Happy Endings Documentary

Since the first brothel raid on Club Osaka in the late 1990’s the police have claimed that the alleged victims will not testify. That there are victims seems certain. Human trafficking is real and there are infinite ways to coerce vulnerable people. But are the most visible exploiters of the ‘loophole’, the Asian spas, holding women against their will? Or is the nature of the problem more subtle and connected with other social problems like poverty and racism? Is prostitution being conflated with slavery in order to sell arrest as rescue?

For the first time, women from the spas testified in the General Assembly. Surely they don’t represent all sex workers and all situations, but this is an important voice that has to be heard or the good intentions of anti-trafficking activists could result in more danger and isolation for people who decide, or are forced, to sell sex.

I’m rerunning a review of Tara Hurley’s documentary, and you can visit her blog here.

Happy Endings

In the debate on human trafficking in Rhode Island one point of view is conspicuously absent — that of the women concerned. Who are the women who live in the ‘spas’ advertised in the Providence Phoenix? Are they here illegally? Are they underage? Are they forced into prostitution? Tara Hurley spent three years interviewing spa workers, johns, police, politicians and activists. She takes you through the doors, covered with police association stickers, that lead into the spas. She says that her documentary film, ‘Happy Endings?’ is a tough sell because it offers no easy answers, and no one comes off looking good.

Human trafficking has been referred to as modern-day slavery. In the US and worldwide, women, men and children are tricked and coerced into working involuntarily in factories, farms, homes and brothels. This is fact, and a heinous violation of human rights. ‘Rescue and Restore’ is a viable strategy in these cases. But what is the strategy when the ‘victim’ is free to walk out the door?

On one side are the ‘New Abolitionists’ who see themselves as rescuers, on the other ‘Sex Workers’ who don’t acknowledge the damage that prostitution can do to women, children and communities.

“In a roundabout way, they’re being held against their will.” says ‘Greg’, an undercover police officer on the vice squad.

As Providence police Major Steve Campbell testifies, the women in the spas are adult, South Korean. Sometimes they are married to Americans, they are here legally.

They are here to make money.

“No one is forced to work.” says ‘Heather’, a spa owner who let Hurley interview her along with her American husband ‘Chris’.

“They’re here to make money.”, says ‘Jen’, a spa worker, with an angry contempt that even comes through the voice distorter, “What do you think? They want to have sex?”

“In your life, everybody’s for rent.” says Chris. He seems happy with this state of affairs. As the police lean harder on the spa, Chris becomes more powerful, wheeling and dealing, talking to his lawyer, getting the women released.

Heather goes to Boston for immigration hearings, seeking a green card that always seems just about to be granted– and always delayed. Her homesickness becomes more evident as the documentary unwinds. She seems to regret what her life has become. She arrived here single, 43 years old:

“I heard from the people I work with you could make a lot of money just by giving massages. I had just failed at operating my own business and I didn’t want to be a burden on my siblings. I could be brave because I was uninformed. I wasn’t planning on getting married, so I thought that would be the best solution for me… Many underwent working as a prostitute before becoming owners.”

The film takes a turn down lurid, neon-lit streets in Korea where the spa industry grew after Korea suffered a financial crash in the ’90’s. Lack of money creates desperation. And money becomes addictive. The women live in the spas, and can earn $18,000-$20,000 a month. And then lose it at Foxwoods. Compulsive gambling is common, and then they are back working off their gambling debts.

Jen, who appears in silhouette with her voice altered for anonymity, explains why she does it:

“There’s no fun, no babying. I want to make money so I can pay my bills. My kids…I’m single and I have two sons. There’s no life for me, and I don’t want a life for me. What’s good for my family. If I have to die, I am going to die for my family.”

There is a deep alienation. The alienation of the women from their own feelings. The language and culture difference that allows both prostitute and john to project their fantasies on each other. If Jen is harsh with herself, she has more contempt for the customers. They in turn can act out a racist fantasy of the submissive Asian woman. In any case, it’s all about money.

Is prostitution a victimless crime? Danielle tells how she lost $80,000 in a failed attempt to open a spa in a working class neighborhood. That was on a corner in Fox Point adjacent to an elementary school, a children’s library and the Fox Point Boys and Girls Club. Danielle seems not to want to understand why the Neighborhood Association did not want johns cruising their streets.

At one point Heather, who is truly hurt and frightened by a police raid on her business, says that it’s racial discrimination. But these women who live in their half-world don’t know how much hurt they are dishing out. Rhode Islanders don’t want our state to be a destination for sex tourists. As Rep. Joanne Giannini says in the film, “What a thing for Rhode Island to be known for!”

What to do? Hurley follows the spa raid in 2006 that led the National Council of Jewish Women to organize a community forum that drew more than 300 attendees. About 50 of them formed the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking. A year of work and lobbying brought the passage of a law against “Trafficking of Persons and Involuntary Servitude.” Which so far has changed nothing. The reconstituted Coalition is lobbying for the Federal Wilberforce Act, which they hope will be a more effective legal tool. But the dilemma still exists. How do you save people who don’t want to be saved without running over personal freedom? And how do you stop prostitution? Harsh laws have never done anything but drive the trade underground, and make it more dangerous.

As Danielle says of her gambling habit, but it could apply to her life — “You get lucky you win, but you lose more.”

