Brothels traditionally evoked, at least in the arts, a certain glamour. They sounded, to those of us who have never visited one, like places of enchantment: Louis Armstrong plays in the background if we're in New Orleans, Toulouse-Lautrec makes sketches if we're in Paris. Upstairs a sympathetic prostitute, from a Guy de Maupassant story, tactfully conducts a young man's sexual initiation as a favour to his father. The myth has always been light-hearted.
But there's nothing light-hearted about the word "brothel" when it appears in the news today. Journalists describe brothels all over the world filled with slave prostitutes. Recruiters entice impoverished women across borders with promises of jobs as waitresses or hotel workers, then sell them to pimps. They live desperate and brutalized lives, prevented from escaping, often beaten, having sex with 10 or 15 men a day. Organizations, including the UN and the U.S. State Department, publicize their misery.
Since it happens in secret, enforced prostitution can't be quantified, though various organizations try. The International Office of Migration says 400,000 now endure this life but you can find much higher numbers: Clare Nolan, a Roman Catholic nun and a campaigner in this field, has said that every year somewhere between 700,000 and two-million women and girls leave their home countries and enter this special version of hell.
Ric Esther Bienstock, in her excellent 90-minute documentary, Sex Slaves (it ran on CBC last week and will later appear on PBS and Channel 4 in Britain), ignores most of the big numbers and concentrates on a few victims and victimizers. At the centre of her film is a Moldovan woman named Katia who, on a trip to Turkey to buy products for her mother's market stall, discovers that Vlad, a man who has been helping her, is a whore-trader. He sells her to a pimp, who quickly sells her to another pimp. Her Ukrainian husband goes to Turkey (followed by Bienstock's camera) to pose as a trader and buy her back. Eventually she gets out and the trader pleads guilty to kidnapping. Thanks to a suspiciously kind judge in Moldova, he gets a suspended sentence.
Vlad then gives Bienstock a long interview about what he did, believed to be the first such on-camera confession ever. ("The amount depended on Katia's looks. I was paid US$1,000. That's how they evaluated Katia.") Bienstock adroitly inserts pieces of Vlad throughout the film, a clever move. Unutterably sleazy, he sets the tone, acting as a kind of perverse commentator.
Bienstock tells the story straight, without shading. As she acknowledges, grey areas don't work well in films. But this is an arena of opinion that's strewn with ambiguities. While clearly appalling, the story is not so one-dimensional as Bienstock's film and most articles suggest. There's a counter-narrative abroad. No doubt many women are mistreated, but their stories are far too similar to be automatically believed. They always claim they were totally unaware of why they were recruited. It seems always to astound them that they have to work as prostitutes.
Such purported shock is nonsense, says Phelim McAleer of the Financial Times, writing last April in The Spectator. McAleer quotes Andy Felton, a British police officer who works in Romania on a Romanian-British program to stem illegal immigration into the U.K. "Some are tricked," Felton says, "but the overwhelming majority of girls understand before they leave that they will be working in prostitution."
Most were seasoned prostitutes in Romania and if sent home go back to prostitution. To believe they are conned, you have to believe they are idiots who never discuss emigration with other women and never notice the many stories on forced prostitution in newspapers and on TV. But women in a place like Moldova, a former Soviet province, face poverty so oppressive that they are willing to risk falling into the hands of monsters.
William F. McDonald, a Georgetown University scholar, noted in a recent paper that the campaign against the international sex industry rests now on a "central image of the nice girl forced into sexual exploitation," which may not survive the accumulation of better empirical data.
Tom Axworthy, of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queen's University, wrote last week in the Toronto Star that in size the sex trade has become a larger crime than pre-Civil War slavery. He wants Canada to help lead an international campaign to fight it. That task will be extremely hard, maybe impossible; but it will almost certainly require a more realistic assessment than the problem has been given so far.