Jay and I recently watched The Manor, a documentary highlighting the dysfunction of a family that owns a local strip club in our area.
The father is 400 pounds with an eating addiction, and the mother is 85 pounds with severe anorexia. Their youngest son is a playboy who loves the perks of the family business, which includes expensive cars.
The documentary is directed by the conflicted older son, Shawnee, who maintains a part-time job as the strip club manager despite the effects it is having on his family. Following the screening, he was at the event to do Q&A with the audience.
We watched the film through a slightly different lens than most of the audience. Though most of the documentary focused on his family, a few club scenes were thrown in for titillating shock value. We both diverted our gaze during these parts, sickened by the objectification and entertainment value of women on a stage.
Stories of sex trade survivors we’ve met flooded our minds.
Like Elle from Las Vegas, who was trafficked into strip clubs all over the U.S. – first being forced to do wet T-shirt contests and mud wrestling, followed by stripping and sexual services.
Like Harmony from L.A., who “chose” to become a stripper at a young age because of economic desperation and a manipulative boyfriend.
Like Timea, who was trafficked from Hungary to work in strip clubs and massage parlours in Toronto.
After the film, the audience asked Shawnee several questions about the business and the family. Near the end, Jay raised his hand and asked if he had heard any stories of the girls during the film-making process.
Real tattoo on trafficking victim in Spain
Shawnee replied, “Yes, I’ve heard many stories. Some really dark ones.” He went on to say that one girl who worked at the club had a tattoo on her neck. A little while later, a second girl came in with the same tattoo. A while after that, a third girl came to work with the same markings as the previous two.
Turns out they all had the same pimp, who had branded them and was sending them into the strip club to work. Not only do all the girls who work at the club have to pay a fee each shift to use the space, but these three in particular were then having to give the rest to their trafficker.
As we learned from the head of the Amsterdam VICE anti-trafficking unit in the fall, the trafficking chain is what makes it so easy for victims to fall through the cracks. Though sometimes strip club owners are themselves traffickers, often they merely own the club and don’t ask questions - as long as a woman is willing to get on the stage and pay the house her dues. This allows strip club owners and managers to maintain an “I didn’t know she was trafficked” stance, releasing them of responsibility despite making money off womens’ bodies. I am grateful for Shawnee’s honesty about some of these dark realities.
He followed with a story of a stripper who saved all her money and bought a vineyard in France. The audience ooh-ed and aah-ed.
The implication was that sex work is really a 50/50 draw, with half being exploited in some way due to circumstance or force, while the other half gets rich. In reality the proportions are much more skewed. For the most vulnerable in society, the sex industry is the easiest job to get into and the most difficult to leave. The majority of stories do not end well.
The film left me feeling very sad. I was grieved that a man whose own career frustrations led him to start a business that preys on the vulnerable. My heart was heavy for the mother who is withering away from her illness, which was brought on by living in a toxic environment of comparison. I was frightened by the youngest brother’s greed and insensitivity. And I was profoundly saddened that the director of the film still works in a place that is tearing his family apart.
My hope is that everyone involved with this strip club would begin to live whole, purpose-filled lives that extend way beyond sex and money.
My husband, Jay, was chatting with children’s author Peter Reynolds this week, and Peter shared an incredibly insightful short video (3 mins) that relates to sex trafficking.
While we were filming our upcoming documentary, we interviewed a researcher who told us about a particularly disturbing tradition in the Philippines- young men are taken to brothels for their “initiation” into manhood. It’s considered ‘manly’ to pay for sex with a prostituted woman.
Which is interesting, because in socially progressive countries like Sweden, they see it oppositely- paying for sex isn’t considered manly, at all.
We can end commercial sexual exploitation in our lifetime. I believe we could do it in twenty years. And it starts with teaching men to honor women.
Two weeks ago in Ontario, the air was heavy with humidity and the temperatures were off the charts. My husband and I live in an airstream trailer – AKA hot metal oven on hot days – and our little air conditioner was working overtime…until a thunderstorm knocked out power and the heat had its way.
In the midst of the heat wave, I went to Florida for my grandpa’s 80th birthday. As I sat on the plane, I began to think of the horrific conditions that slaves had to work in during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. In the fields of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana, not only would they work all day in the blistering sun, but also lacked the luxurious things we so often turn to for relief, like showers and air conditioning. I cannot imagine living my entire life as a slave in the hot south.
As I watched the clouds form into various shapes, I intentionally shut my magazine and took time to contemplate. I mentally put myself in the position of those who have been enslaved throughout the centuries. I let my mind enter the horror of watching family members die by whip, having everything I own stripped from me, having festering wounds and no salve.
