In his influential book ’Folk Devils and Moral Panics’ (1972) sociologist Stanley Cohen used the phrase ‘moral entrepreneur’ to describe somebody who starts a public campaign of panic when they feel that certain ‘folk devils’ (for instance, sex workers) are threatening social or cultural values.

Nearly always these panics are seen as ill founded in hindsight.  For instance, the campaign Mary Whitehouse ran again ‘Video Nasties’ which led to the introduction of the Video Recordings Act 1984 in the UK. Whitehouse said that 40% of all 6 year olds had viewed a video nasty, an impressive statistic, yet one that was soon proven to be incorrect by journalists who found 6 year olds admitting to seeing films that had not been made.  She also argued that these 6 year olds would grow up to perform the acts they had seen in these films, on the streets of the UK. The bloodbath Whitehouse predicted in the early 1990’s did not happen of course and these days most people see films like Driller Killer as harmless kitsch. Other examples of moral panics would be the various air born illnesses, which have hit the news over the past decade.

When I have taken part in debates defending porn I get moral entrepreneurs accusing pro-porn industry campaigners from profiting from the immoral porn industry.  I have felt it necessary in recent times to point out how much moral entrepreneurs make from their anti-porn careers (and anti-sex work campaigns) either financially or in social kudos.  Some of them make much more than pornographers with book deals and university lecture tours, all based on the existence of the adult industry, (I’m in the wrong game!).

Here we list some of those people so that you will be in a position to balance both pro and anti sex campaigners’ balance of personal gain from the debate. We are not saying we don't have commercial interests in the sex industry, just that we are not alone...

The Thrill of Rescue: trafficking, slavery and prestige by Dr Laura Augustin

In chapter four of Sex at the Margins, I look at history, at the period when the bourgeoisie started to define what society should look like and how everybody should live (whilst nobility and monarchy were fading from power). I did this historical research to try to understand what saving prostitutes was about, how it began and why. The result of that research was really revealing, showing how the role of Rescuer depends on the existence of Victims who need Rescue because their ways of life appear to be wrong. If you want the full-strength theoretical version, read Helping Women Who Sell Sex. The Rescuer gains a positive sense of identity, of Doing Good.

I do not mean to sneer at anyone’s feelings about life’s meaning or the desire to diminish injustice. But it is important not to take at face value claims to be Helping, Saving or Rescuing just because people say that is what they are doing. I take note of how the Rescue Industry sustains itself and grows, how the cultural meaning of helping and saving changes over time, and I am interested in who gets involved and what they say about their actions.

In the midst of economic crisis, intransigent armed conflicts, increasing socio-economic inequality and general anomie, anti-trafficking and anti-slavery campaigns flourish, with more people and more money involved all the time. Presumably it just feels good, being able to be part of something Big and also something apparently Simple, in which everyone can agree: Slavery is bad. Look at images of Rescue Operations, with people rushing in to save others they don’t know from fires and earthquakes: some people find these actions to be the height of nobility.

Celebrities jump on bandwagons for the sake of publicity, which we may giggle over (consider Ashton Kutcher, Emma Thompson and Mira Sorvino.) But the following comments, which come from a serious person, struck me. Kristen Lindsey expresses a sense of thrill at getting to be part of the anti-slavery crusade, at having arrived on time to Do Something about a social scourge. Her words actually make me slightly queasy: the presence of suffering makes her glad because it gives her Important Work to do. The construction of her own identity is the point.

None of us are free, Kristen Lindsey, 26 October 2011, The Huffington Post

… Growing up, just after the 1960s, I feared that I had missed my chance to take part in the most important movement in our country. I now know that I have found my place — and that all of us can step up and join a movement that matters. This year, I became CEO of The Global Fund for Children…

The torch has been passed to us. Putting an end to modern day slavery is our civil rights movement. Now it’s our time to make a difference, and we must continue to work together to ensure that people everywhere are free.

Anyone who still thinks this movement is about women who sell sex: Wake up. It’s gone way, way past that.

