In late May, the cover of Newsweek featured the title “Sex, Slavery, and a Slippery Truth” in bold, alongside a photo of Somaly Mam- one of the most recognizable anti-trafficking activists in the world. The exposé inside, entitled “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking” was largely responsible for Mam’s subsequent fall from grace, though questions surrounding her credibility were raised years before. Specifically, it accused Mam of fabricating key sections of her backstory as well as persuading young girls to give false testimony. In The Road of Lost Innocence, her 2005 biography, Mam recounted her experiences of being forced into marriage with an abusive soldier and later being forced to work in a dark and filthy brothel. Yet smaller details, such as her age at the time of these events and the amount of time she spent in prostitution, remain cloudy and inconsistent. Furthermore, Mam came under fire for urging young women she rescued to tell lies, spinning ghastly tales such as the one of Long Pross, who claimed to have had her eye gouged out by an enraged brothel owner. Medical records later revealed that the eye had been removed due to a nonmalignant tumor.
As the story unraveled, Mam resigned as head of her namesake foundation, an organization dedicated to “eradicating the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls in Southeast Asia, and empowering survivors as part of the solution.” Mam was branded a fraud following her fame as an activist superstar with an impressive list of supporters ranging from Queen Sofia of Spain to Hillary Clinton to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
When the story first broke, I was defensive, disbelieving and defiant. Somaly Mam had been my hero for so many years; in my eyes, she could do no wrong. She rescued hundreds of girls from lives in brothels and gave them the opportunity to rebuild their lives. Did her fudging of a few facts here and there negate her life’s work? In the grand scheme of things, did it really matter that she was dishonest?
Slowly and begrudgingly I realized: it did matter. It does matter. Intention is not the bottom line, and the ends don’t always justify the means. The bottom line is that activism has to be rooted in honesty. If the ultimate goal is to give a voice to the voiceless, how is it fair that we replace their stories with ones we invent? In the struggle to make change we must tell the truth, even when it’s ugly or unpopular or not as sensational as the fictionalized version. The truth is that there are so many real, gritty stories of struggle and triumph in the world that to fabricate them is betrayal. It means that we have failed to acknowledge authentic stories of suffering and instead traded them in for more easily accessible but cheaper replacements.
But the most important question still remains: as Cindy Brandt asks on her Huffington Post blog, “How much blame do we share in the Somaly Mam scandal, for being the crowd thirsty for the most heartrending tale?” What surrounds us is a media-saturated society with dozens of different things vying for our attention at any given time. It takes a lot to stand out, and it takes a lot to surprise us. It takes even more to make us act. Perhaps this is why Mam felt the need to produce over-dramatized versions of suffering. Otherwise, she feared her story and the stories of countless others would be brushed aside as insignificant or uninteresting. To be clear, this is not an attempt to excuse her actions. This is an acknowledgment that we too are responsible for being aware of and responsive to injustice.
The story of the modern struggle for human rights is far too compelling to be sensationalized and embellished. Activism is grounded in the everyday heroes who work for change bravely and diligently and piece by piece. These may not be attention-grabbing or headline-making stories, but they should be.
Our motivation for achieving social change should not be based on shock value, but rather on the steady fact that all life has equal worth and we should all be accountable for each other. Let this be what guides us and inspires us to act; it’s a much more reliable source of motivation, and one that can sustain us for far longer.
Brandt, Cindy. “Our Complicity in the Somaly Mam Scandal.” Huffington Post. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cindy-brandt>.
Mam, Somaly. The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008. Print.
Marks, Simon. “Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking.” Newsweek. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2014.
“Vision & Mission.” Somaly Mam Foundation. Somaly Mam Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2014. <http://www.somaly.org/about/vision-mission>.