The sad thing is that this is still happening around the world – in mines, in coffee and cocoa plantations, in brick factories. And also in brothels.
Andy Crouch points out that if we don’t take the time to contemplate, we begin to exploit.
If I don’t permit my mind to enter into the pain of others, I am more likely to hurt people – whether it be directly or indirectly. If I don’t carve out pockets of time to just sit and think, great ideas that have the potential to empower others may pass me by. Without intentional thought I might also begin to assume that I am the centre of the universe, which is a dangerous mindset that ultimately feeds my selfishness, comfort, and greed.
This blog itself is a result of a somewhat forced contemplation. Three years ago, Jay and I spent over a month living in a tin roofed shack by a river in the Costa Rican jungle, with no internet, no agenda, and no friends. I went stir crazy. I was bored. I was restless.
I spent hours thinking.
And that contemplation was the starting point for the Hope for the Sold blog. It has since served as a huge platform over the years, giving us opportunities to meet people, write magazine articles, make films, speak at events, and garner support for anti-trafficking legislation.
All because we had a season to contemplate.
But you don’t need a shack in the jungle. You don’t need to get on an airplane. You can intentionally contemplate anywhere – on the bus on your way to work, with your morning cup of coffee, or on an evening walk around the block.
But while you can contemplate anywhere, you do have to do it on purpose. By default, our minds wander and focus only on ourselves. By default, our schedules demand every moment. But I believe that we have been given the capacity to be creative about how we spend our time and our thoughts.
So take some time to think about the realities of the world and about your role within it. You might be surprised what will come of it.
Society has a way of attaching labels to people, based on what they have done. I personally try to stay away from doing this, as one word can never capture the complexity of a full human experience. Though labels generally frustrate me, they do sometimes carry an element of truth. What agitates me most is when a label is the complete opposite of what it is describing.
A person who robs a bank is called a thief.
A person who kills another person is called a murderer.
A person who has sex with children is called a paedophile.
A person who holds back truth is called a liar.
Yet a person who rents body parts is called a gentleman.
Perhaps even a patron. As if a buying sex is as classy as buying a piece of art.
According to the Oxford Dictionary:
gentlemen (noun): a chivalrous, courteous, or honourable man
Despite this definition, “gentlemen” generally is reserved for strip club signs, restroom doors, and cheesy circus announcements.
But based on the real definition, a Gentlemen’s Club should be a place where men who love their families, friends and communities come to share ideas about how to make the world a better place.
Real gentlemen consider it an honour to serve those on the margins. Real gentlemen respect women, even if those women are not respecting themselves. Real gentlemen live their lives out in the open, their integrity going before them. Real gentlemen love women, not just their body parts. Real gentlemen do not lord their money or power over others, but leverage their influence to empower those around them.
I consider it an privilege to know men like this. In fact, there are many of them in my community.
To all you men who are trying to live lives of integrity and love, thank you for reminding us that gentlemen do, in fact, exist.
Jay and I drove back from a wedding in Chicago this weekend, and as we crossed the border, my favourite natural phenomena took place. Dark clouds loomed in the distance, while simultaneously the fields in front were illuminated by the setting sun. Stunning. (Note: My camera was in the trunk, but the photo above by William Pitcher is a perfect representation!)
As I my eyes gazed over the scene, Jay remarked that there is perhaps a reason, besides the beauty in itself, that I love this contrast so much. I think he’s right.
This is the contrast we should learn to thrive in. We must not allow the darkness of the storm to hold us in fear, nor should we allow ourselves to ignore it by gazing only at the light. Dealing effectively with something as evil as human trafficking requires us to acknowledge and understand the darkness, while living in such a way that brings forth life and light.
Next time you see black clouds behind sun-soaked fields, ask yourself how well you are living in the midst of such a contrast.
Natasha Falle – a Canadian prostitution survivor who now runs an organization called Sextrade 101- recently did an interview on CBC about her experiences. She also talks about where Canada’s prostitution laws are headed.
There is a Supreme Court hearing scheduled for June 13 on this issue, during which over a dozen groups will be sharing their input. This case will ultimately decide whether brothels and living off the avails of prostitution are to be legalized in Canada. I am following this closely and will keep you posted on details as they unfold.
Jay and I recently led two workshops at the Inspire Justice Conference, and were approached by a middle aged woman after one of the keynote sessions. She thanked us, explaining that we had changed her son’s life, and now he is changing hers.
