Somaly’s Lies: On Romanticized Victimhood and the Erasure of Human Life

In case you missed it, Somaly Mam resigned this week from her
positions with Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip) and the Somaly Mam Foundation, organizations she co-founded in 1996 and 2007, respectively, to combat sex-trafficking and violence against women and girls in Southeast Asia.

The resignation came after a series of accusations targeting the legitimacy of Somaly’s narrative, accusations that claimed her entire human rights platform to be built on blatant lies and fabrications. Inconsistencies in Mam’s story have been reported on for years, but such claims began to gain momentum in October 2013 when The Cambodia Daily published the story of a young woman named Meas Ratha. As a teenaged student enrolled in Afesip’s secondary school program, Ratha was coaxed by Mam into appearing on French television to share her experience as a child prostitute. In reality, Ratha had never once stepped foot inside a brothel. The whole story was a lie, Ratha revealed, a lie carefully scripted, rehearsed, and performed for the camera as a means of conjuring support for the organization. Ratha went through with the interview at the time, she explains, because she was grateful for the education Afesip afforded her and her sister. Sixteen years later, however, Ratha felt it was time the world knew the truth.

In the months following the news of Ratha’s story, the number of investigations into the legitimacy of Mam’s platform skyrocketed, with pieces published by The Cambodia Daily and other journalistic publications revealing an overwhelmingly disproportionate distribution of funds within the organizations, that Ratha was now being urged by the foundation to ‘keep quiet’, and that there had in fact been suspicion over Somaly’s honesty for years, as confirmed by ex-Afesip worker Pierre Fallavier. The last straw, however, seemed to have been a Newsweek expose written by Simon Marks, the Cambodia Daily journalist at the forefront of uncovering the truth about Somaly Mam from the start. Published on May 21, exactly one week before Mam’s official resignation, the expose detailed every instance in which Mam had been suspected of and/or caught fabricating stories about the girls under the ‘care’ of her foundation, including seriously questioning, with thorough evidence, the legitimacy of Mam’s own story of being trafficked into sex slavery as a child. 

Although Mam has been met with consternation by various non-profits and NGOs in Cambodia for years, and vehemently opposed by sex-worker advocacy groups long before these accusations began to surface, Somaly Mam has enjoyed a nearly twenty-year reign as a mainstream media darling, boasting an impressive list of high-profile supporters from all over the world. The reason, Somaly’s defenders would have it, is in the results – Somaly Mam claims to have provided aid and support to thousands of women and girls over the years, an implication of ‘success’ that prompts even Simon Marks in his tell-all expose to ponder, “She has done so much for so many, does it matter that key parts of her story aren’t true?”

The answer, is yes. It does matter.

It matters because after the news of Ratha’s alleged (false) enslavement reached her home-village, she became shunned by everyone she knew. It matters because the kinds of rescue narratives that Somaly has built her legacy on serve to eradicate the distinction between sex trafficking and sex work, posing extraordinary difficulties for sex workers struggling for rights, safety, and autonomy. It matters because, as Anne Elizabeth Moore writes in a brilliant piece for Salon, Cambodian women who are ‘rescued’ in this way are commonly ushered into work in garment factories, a pattern that works to “normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment,” and “shame women who reject such jobs.” It matters because the soaring popularity of ‘pity charity’ campaigns among prospective first-world donors does not require any sort of critical thinking regarding systemic structures of social inequality, and instead creates a market, and thus a demand, for sob-stories and narratives of “glamorized victimhood”.

On this cult of glamorized victimhood, Amanda Marcotte at The Daily Beast writes that it’s not hard to see why such organizations and media outlets continually contribute to the demand for sob-stories. To distant donors, the idea that they can ‘buy’ someone out of a life of poverty with their donations is extraordinarily appealing. It allows these donors to feel like they are the plot twist in a fairytale, the Fairy Godmother come to replace Cinderella’s rags with the life she has always dreamed of. There are many problems with this romanticized narrative of victimhood, however – namely, that in order for the donor to fulfill the fantasy of becoming the Fairy Godmother, there has to be a Cinderella. There always has to be a victim, even if one has to be created, and that says something profoundly disturbing about a first-world thirst for the suffering of others and a preoccupation with ‘saving’ people out of victimhood.

It is this highly romantic ‘rescue narrative’ that solidifies a disturbing appetite for others’ suffering, fueled by the idea that the outcome of the donors’ aid is always “happily ever after”. Somaly Mam understood this – countless organizations, charities, and aid agencies understand this. They understand this and so they supply the sob-stories to meet the demand of not only monetary donations and volunteer labor, but the demand for the more privileged among us to feel good about contributing to a seemingly noble cause.

As Amanda Marcotte also points out in her piece, another key factor in the widespread popularity of ‘victim and rescue narratives’ is that, for donors, supporting such causes is incredibly easy. Getting behind these hard-to-swallow but easy-to-sympathize-with narratives is a way for people to look like, and really believe, they are noble human rights advocates without having to put in much effort. There is no stake in their commitment, and they are able to feel as though they are ‘doing good’ without having to think about the ways they may actually be complicit in the reproduction of a variety of social factors that contribute to widespread poverty, violence, and inequality across the world.

When organizations feed into the cult of romanticized victimhood, it doesn’t require, or encourage, people to think much at all – because the ‘victims’ of these horrific narratives are not to be thought about, they are just to be pitied. It is a profoundly dangerous approach that not only encourages organizations to lie and exaggerate about their respective causes, but strips the very people they claim to help of their own human agency. It erases who they are as people in favor of a carefully crafted facade of helplessness – a doomed and decrepit object of pity.

But pity does not create sustainable, systemic change. It can, in many cases, actually make things worse. When narratives fail to consider people as anything other than charity cases, it erases so much of what actually makes them human, including any implication that maybe – just maybe – they know what they need better than anyone else. Denying someone their humanity is probably the least helpful thing a person (or organization) can do. There is a lot of good to come out of uncovering the truth behind Somaly Mam, I hope some of that good will be to encourage better thought about what ‘rescue narratives’ really mean for people, and what support for such narratives really do.

So to you, those privileged enough to be reading this blog on your computer, smartphone, or tablet – be careful of the kinds of organizations and initiatives you support*. More importantly, be sure to think critically about how you show your support, and whether your contribution (monetary or otherwise) does help, or if it actually does, in fact, work to perpetuate the work of a Big Charity industry fueled by pity as opposed to the dignity of human life.

Because yes – it does matter.

* If you are looking for work to support in Cambodia, the Ponheary Ly Foundation is a fantastic organization committed to creating sustainable social change through education. They are committed to highlighting the strength and exceptionality of their students, not erasing it, and firmly believe that communities are their own greatest resource.

Kristen C. Turner