Nicholas Kristof by Dr Laura Augustin

Kristof and the Rescue Industry: the Soft Side of Imperialism:

During a prolonged stay in New York recently I realised that Nicholas Kristof looms very large to many people, while to me he is only one of many annoying members of the Rescue Industry, albeit an egregious one. In the article I published last week about imperialism for Counterpunch Kristof was the obvious choice for main punching bag. The piece was picked up by the NYTimes eXaminer as an Op-Ed, where they added a funny photo.

Numerous people have written to express particular outrage that Kristof’s Facebook game should be like FarmVille, with women taking the place of farm animals, to be looked after. Others wrote to say the word smarmy was just right to describe him. It turns out he’s not such an unquestioned celebrity Rescuer after all.

by LAURA AGUSTÍN, 25 January 2012, Counterpunch

Reasons abound to be turned off by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. He is too pleased with himself and demonstrates no capacity for self-reflection. He is too earnest. He claims to be in the vanguard of journalism because he tweets. He is said to be Doing Something about human suffering while the rest of us don’t care; he is smarmy. He doesn’t write particularly well. But most important, he is an apologist for a soft form of imperialism.

He poses for photos with the wretched of the earth and Hollywood celebrities in the same breath, and they are a perfect fit. Here he is squatting and grinning at black children, or trying to balance a basket on his head, and there he is with his arm over Mia Farrow’s shoulder in the desert. Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.

In interviews, he refers to the need to protect his humanitarian image, and he got one Pulitzer Prize because he “gave voice to the voiceless”. Can there be a more presumptuous claim? Educated at both Harvard and Oxford, he nevertheless appears ignorant of critiques of Empire and grassroots women’s movements alike. Instead, Kristof purports to speak for girls and women and then shows us how grateful they are. His Wikipedia entry reads like hagiography.

Keen to imply that he’s down with youth and hep to the jive, he lamely told one interviewer that “All of us in the news business are wondering what the future is going to be.” He is now venturing into the world of online games, the ones with a so-called moral conscience, like Darfur is Dying, in which players are invited to “Help stop the crisis in Darfur” by identifying with refugee characters and seeing how difficult their lives are. This experience, it is presumed, will teach players about suffering, but it could just as well make refugees seem like small brown toys for people to play with and then close that tab when they get bored. Moral conscience is a flexible term anyway: One click away from Darfur is Dying is a game aimed at helping the Pentagon improve their weapons.

Kristof says his game will be a Facebook app like FarmVille: “You’ll have a village, and in order to nurture this village, you’ll have to look after the women and girls in the village.” The paternalism couldn’t be clearer, and to show it’s all not just a game (because there’s actual money involved), schools and refugee camps get funds if you play well. A nice philanthropic touch.

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. Hollywood westerns lived off the image of white Europeans as civilizing force for decades, depicting the slaughter of redskins in the name of freedom. Their own freedom, that is, in the foundational American myth that settlers were courageous, ingenious, hard-working white men who risked everything and fought a revolution in the name of religious and political liberty.

Odd then, that so many Americans are blind when it comes to what they call humanitarianism, blissfully conscience-free about interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards. The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. Relying on a belief in social evolution, development and modernization as objective truths, contemporary rescuers, like John Stuart Mill 150 years ago, consider themselves free, self-governing individuals born in the most civilized lands and therefore entitled to rule people in more backward ones. (Mill required benevolence, but imperialists always claim to have the interests of the conquered at heart.) Here begins colonialism, the day-to-day imposition of value systems from outside, the permanent maintenance of the upper hand. Here is where the Rescue Industry finds its niche; here is where Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior.

In the formation of the 21st-century anti-trafficking movement, a morally convenient exception is made, as it was made for military actions in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The exception says This Time It’s Different. This time we have to go in. We have to step up and take the lead, show what real democracy is. In the name of freedom, of course. In the case of trafficking the exception says: We have achieved Equality. We abolished slavery, we had a civil-rights movement and a women’s liberation movement too and now everything is fine here.

With justification firmly in place, the US Rescue Industry imposes itself on the rest of the world through policies against prostitution, on the one hand, and against trafficking, on the other. In their book Half the Sky, Kristof and co-author Sheryl WuDunn liken the emancipation of women to the abolition of slavery, but his own actions –brothel raids, a game teaching players to protect village women – reflect only paternalism.