Heather speaks though a Korean interpreter, seeking to explain herself, to reconcile her conscience with who she has become. She pursues her receding goal of enough money and a green card, and in the end loses everything. Meanwhile the spas multiply, women are picked up in raids, the johns walk.

“Happy Endings?” has no answers, but brings up better questions. It’s a film that gives a voice to a group of women who are much talked about, but seldom heard. With heart and objectivity, and with courage, Tara Hurley walked through the doors and let the women speak. We have to listen to them if we want to help. I hope that Tara Hurley will find a place to show her film.

To read Tara’s blog, follow the link here.

To see a trailer from the film, go here.

Ascension Receives $11,000 Grant for Children’s Music Program

In the good news department, Church of the Ascension (interview with Rector of Ascension Greg Lisby) in Cranston will be receiving $11,000 from the Episcopal Diocese to start a children’s music program.

This is wonderful news. Speaking personally, it has been a tremendous joy to watch my older daughter develop her musical skills as a member of the St. Cecilia choir at St. Luke’s in East Greenwich. There are 54 choristers in the choir at St. Luke’s and they have done some wonderful singing this year, both in church and in the production of their Cantata, “The Rock Slinger and His Greatest Hit.” The children are also instructed in music theory following the Royal School of Church Music curriculum.

Ascension is hoping to begin a program modeled on the successful program at St. Luke’s. Stay tuned for updates and announcements as we invite the community to participate in and benefit from this program. For those parents in Cranston who feel like they want their children to have more education in music than they get in public school, the program starting at Ascension may be the place to come.

On a side note, Church of Ascension has become a Goodsearch charity. Click on this link to start Goodsearching to benefit Church of the Ascension.

The Plot Thickens

It’s getting pretty thick. Don’t step in it. The woman involved in the affair with Sen. John Ensign is asking why he felt the need to confess. She wasn’t ready to go public.
Cindy Hampton and her husband and her kid all have their names in the papers and they are not happy.

“It is unfortunate the senator chose to air this very personal matter, especially after the Hamptons did everything possible to keep this matter private,” Las Vegas lawyer Daniel Albregts said in the statement. “It is equally unfortunate that he did so without concern for the effect such an announcement would have on the Hampton family.”

The wronged husband, Doug Hampton, was making over $13,000 a month working for Ensign as an ‘administrative assistant’. All you administrative assistants out there–I never knew the job was so lucrative.

It’s going to be more about lucre than lust when the full story comes out. I’m tired of seeing people outed for private behavior–even hypocrites who brag about their valuable families. But if Ensign used public money for private misbehavior he’s got nowhere to hide.

The Truth About Healthcare: More is Not Always Better

For those who are concerned about health care, health care costs, and health care reform, I highly recommend Atul Gawande’s report from McAllen, Texas, where Medicare spending is twice the national average.  From The New Yorker: 

It is spring in McAllen, Texas. The morning sun is warm. The streets are lined with palm trees and pickup trucks. McAllen is in Hidalgo County, which has the lowest household income in the country, but it’s a border town, and a thriving foreign-trade zone has kept the unemployment rate below ten per cent. McAllen calls itself the Square Dance Capital of the World. “Lonesome Dove” was set around here.

McAllen has another distinction, too: it is one of the most expensive health-care markets in the country. Only Miami—which has much higher labor and living costs—spends more per person on health care. In 2006, Medicare spent fifteen thousand dollars per enrollee here, almost twice the national average. The income per capita is twelve thousand dollars. In other words, Medicare spends three thousand dollars more per person here than the average person earns.

The explosive trend in American medical costs seems to have occurred here in an especially intense form. Our country’s health care is by far the most expensive in the world. In Washington, the aim of health-care reform is not just to extend medical coverage to everybody but also to bring costs under control. Spending on doctors, hospitals, drugs, and the like now consumes more than one of every six dollars we earn. The financial burden has damaged the global competitiveness of American businesses and bankrupted millions of families, even those with insurance. It’s also devouring our government. “The greatest threat to America’s fiscal health is not Social Security,” President Barack Obama said in a March speech at the White House. “It’s not the investments that we’ve made to rescue our economy during this crisis. By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation’s balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care. It’s not even close.”  [full text]

Rationing Health Care

I’d love to just steal David Leonhardt’s excellent analysis in the New York Times today, ‘Limits in a System That’s Sick’ and paste the whole thing here. It’s hard to pick and choose when the whole essay is full of new perspectives.

Leonhardt points out the obvious–we are already rationing health care, and not in a fair or sensible way. Everyone who has to deal with the system, as a worker or a patient, knows that some people are getting meds and tests that they don’t even need, for profit and liability reasons– and others are suffering for lack of basic, effective, preventive health care that is proven to work.

But not all the costs are seen in the hospital—

There are three main ways that the health care system already imposes rationing on us. The first is the most counterintuitive, because it doesn’t involve denying medical care. It involves denying just about everything else.

The rapid rise in medical costs has put many employers in a tough spot. They have had to pay much higher insurance premiums, which have increased their labor costs. To make up for these increases, many have given meager pay raises.

Anyone who works for a small business knows how true this is. Leonhardt compares the US with other countries and explains why Americans pay more for less. A chart in the article shows survival rates in several countries. If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, stay here. If you need a kidney transplant, better go to Canada. I think I know why.

We are good at catastrophic care–doing the surgery. We are not good at the basic preventive care that your transplant patient will need for all the years of his life. If we could put the money where it will do the most good, we could have the best of high tech, and keep the need for it to a minimum.