped as a child by a trusted woman, enslaved at twelve, kept in a room, and raped for a month by the same man. She worked for years under the threat of execution. Her experience is not uncommon—the authors write about a Yale researcher who researched and toured Sonagachi, and was told that most sex workers were in fact trafficked, and that customers could spend a few extra pennies to not wear a condom.
The authors’ choice to report the experience of a former sex worker—rather than, for instance, Kristof’s own experience visiting Sonagachi—to weigh prostitution regulation vs. prohibition helps refute the implied “white savior” indictment. Continually throughout the book, they report the words and experiences of women they’ve interviewed in an effort to draw attention to voices often unheard, rather than position themselves as central spokespersons for oppressed women.
The authors examine different approaches to prostitution in order to assess what they call the “legalize-and-regulate” model vs. the “big-stick approach,” with prohibition enforced by crackdowns. While Sonagachi did curb AIDS slightly, a more successful reduction happened in Mumbai, the authors explain, where numbers of prostitutes have fallen dramatically in recent years, partly due to American pressure for crackdowns—the big stick approach. The authors use the Netherlands and Sweden as another illustration of regulation vs. prohibition. The Netherlands legalized prostitution for the sake of sex workers’ health and safety in 2000, they write, while in 1999 Sweden criminalized buying sexual services, but not sex work itself, reflecting the view that prostitutes are likely victims, not criminals. Sweden’s crackdowns had more success, driving down the price of sex services and discouraging traffickers. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Amsterdam has become a sex tourism destination with many trafficked prostitutes, the authors report, and there’s no evidence that STDs or HIV rates have decreased.
Kristof and WuDunn use the examples of Sweden and the Netherlands to explain their support of the big-stick approach to prostitution. They therefore exemplify what they argue in the book’s final chapter, that solutions should be based on rigorously empirical evidence, not on intuition. Examination of Sweden and the Netherlands works as evidence in tandem with testimony from Geeta Ghosh, to round out the author’s argument for zero-tolerance of prostitution.
In the developing world, this debate is mostly a distraction, the authors argue, because the establishment of laws doesn’t guarantee that governments will actually enforce those laws. Only in recent years have U.S. embassies gathered information on trafficking (in a document called the Trafficking in Persons, or TIP, report), and the issue needs to feature on the international agenda, holding countries to much higher standards for crackdowns. The big-stick approach should focus on punishing men in Asia who purchase virgins, they argue, which would have a positive domino effect. Further, the authors point out that crackdowns have already had success in parts of Cambodia, after data on trafficking led to shaming of the Cambodian government—there, finding a young girl showcased in a brothel window is less common now than it used to be.
By reporting on the ways international attention gradually weakens the sex trafficking industry, the authors give empirical evidence of far-reaching effects that follow when Western countries give sustained attention to injustices in the developing world. This section anticipates later arguments in the book that Americans can work toward gender equity by demanding that their own government give more attention to sex trafficking.
Rescuing Girls is the Easy Part. Kristof and WuDunn begin by saying they became slave owners by simply paying cash in exchange for two young women. But rescuing girls, they write, is easy, while preventing them from returning to brothels is hard. Their unexpected purchases happened when Kristof was traveling as a correspondent in Cambodia, and stayed in a brothel in Poipet. With an interpreter, he interviewed two young women under the guise of hiring them, Srey Neth and Srey Momm.
This section’s jarring opening, in which the authors describe themselves as slave owners, makes viscerally real the existence of slavery today, not just in a previous century. This helps the reader feel, rather than intellectually understand, the shocking reality of modern slavery.
Neth is a thin teenager in tight jeans and a pink t-shirt, nervous at being in the company of two men. In a monotone voice, she recounts her road to enslavement: a female cousin, telling the family Neth would be selling fruit, sold her to a brothel, who sold her as a virgin to a Thai man. Now she is trapped in the brothel, dead-eyed and prized for her light skin. With Neth’s consent, she and Kristof scheme for him to buy her, so that she can return home. For $150, she soon “belongs” to Kristof.
The description of Neth’s clothes, which recalls any typical American teenager’s dress, helps the reader to understand the innocence and ordinariness of sex trafficking victims. Neth, a Cambodian teenager, is no different from any American teenager, the authors imply, and deserves the life and rights that a healthy, safe American teenager might have.
Kristof finds Srey Momm, a frail young girl, in a different brothel. In Kristof’s description, Momm vacillates between cheerful and hysterical, and pleads to be purchased and returned home. Kristof does just that, for $203.
