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.
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.