Professor Donna Hughes on ‘Happy Endings’

Donna Hughes, an expert on human trafficking and one of the speakers at the community forum that started the Rhode Island Coalition Against Human Trafficking attended a screening of ‘Happy Endings’ at AS220 this Sunday, May 24.

I have differences with Dr. Hughes, and left the Coalition because I didn’t want to be a source of dissension. After the first year, the Coalition seemed on course to support a bill that would ‘close the loophole’ and facilitate arresting alleged prostitutes and customers.

Dr. Hughes supports bill H5044A, which would criminalize selling or buying sex, and offer exemptions for people who were forced or threatened. The bill would close the loophole but what next? Will it be enforced to rescue trafficked people, or to close sex businesses that are a nuisance or economic liability to their neighborhoods?

To detect and prosecute human trafficking will take political will, and a Coalition that won’t disperse once the bill is passed. Anyway, here is Dr. Hughes’ commentary, via her listserve, Dignity–

Donna M. Hughes
Professor, University of Rhode Island

May 25, 2009

Several people have asked me for my opinion about the film “Happy Endings?” On Sunday, I had the opportunity to see the entire film. Here are my comments.

The film should not be viewed by underage children because it includes a sex act filmed in one of the spa-brothels. Some adults may be offended by this.

This is not a film that should be used for education on sex trafficking.

Tara Hurley, the filmmaker, has testified before the RI House Judiciary Committee and said on talk shows that based on observations making the film, there is no sex trafficking in Rhode Island. This is the view that is conveyed by “Happy Endings?”

There are serious omissions of information about the people in the film and political biases that the filmmaker does not acknowledge.

The filmmaker does not identify the three Korean women interviewed in the film as brothel owners or operators. They are not the women doing the sex acts. By definition, the women interviewed in the film are women pimps and possibly traffickers. The women-pimps have a vested interest is saying that the women are there voluntarily. (Letting the women-pimps speak for the women doing the sex acts is like letting the owners of a sweat shop speak for the people running the sewing machines. Of course, they say the workers are content.)

Much of the film was made at an Asian spa-brothel called Central Health (76 Derry Street, Providence). This brothel was included in a federal investigation of Asian Organized Crime for sex trafficking and money laundering. It was one of 31 brothels in an organized crime network operating along the east coast from Boston to South Carolina. (U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York v. Tae Hoon Kim, Sung Chul Il, Fnu Lnu, Tae Jun Park, Kyong Polachek, Byong Il Son, Jin Sook Kim Lee, and Miae Choi-son, August 14, 2006.) During this investigation victims of trafficking were identified. They were controlled with threats to their families in South Korea.

One woman-pimp who is interviewed in the film tried to open a spa-brothel in Fox Point (and was defeated by community organizing against it). She was the operator of Asian Fantasies spa-brothel in Warwick (1550 B Post Road), which was raided last month (April 11, 2009).

The third woman says at the end of the film that she is going to open her own spa-brothel.

We never hear the voices of the women at the bottom, the ones who are sexually exploited and often abused, and sometimes trafficked. We only hear the voices of the women-pimps and two male pimps.

Filmmaker Hurley does not identify close relationship to the sex industry. According to her own blog she has been asked by the Erotic Service Providers Union to be their representative in Rhode Island. A convicted madam from this organization visited her in February. They discussed strategies to decriminalize prostitution.

Hurley has been showing her film in sex industry venues (not human rights film festivals). The film “Happy Endings?” premiered at an erotic film festival (Cinekink) in New York City in January. Next it will be shown as part of a Sex Workers Film Festival in San Francisco in June. (The hostess of the festival is Carol Leigh, also known as “The Scarlet Harlot,” who recently published a book entitled The Unrepentant Whore.)

The film has a grotesque quality to it. All the faces are blurred out, the voices are disguised. The camera often focuses only on the mouth or body of the speaker. There is grainy black and white footage from surveillance cameras inside the spa-brothel. For a number of scenes of men coming to the brothel, Hurley filmed from an upstairs window of the brothel.

If you already know something about sex trafficking in Rhode Island, you can pick-up a few interesting details from the film, but overall, most viewers will leave confused, or worse, they will believe what the women-pimps that say about women choosing to work in the brothels. It is not fair to the exploited and abused women to pretend that this film represents their lives.

7 thoughts on “Professor Donna Hughes on ‘Happy Endings’

  1. I would love to take time to answer all of these allegations directly, and I might do that next time I am on TV. Here are a few quick points.
    1. Of the women I interviewed on camera, 2 of the 3 had been arrested in RI on prostitution charges, the third had been arrested in another state on prostitution charges. Saying these women can not talk to the experiences of working in the spas is completely wrong.
    2. I have never said there is no human trafficking in RI, I said I have never seen any. It is unfortunate that such focus was on the Asian spas only and not any other places that could actually have human trafficking going on.
    3. Yale University Law school invited and flew Maxine Doogan to Conn to be part of a legal panel. When she was in Conn she came to RI to get a copy of my film. We didn’t conspire to make a Union (and aren’t unions good for people who are exploited, so a union would be a good tool against human trafficking?)
    4. I couldn’t represent unions because they want decriminalized prostitution, and I, after making this film I realize legalized prostitution is better in my opinion. If we regulated it, taxed it, we could make sure no one was underage or forced into it.
    5. The Federal case Dr. Hughes is referring to, not one arrest was made, and not one women from RI included in that case as a victim or abuser. Don’t you think if they had one shred of evidence something would have happened?
    6. I will show the film any where to any one asks. I made this film because I love documentary films. I love films that follow subjects for a few years and give people a voice. I think more people need to pick up cameras.
    7. Dr Hughes ends her letter with “It is not fair to the exploited or abused women to pretend that this film represents their lives.” When Dr. Hughes has not gone into one spa or met one woman in a spa, I think it is not fair that she is trying to push the idea that changing the prostitution law will help catch human traffickers when we know it will only arrest women. Rape is illegal and we didn’t criminalize sex to make it that way, why would we need to criminalize sex work to arrest human traffickers? You don’t free women by putting them in handcuffs.
    7. Alec Bourne says it best “It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.”