Just as he does for Neth, Kristof buys Momm from her brothel, again making stark the reality that humans can be bought in modern society with not very much cash.
Neth was welcomed back by her family, and opened a village store, her dream, while American Assistance for Cambodia kept an eye on her progress. Momm’s return home was, at first, jubilant, as her whole village flocks to her with cheers and embraces, and her mother sprinted a mile from work to greet her, sobbing. It was decided that Momm would rent a market stall, with help from the same American aid group, which went well at first. A week later, however, Kristof received the terrible news that Momm had a methamphetamine addiction, and had voluntarily returned to the brothel. American Assistance for Cambodia helped her twice more to establish a new life, but each time she returned. The next year, Kristof saw Momm in the same brothel, where she kneeled and begged forgiveness.
The reappearance of American Assistance for Cambodia (following their relationship with Overlake School in Pailin) is significant: by showing a single group assisting women in multiple narratives, the authors subtly show the influence aid groups can have. However, the group’s repeated efforts do not keep Momm from returning to her brothel multiple times, underscoring the fact that no aid group’s work will always succeed—rather, so many other factors beyond aid must align in order for complete success.
Neth and Momm illustrate, the writers argue, that many women live a blurred line between slavery and voluntary sex work. Over time, Momm’s role in the brothel leaned toward managerial, and soon she would be beating other girls. But she escaped that fate, as her brothel folded due to crackdowns and the cost of bribery. Suddenly, Momm was free. She married a former customer and settled into a better life.
Categorizing people is easy, but the nuance of the sex slave trade resists black and white designation: some girls may be effectively trapped, though technically free to choose a life outside prostitution. Importantly, this echoes the earlier argument that simply rescuing a forced prostitute does not free her—bondage is more than being locked in a room, and can include forced drug addiction. Moreover, the managerial future Momm escaped highlights the cyclical nature of the sex trade.
Meanwhile, the authors write, Neth’s flourishing shop led to more competition in her village. But worse, men in her family, refusing to respect a young female entrepreneur, abused the shop, stealing as they wished, and finally raided it. Desperate to help her ailing father financially, Neth agreed to go with a trafficker to Thailand, where a job as dishwasher was promised. American Assistance for Cambodia, however, persuaded her not to—it was another trap for sex trafficking. Instead, the group found a reputable salon where Neth then studied hairdressing. All was going beautifully, when Neth’s health began to decline. She had HIV.
At first, Neth’s story illustrates that helping a former forced prostitute establish a new life can meet unforeseen obstacles—misogynistic cultural attitudes did not permit Neth’s financial success to go unpunished. However, sustained support from American Assistance for Cambodia did lead to a job at a hair salon, which led to a career, showing that, even when difficult, commitment from aid groups is worthwhile.
A young, educated suitor fell in love with Neth, and she fell in love with him. They soon began a loving marriage, but she never told him about her history in the brothel, or her HIV. Kristof and WuDunn, who maintained a friendship with Neth, describe their heartbreak at seeing Neth deceive her husband about a disease that endangered him and their baby, with whom she was pregnant. But, Neth finally agreed to take another HIV test, a more reliable one that came back negative. After her earlier suffering, Neth eventually had a healthy baby, a caring husband, and plans to open a beauty shop.
Neth’s tumultuous saga shows the aftereffects of life in a brothel—although she ultimately did not have HIV, she endured the terror of believing she’d pass it onto her baby, meanwhile hiding her past her husband out of shame and fear. Yet it also shows that, even after a rocky reentry into freedom, life is long and hope can restore itself, especially with support from others.
Kristof and WuDunn outline three lessons in this story. First, rescuing girls from brothels is a complex mission. Second, the difficulty should not make anyone forfeit the mission. Third, even if a problem is so formidable it can’t be eradicated, it’s worth mitigating. They end with a Hawaiian parable, in which a boy on a beach tosses washed up starfish back into the ocean. A nearby man says that there are too many starfish, and he’ll never make a difference. The boy responds, “It sure made a difference to that one.”
In Cambodia, Kristof took two girls out of slavery, similar to the parable’s boy who rescues one starfish at a time. The fact that neither figure could help all the girls, or starfish, did not negate the importance of those they did help. Including the parable and the three listed lessons tacitly encourages readers to summon resolve and work toward gender equality, while bearing in mind that their work will not free every enslaved woman—or even solve all the problems faced by any one enslaved woman.