By now many have heard of the scandal surrounding Cambodian humanitarian Somaly Mam and her self-named anti-sex-trafficking foundation. The story of degradation and then triumph that catapulted her to public attention has been found to have gaping holes in it after a Newsweek exposé came to light. On top of inventing her harrowing past of being sold into a brothel, she allegedly pushed young girls in her organization to spin similar tales. Mam has quietly stepped down as leader of the Somaly Mam Foundation and her journalistic crusader, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, is now saying he wished he had never written about her.
There is shared complicity here, among Mam, Kristof, others in the media and consumers of these heroic narratives. Mam was showered with countless accolades, from Time‘s 100 Most Influential People to CNN’s Heroes to Glamour‘s Women of the Year Award. No one fact-checked.
Mam, obviously quite a beautiful woman, filled a need for an important movement to have a face. But the problem with having one person be the face comes when that face is disgraced, casting a pall on the movement itself.
Mam may not have experienced a lot of the things she said she did, but many women in the world are caught in the pain of sex trafficking. One woman’s fallibility should not overshadow these truths:
- More than 80 percent of trafficking victims are women and girls.
- Fifty percent of trafficking victims are under the age of 18.
- Human trafficking is one of the most lucrative criminal endeavors, second only to drug trafficking and arms dealing.
- Eighty percent of trafficking involves sexual exploitation and 19 percent usually involves forced labor.
- Nearly 70 percent of female trafficking victims develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Though different organizations have different statistics, the U.S. government estimates that approximately 1,500,000 women are trafficked each year.
These facts are what we should pay attention to most in the wake of Mam’s fabrications. The issue of sex trafficking will continue to demand our attention regardless of the rise and fall of its symbolic faces.
Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.