Others have already pointed out the confusing and offensive messages of the campaign, which feature hunky celebs delivering messages of what real men do (i.e. laundry, cook, iron, read directions, etc.) to suggest what they shouldn’t (i.e. buy girls). Sadly, what probably began as a really good intention has become an ever better example of what is wrong with celebrity aid today.
Even before the launch of the “Real Men” campaign, the DNA Foundation, launched in 2007, had rubbed me the wrong way. I first came across them last year, while doing research on anti-trafficking efforts. Their mission is to “raise awareness about child sex slavery, change the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem, and rehabilitate innocent victims.” So how will they achieve their mission? The action center offers “three steps to end child slavery” (ready?): 1) Make your own “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” video; 2) “report” any suspicious activity on Craigslist; and 3) buy a tee-shirt.
My problem is less with these suggestions as it is with the implication that these activities will end child slavery. When supporting any kind of development initiative or charity work, you need two essential things to start: comprehensive information (about the issue and key players in the field); and a healthy dose of reality – there are very few panaceas or overnight fixes, if any exist at all.
The website is an homage to hyperbole and generalization. The first sentence that confronts you, which lacks citation, btw, is, “more people are slaves today than ever before and the numbers are soaring.” I think there’s a gratuitous use of the word “slave” which is borderline link-baiting and exploitative. The wording suggests that all individuals engaging in sex work are necessarily slaves, and that they must be rescued immediately.
Sex trafficking and slavery is one of the most complicated and layered global development issues out there. These ads oversimplify it in many ways. For one, by making it about men and geared toward men, it suggests that there is no one else involved in this horrible situation — that men drive this problem and are the ones with the power to stop it. In fact, trafficking and slavery is a sinister web which involves many players – some women, some men, and even family members. We can all influence the issue.
What about the individual woman’s experience? A gradient exists among those who have been kidnapped and enslaved, and those who are engaging in sex work commercially. It’s easy for anti-trafficking efforts to devolve into a paradigm whereby a [privileged] [man] rides in on a white horse to “rescue” a [poor] [woman]. With this dynamic, it’s easy to steamroll over individual rights, dignity, and complicated personal experiences.
As Alanna Shaikh pointed out in her analysis of Greg Mortenson’s (Three Cups of Tea) unfortunate fall from grace, the public is constantly looking for that panacea and that happy ending. Sometimes we allow a simple lie to continue because we don’t want to accept that the road to success if far messier and far more meandering. Initiatives like DNA, which overly-focus on the end point – a total end to sex slavery – and suggest it’s easy to get there risk actually undermining everything it really takes to get there. In that oversimplification, women’s rights, voices, and experiences get squashed.
Sometimes efforts to address one end of the spectrum end up hurting those at the other, and sometimes good intentions can do a lot of harm. In 2008, for instance, Cambodia passed the “Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” to comply with the US policy on trafficking in persons. This basically set in motion a series of brothel raids that resulted in the abuse and criminalization of sex workers, and the unraveling of many effective health outreach programs which had used brothels as a platform.
I want to give Demi and Ashton credit for drawing attention to this horrible issue…but what if the attention they draw is ill-informed and mis-aligned? Isn’t that more harm than good? They might also take note as one celebrity initiative after another has flopped, all for different reasons but coming down to what Shaikh put her finger on: the sheer hope for a better world, but the lack of mettle to actually get there. Madonna’s Raising Malawi recently dissolved in a heap of disgrace, Kanye West’s foundation for high school drop-outs just mysteriously closed, and even Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute could fall into this camp.
Celebrity aid has now become a development issue in itself, (maybe soon warranting a new arm of the Global Fund?) and aid critics like Bill Easterly have discussed the fundamental flaws at length. Why not just support existing programs doing good work; why leverage your hubris to start your own (ineffective and competing) efforts? The best thing that could happen now is that Demi and Ashton pass the mic to someone who knows what they’re talking about, and some damage control can begin.