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.

5 thoughts on “Happy Endings?

  1. You want an example of sexual human trafficking?In 1977 INS in Chicago busted Emil Leutner,a South Milwaukee police officer for violation 0f 8USC1328,Importation of Aliens for Immoral Purposes-Leutner lured 13/14 year old girls from Mexico to a motel he was connected with on the pretense of domestic employment and held them captive forcing them to have sex with dozens of men a day,mostly Mexican farmworkers in southern Wisconsin.Leutner did the world a favor by dying before trial.This is the kind of thing human trafficking for sex involves.
    Adult women legally in the US who are not under physical compulsion can’t be considered “trafficked”.If they are free to come and go and make more than the equivalent of minimum wage,the case is nearly impossible to make.
    The gambling thing is weird-when I worked security at Lincoln Park,a lot of massage parlor workers would come in to gamble,and they didn’t gamble small.Hard to call people “slaves”when they can drop a few grand a night at the slots.Most of them weren’t young,either.There were also a lot of strippers who came in.Must be something about the sex trade that induces a likeliehood to gamble.??
    I will say this again ,having worked on the Alien Smuggling Unit in Chicago INS for a few years-the real human trafficking is in laborers,and not by any means all Latinos.The non-Mexicans(“OTM’s”)pay a whole lot more money to get smuggled in.
    The West Coast was inundated by Indonesian slavery cases for many years.They were not used as sex slaves so much as sort of domestic indentured servants.I never ran into any cases,but the agents from Frisco,LA,etc had experience with this.
    On a previous post about Roman Polanski I described an alien smuggler who kept a woman as a slave in his basement.Happily after I arrested him,he died in prison.
    This is an incredubly complex issue,Nancy,which it seems you are well aware of.

  2. thanks Joe, your well-informed comments are very welcome. yes, this is complex. that’s one reason i am not active in the coalition anymore. i am discouraged at some of the politics that has worked its way in, especially during the bush admnistration, and i am mistrustful of the Wilberforce Act which i think could have unintended consequences. i’m not a lawyer, and i could be wrong, but historically the Mann Act was abused to target individuals for their politics, and I don’t think we can stop prostitution altogher any more than we can prohibit alcohol or make guns illegal. no law can work if enough people disobey it. Donna Hughes speaks contemtuously of harm reduction, but that is a strategy I support.

  3. Harm reduction-looking for the real abuses in any area rather than “one size fits all” thinking-that is real progressive thinking as opposed to the nanny state”we know what’s best for you”mentality which drives me up a wall.That is an example of lazy intellectual mental masturbation.I have a libertarian streak that innately rebels against behavioral laws that are counterintuitive to what most people have no problem with.
    Prostitution,guns,alcohol,marijuana-all can be the focus of truly bad behavior-if someone is “straw purchasing”guns for resale on the street,I am all for locking them up,but I don’t think it’s anyone’s business if I own an AR15 with a 30 round magazine-I have no criminal or mental health history and never had a restraining order,so the most likely thing I will kill is paper targets,because I don’t like game meat.

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