Somaly Mam, the Cambodian anti-sex-trafficking activist turned celebrity figure, has recently come under fire for fabricating much of her personal history, including her purported years spent enslaved in a brothel, Newsweek reported. This has led to a discussion on victim-blaming and whether journalists and other observers should have more empathy or skepticism toward victims.
Mam spent her childhood attending boarding school, not suffering in a Cambodian brothel, according to Newsweek’s expose on her history.
Mam didn’t keep her secret particularly well, Newsweek suggests. She couldn’t always keep her facts straight — the age she claimed at the time of her kidnapping and the duration she was held in the brothel changes across several media platforms — and people had expressed doubts about her story, especially in her native Cambodia and the field of anti-sex-trafficking.
Despite all this, prominent news outlets all over the world promoted Mam and her initiatives without researching her story, according to The Atlantic.
“When stories like hers crumble,” The Atlantic wrote, “few in the media pause to examine how they could have been so thoroughly duped. Fewer still acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating stories that were too good to check out.”
Commenters are upset that the American media did so little research into Mam’s past, wondering why her story was accepted at face value. One particularly notable figure is Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist who has promoted Mam and her foundation extensively in the past.
“If you do invent a story, it provides a resonant formula for your deceptions,” wrote Jesse Walker of the blog Reason. “And that formula is going to be particularly resonant for someone like Kristof, a man who seems especially susceptible to the white-savior fantasies that tales like this tend to foster.”
Believing someone at face value out of a desire to be a hero may be better than the alternative, according to Megan O'Bryan, CEO of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center. Before the Somaly Mam scandal came to light, O’Bryan told Cleveland News that every day she hears stories of rape and assault survivors whose stories were not believed by their community. It is common for rape to go unreported, she wrote, because it is common for rape survivors’ stories to be disregarded.
“I've been asked thousands of times, ‘Why don't they report?’ ” O’Bryan wrote. “I believe we may have reached a tipping point where people might rephrase their question to, ‘Why would a victim report?’ ”
If we ever want to effectively combat rape and related crimes, O’Bryan wrote, “we must individually and collectively take sexual violence more seriously and believe all victims.”
As well as lying about her own history, Newsweek reported, Mam encouraged a handful of girls in her care to exaggerate or fabricate stories of their own to the press.
“Somaly said that … if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well,” as Newsweek quoted one such girl with a widely covered (and false) story of brothel work.
As can be seen in the quote, Mam believed that these stories, while false, would eventually help other women. People have disagreed on whether Mam’s dishonesty matters to her cause or not.
NPR host Guy Raz tweeted the following: “Even if 90% of Somaly Mam's story isn't true, the remaining 10% is so harrowing that it almost doesn't matter.”
The implication is that even if Mam lied extensively, sex trafficking is still a significant problem and something that needs to be addressed and taken seriously, and Mam’s dishonesty should not be considered. Pat Joseph of The Atlantic did not agree.
“The fact is, it matters deeply,” he wrote. “Precisely because NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations) depend on the public’s trust. When people abuse that trust, it not only hurts good causes, it also undermines our faith in the media.”
Others believe the main problem is that Mam’s lying and the reporters who extensively promoted without research may have done further harm to victims of sex trafficking, especially by exaggerating the prominence of brothels and brothel abductions.
“Stopping sexual slavery is obviously a worthy goal, but the single-minded focus on ending traffic ‘into brothels’ has diverted resources from preventing much more common forms of coerced labor — especially since the crackdown has frequently fallen on sex workers who were not in fact being trafficked,” Walker wrote. “In trying to expose one form of abuse, Nicholas Kristof enabled another.”
The point that most of these writers want to make, though, is that despite Mam’s actions, the girls in need must be the focus.
“Allowing the saga of one woman to tarnish the good work done by so many others would be a pity,” wrote Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina bureau chief for the Straits Times. “Women genuinely in need of help — and in Cambodia, there are many — should not have to pay the price for Somaly Mam.”
Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2