Monday, July 21, 2014

Snakes In The Garden Of Eden 

Let’s talk about Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths. It will be a fairly one-sided conversation, you understand, because she won’t talk to me. She won’t talk to anyone – at least, not about the subject at hand, which is her breakthrough movie, “Eden.” But somebody connected with that movie has told a lot of big lies about sex workers, and I really want to know who.

The story begins in 2012, when Megan Griffiths co-wrote and directed Eden. The film was billed as true story presenting the reality of sex trafficking in the US, and a graphic and harrowing account it was. In the mid-nineties (so the story goes), a young Korean-American woman named Chong Kim was kidnapped by an international ring of sex traffickers, held captive, raped, tortured, was witness to several murders, and along with hundreds of other kidnapped women and girls, forced to be a prostitute. After some time, she made a daring escape. 

The real-life Chong Kim then went on to became a highly-visible professional spokesperson for anti-trafficking campaigns, and so it was that Seattle producer Colin Plank got her and Megan Griffiths together to make Eden. Eden was released at SXSW to huge critical acclaim, and went on to garner multiple awards and fawning reviews. Megan Griffiths gave several interviews together with Chong Kim, strongly emphasizing that the movie was a true and accurate portrayal of Kim’s experiences and about the reality of sex trafficking within the US. (Here and here.) All of the publicity materials and all other spokespeople for Eden did likewise.
Fast-forward to now: in the wake of the Somaly Mam scandal about faked trafficking stories, people are suddenly examining the stories told by other professional anti-trafficking activists more closely. Around June 4, 2014, Breaking Out, an anti-trafficking organization that Chong Kim was a board member of, publicly accused Ms. Kim of fraud. This organization, Breaking Out, says that Chong Kim was never a victim of trafficking, and that she completely invented her story in order to get money. They have also produced court documents indicating that in 2009, Kim was convicted of a felony charge, Theft By Swindle, for the amount of $15,000.
So far, there have been four stories published about the allegations:
Basically, everything that Eden says about sex trafficking is a lie. (It’s certainly not the first time a movie about sex trafficking has been based on lies. Remember the movie “Taken”, with Liam Neeson? The man whose real life experience it was supposedly inspired by was later arrested for fraud. Here, and here.) No one but Chong Kim can really know what happened to Chong Kim, and she is free to tell her story as she wishes. But as the creators of Eden were quick to say, Eden is not just a story about one woman. Sex workers around the world are organizing and fighting for our civil and human rights, and Eden is a piece of propaganda specifically crafted to fight our movement.
Here’s why: While adult consensual sex work is definitely not the same thing as sex trafficking, there is no distinction made between the two in law, or in anti-sex worker rhetoric. So from a law enforcement point of view, when one speaks of “fighting trafficking” what that means is “arresting whores.” Some anti-sexwork campaigns claim to focus on arresting clients, but the vast majority of people arrested for sexwork are the workers, and they are not dangerous international gangsters. They are usually women and transgender people, predominantly people of color, and they’re usually poor.
Interestingly, all the cops in the movie Eden were also bad guys who were in league with the traffickers. If the main character of Eden had come in contact with any non-crooked cops, she would have been arrested and very probably imprisoned.  But all the spokespeople for Eden seemed to feel strongly that tougher laws and more arrests is what we need to combat the mythical many-headed hydra of sex trafficking.
Eden also had a somewhat murky financial relationship with a number of anti-trafficking NGOs. When these organizations speak of “sex trafficking” what they mean is: ANY exchange of sex for money, even if it is between two adults and completely voluntary. No one, they say, can really choose to do sex work willingly. People who think they are doing sex work willingly are victims of “false consciousness” and must be rescued from their own folly. By force, if necessary.
Anti-trafficking “rescue” organizations like this, many of them church-based, work hand in hand with police. To an anti-sex worker, being arrested is "rescue", so when they speak of “rescuing victims”, they are talking about people brought to them by police, in handcuffs. They utilize many of the same strategies as anti-gay conversion therapy schemes and crisis pregnancy centers. The ACLU is currently investigating one prominent “rescue” organization for civil rights violations. 
Eden is to the sex industry what “Reefer Madness” is to marijuana legislation reform. It’s a titillating sexploitation movie, purposely created for a neoconservative agenda of arresting more people and controlling sexual behavior. It is a feel-good film for a sexual police state, pernicious rubbish used to legitimize stigma and state-sponsored violence against sex workers. It perpetuates the misery of people who are trapped between poverty, a right-wing Christian anti-sex agenda, and the prison-industrial complex. Eden should never have been used to solicit charitable donations and get lucrative grants. It should very definitely not be used to sway voters, influence public policy or government funding, or to direct the focus of law enforcement.
In spite of repeated requests for comment, no one connected to the film will make any statement in response to these allegations. (Griffiths did publish one Tweet on saying she was “deeply concerned” about the allegations, but nothing more.) If they stand behind their work, then why won’t they speak? I believe that Colin Plank and Megan Griffiths knowingly perpetrated a fraud with the movie Eden. They showed negligence of, if not actual disdain for, the truth. What they have done may not rise to the level of legal fraud, but it is certainly a moral one. And it’s a fraud that is still harming sex workers.
Overall, I do not speak for any organization, only myself. But in this particular matter, I am endorsed by the members of the Sex Worker Outreach Project of Seattle www.SWOP-Seattle.org