It may be easier to get away with this approach now than it was when W.T. Stead of London’s Pall Mall Gazette bought a young girl in 1885 to prove the existence of child prostitution. This event set off a panic that evil traders were systematically snatching young girls and carrying them to the continent – a fear that was disproved, although Stead was prosecuted and imprisoned for abduction.

In contrast, in 2004 when Kristof bought two young Cambodians out of a brothel, he took his cameraman to catch one girl’s weepy homecoming. A year later, revisiting the brothel and finding her back, Kristof again filmed a heartwarming reunion, this time between him and the girl. Presuming that being bought out by him was the best chance she could ever get, Kristof now reverted to a journalistic tone, citing hiv-infection rates and this girl’s probable death within a decade. She was not hiv-positive, but he felt fine about stigmatizing her anyway.

Then last November, Kristof live-tweeted a brothel raid in the company of ex-slave Somaly Mam. In “One Brothel Raid at a Time” he describes the excitement:

Riding beside Somaly in her car toward a brothel bristling with AK-47 assault rifles, it was scary. This town of Anlong Veng is in northern Cambodia near the Thai border, with a large military presence; it feels like something out of the Wild West. (New York Times)

There’s the cavalry moment again. A few days later Kristof boasted that six more brothels had closed as a result of the tweeted raid. Focused on out-of-work pimps, he failed to ask the most fundamental question: Where did the women inside those brothels go? The closures made them instantly vulnerable to trafficking, the very scenario Kristof would save them from.

Some Rescuers evoke the Christian mission directly, like Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission, which accompanies police in raids on brothels. Or like Luis CdeBaca, the US Ambassador-at-Large for Trafficking, who unselfconsciously aligns himself with William Wilberforce, the evangelical Christian rescuers claim ended slavery – as though slaves and freed and escaped slaves had nothing to do with it. CdeBaca talks about the contemporary mission to save slaves as a responsibility uniquely belonging to Britain and the US.

Kristof positions himself as liberal Everyman, middle-class husband and father, rational journalist, transparent advocate for the underdog. But he likes what he calls the law-enforcement model to end slavery, showing no curiosity about police behavior toward victims during frightening raids. Ignoring reports of the negative effects these operations have on women, and the 19th-century model of moral regeneration forced on them after being rescued, he concentrates on a single well-funded program for his photo-opps, the one showing obedient-looking girls.

Kristof also fails to criticize US blackmail tactics. Issuing an annual report card to the world, the US Office on Trafficking presumes to judge, on evidence produced during investigations whose methodology has never been explained, each country according to its efforts to combat human trafficking. Reprisals follow – loss of aid – for countries not toeing the line. Kristof is an apologist for this manipulative policy.

To criticize the Rescue Industry is not to say that slavery, undocumented migration, human smuggling, trafficking and labor exploitation do not exist or involve egregious injustices. Yet Kristof supporters object to any critique with At least he is Doing Something. What are you doing to stop child rape? and so on. This sort of attempt to deflect all criticism is a hallmark of colonialism, which invokes class and race as reasons for clubbing together against savagery and terrorism. The Rescue Industry, like the war on terrorism, relies on an image of the barbaric Other.

It is important not to take at face value claims to be Helping, Saving or Rescuing just because people say that is what they are doing and feel emotional about it. Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Discussing Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe said Conrad used Africa

as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril… The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. (Things Fall Apart)

The latest sahib in colonialism’s dismal parade, Kristof is the Rescue Industry at its well-intentioned worst.


The Conceit of Nicholas Kristof: Rescuing sex slaves as saintliness:

Some people find commercial sex or prostitution vulgar. I find Nicholas Kristof vulgar: preening, in love with himself, interfering, condescending, happy to pose grinning with brown people and claim to be saving them. A true colonial character – give me tight dresses and flashy colours any day! Since I find him nauseating, I mostly ignore him, though his Wikipedia entry makes him sound a saint (in the Rich White Man category), with prizes for ‘powerful columns that portrayed suffering among the developing world’s often forgotten people and stirred action’ and for ‘giving voice to the voiceless’. Gag. Ashton Kutcher is way preferable.