    PS I don’t get paid for my opinions, I am just a film maker. A film maker with common sense.

  2. Donna Hughes teaches Women’s Studies I believe.I will certainly not correct her on that subject since I know little or nothing about it.
    Professor Hughes tried to explain how human trafficking and alien smuggling differ on a radio show to me when I called in.
    I was assigned to the Anti-Smuggling Unit in the Chicago INS District office for about 2 years and worked a major smuggling case here in RI which extended to Boston,Fort Worth,El Paso,Juarez,and Guatemala City.We got 13 indictments and 10 convictions in that case.
    Many alien smuggling operations involve slave labor(or close to it),extortion,rape,murder,and kidnapping.
    Human Trafficking is a new trendy name for an old business.
    There has always been trafficking of prostitutes.
    I do know one thing-if a woman is a legal resident or US citizen,it’s kind of hard to “traffic” her because she can work anywhere she wants.
    Prof.Hughes really has no hands on experience with this business.I do.
    Most human trafficking is in laborers,not sex workers.
    Sex workers who are trafficked and held against their will are usually located in neighborhoods of their own ethnicity and that is what constitutes their customer base.This applies to Asians,Mexicans,and Eastern Europeans across the board.
    Underage prostitution is probably not going to occur in these spas that advertise in the Phoenix,on line,etc because they would be stupid beyond reason to expose themselves to the heavy penalties involved.
    Many strippers and spa workers used to gamble at Lincoln Park when I worked there some years ago.They had a lot of cash to play the slots.”Slave” laborers don’t have that kind of money to play with.Some of the strippers were on the young side,but the spa workers certainly weren’t.Minors were not allowed in Lincoln Park in any event and ID’s were routinely checked in any questionable cases.
    I do recall a sexual slavery operation Chicago INS busted back in 1977-it was run by a Wisconsin cop who lured 13 to 16 year old girls from Mexico to travel with him to the US for “maid” jobs and then he locked them in rooms in a motel he owned and rented them out to local Mexican agricultural workers by the hour.
    I wasn’t involved in the case,but I remember it very well.
    I had a sexual slavery case where the perp had a woman locked in his basement-he made her cook,clean,and sexually service illegal alien males he harbored in his home.
    He was a real winner-convicted previously of manslaughter;raping his daughter(she was an adult at the time);alien smuggling;and assault.He also evaded charges of killing his wife due to lack of sufficient evidence to connect the beating he gave ger to a fatal heart attack the next day.I am happy to say he died in prison awaiting sentencing.
    I bring this up because being lectured by Prof.Hughes on what is and isn’t trafficking was ridiculous.
    Bottom line-a very complex issue with no “one size fits all”answer.

  3. Thank you both for these informed and thoughtful comments.
    I was on the Coalition the first year, and we organized to get an anti-trafficking bill passed. I just looked it up, it’s S 0692. It was signed into law in 2007.
    The day I went to testify in favor of S 0692 I found myself hearing testimony for a bill that would ‘close the loophole’. Not knowing how these things work I was taken by surprise and had to think fast. I have nothing bad to say about Rep. Giannini, but her goal from the start has been to ban prostitution. I don’t think making it illegal will do much more than make it harder to find and harder to identify severe abuses. As Tara and Joe suggest, there are many who legally are both victim and perpetrator.
    What makes this issue so painful is that human trafficking really does exist. One unfortunate outcome of the direction the coalition had taken is that trafficking for labor is off the radar screen. The man or woman who dies of illness on some farm, who commits suicide from despair, who labors for years and goes home with nothing has been terribly violated.
    Last year I was told by someone in the new coalition that S 0692 is toothless and worthless. We worked for a year to get it passed. I read it again. It looks like a good law. Why is it not enforced? I think the answer is that there is no political will to seek out and rescue people who are either illegal or compromised in some way. The spas, on the other hand, are conspicuous.
    In conversations with Tara, I can vouch that she is very aware that trafficking is real and that there are invisible chains that can be just as destructive as physical force. She never claimed that her documentary was the whole story. But no one else has made a documentary about what goes on in the ‘spa’ I drive by daily, the one that remains open despite years of police raids and promises. I thank you Tara for that and for your quick response, and thank you Joe for all you have done to aid victims and bring justice.

  4. I have nothing bad to say about Rep. Giannini, but her goal from the start has been to ban prostitution.

    Rep. Giannini, like Donna M. Hughes, is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but she maintains a deeply disturbing mindset, which she betrayed when she called in to the Dan Yorke show to speak with Tara Hurley.

    In the radio show, Giannini said, quote: “The ironic part of the whole thing is that human trafficking is prostitution.” (Emphasis hers, not mine, quote is at 1:07:03 into the MP3 recording.)

    This dangerously conflated and factually incorrect view, which Donna M. Hughes shares, is being used to justify all sorts of ass-backwards legislation…and more.

    That, alone, is enough to give me something bad to say about Rep. Giannini.

    1. I value your perspective.

      And I yours. I know we don’t see eye-to-eye on everything but, in the interests of transparency, I do hope we find opportunities to bring full and original context to light in situations such as these where political interests seem to be routinely decontextualizing important facts. I am evidently late to the issues discussed here, being pulled into things by Donna M. Hughes’ after-the-fact conflations, but, still, a thank you to your continued writing is in order. So, thanks. 🙂

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