Lately Kristof live-tweeted a brothel raid alongside Somaly Mam, supposedly blow-by-blow. I am not going to complain about twitter, but the 140-character limit does foster reductionism and clichés. But more important is his claim later that thanks to him and Mam:

In Anlong Veng, Cambodia, 6 more brothels have closed since the raid I live-tweeted there that rescued a seventh-grader.

Great balls of fire, what colossal nerve to make such a claim. I know he is trying to reach the mainstream but it is so offensive he would refer to a young person in Cambodia with a made-in-USA  label like seventh grader. His next claim was:

In part, that’s the power of Twitter. And the fear of traffickers that they could be next to face wrath of @*SomalyMam*

Wrath? A journalist who fosters the notion of a black and white world of bad people punished by good is not a journalist at all but a man selling his own virtue – which by the way is what prostitutes were said to be doing, in the olden days.

But vulgarity and childishness are not so important in the end. The real disorder in Kristof’s blithe chirping about brothels closing is the absence of responsibility towards the people working in them: where did they go? how will they live? do they have a roof over their heads now? How can he not understand that this is just how trafficking can happen, in his own sense of the word?

Not only women who sell sex earn their livelihoods through brothels: barmen, waiters, guards, laundresses, food vendors and others are integrated into these businesses. Those who want to abolish them might at least suggest alternatives if this source of income dries up. As for actual brothel workers, whether they were happy or coerced, the stigma attached to their previous employment could make it difficult to fend for themselves afterwards without turning to unscrupulous characters unless they are very lucky. But in the fairytale land of Rescue, uncomfortable consequences don’t exist and Rescuers are always Doing Good.

A critical perspective is commoner amongst those concerned about so-called Development and Aid. I used the satirical representation at the right on a post about Rescue Tourism, and Africa is a Country also makes fun of him. If you want to read a recent smarmy article by Kristof, try Fighting Back, One Brothel Raid at a Time from 12 November at The New York Times, where he boasts of his own heroism:

But riding beside Somaly in her car toward a brothel bristling with AK-47 assault rifles, it was scary. This town of Anlong Veng is in northern Cambodia near the Thai border, with a large military presence; it feels like something out of the Wild West.

There it is: Rescue as cowboy thrills, a way to live out conceited notions of importance by riding rough-shod through other people’s lives.

Rescue Industry rejected by trafficking victims, Google notwithstanding

I wonder why Google has donated $11.5 million to the same entities that already get masses of money from anti-trafficking funders. Do they need to polish their reputation a bit in mainstream eyes and Rescue is now a guarantee to achieve this? What’s hardest for me to comprehend is why they wouldn’t want to show creativity and even innovation by getting some interns to do research and find some new groups to fund. Why not claim originality in philanthropy if your main corporate claim is how special and interesting and original your technology is? Instead they said:

Each year we focus some of our annual giving on meeting direct human need . . . Google chose to spotlight the issue of slavery this year because there is nothing more fundamental than freedom.

Truly lame.

I have gathered together here some of the best links to stories that bring into question Rescue as the principle mechanism for helping victims. The Rescue tag on this website includes many more blog posts with more resources, but here is, first, an array of striking commentaries on what so few people question: the efficacy of Rescue operations.

Note: This is not about everything that can be wrong with Rescue operations in theory or fact but a list of news stories specifically about people who don’t want to be rescued. For their own reasons, for structural-inequality reasons, inside crappy patriarchy and unfairness everywhere. This is not a list about who is happy or whether selling sex ever feels like a job. And it does not mean that no one is ever glad to be rescued. Instead it shows that Rescue is highly problematic, all over the world. Finally, the list isn’t comprehensive; there must be numerous stories I missed. Most are from the past year and a half but one about ladyboys goes back to 2008.

Charlotte Cooper (author of Obesity Timebomb), produced the picture of Ashton Kutcher at a postprandial drawing session in Stratford a couple of months ago. My own depiction of Mira Sorvino wasn’t nearly as good.