We felt humbled. These are the moments I wish I could capture in a bottle – moments in which we catch a glimpse of the domino effect caused by our words and actions, and feel that we are part of a much bigger story. Since then I have been able to put a finger on something I value deeply: the willingness of our parents’ generation to learn from their kids.
When it comes to social justice, many in my generation are choosing to live differently. This takes many forms. Like buying ethically made products. Or downsizing instead of upsizing. Or volunteering abroad. Or being committed to a cause. Or boycotting certain businesses. Or serving soup in the red light district.
Our parents have seen many of us grow from little children to teenagers to university students to adults. They have patiently endured the shaping of our ideologies and supported us through the ups and downs that come with each stage of life. But for the parents whose adult children care deeply about social justice, the relational road may have been (or might still be) a rocky one.
A few years ago my sister-in-law, Ruthann, and I were attending the same university and learning daily about the injustice happening all over the world. In our own way, we both grew prideful about all that we knew and looked down on those who had not had the same “revelation” about living justly.
I remember many conversations around my inlaws’ dining room table during which my mother-in-law would end up feeling judged and discouraged. My mom has experienced frustration as well, especially the year that Christmas and birthday shopping became complicated. Not only did Jay and I want to simplify our lifestyle, but we had also requested that no one buy us clothing unless it was used or ethically made. This coming from a daughter who used to live at the mall was a big shift for my poor mom. Here’s what it comes down to:
Though many of us have gained some knowledge about rights and wrongs in the world, this knowledge has not yet been balanced and perfected by an equal dose of love and grace.
I am glad to say that Jay, Ruthann, and I are slowly learning how to live by example instead of getting bogged down in debates. We have been reminded that if it were not for our parents – who shaped our character as children, encouraged us to learn, and provided for us in many ways – we probably wouldn’t have been able to learn what we know now. We are also learning that we don’t know everything. Our parents have insight and experience that we do not. Both my parents and in-laws have shown a tremendous amount of grace toward us, and I want to extend that to them in return. Changing one’s lifestyle without isolating and judging others is a slow and humbling process.
The beauty is that our generation is not the only one changing. Many in our parents’ generation are taking the same steps we are, either following the example of their kids or leading the way. Today my in-laws are living so intentionally that I am challenged and encouraged every time I see them, and this past Christmas my mom was thrilled to find a sweatshop-free store!
Just the other day, I was speaking with a mother figure/friend of mine. This is a woman who is intentionally becoming more conscious about social justice and her part in it. She lives with mixed emotions. She celebrates when she buys a fair trade chocolate bar, and moments later kicks herself for buying a coffee that is not. I think we are all in that spectrum somewhere. She said:
“Michelle, I’m a little offended that you keep referring to my generation as the one who has screwed everything up and yours as the one who will fix it.”
She raises a good point. Though I often do challenge the status quo of our parents’ generation, they are not solely responsible for the injustice in this world, and our generation is not the saviour. We all have a role to play in reducing exploitation and planting good, and there are certain things that our parents’ generation can do way better than we can. They have seen trends come and go, they have acquired skills and resources, and they have worked hard so that we can have opportunities. We have a lot to learn from them.
On the same token, our generation has a lot to offer our parents. Many of us are willing to take risks, we are challenging assumptions, we are re-evaluating systems and power structures. We are tech-savvy and cyber connected. And we are young enough to be completely audacious.
So, for the generations ahead of us:
To those who raised us, thank you for having grace and patience with us. To those who have resourced us, thank you for believing in us. To those who are trying to be more intentional about living justly, we admire and encourage you. To those who feel judged and discouraged, we apologize for hurting you. To those who are trail-blazing ahead of us and beside us, we are inspired by you.
For our generation:
Let us hold to the convictions we have, and make no apologies for wanting to pursue justice. Let our lives be marked by passion, and let us not be afraid of sacrifice. Let us keep asking the hard questions and dreaming big dreams. But as we grow in knowledge, may we also grow in love and grace.
None of us know it all, but we should all intentionally pursue truth. I hope that as time goes on, I would learn to inspire – not judge – those around me, in the same way that I have been inspired by others. May we all, regardless of generation, strive toward this.
In the past couple of weeks, a horrific tragedy has unfolded in Southwestern Ontario. On May 6, Tim Bosma, a 32 year old husband and father of a toddler, went missing. He had posted an ad online to sell his truck, and never returned after going for a test drive with two potential buyers. A massive search ensued, involving the police, the media, and hundreds if not thousands of volunteers. Posters were pinned onto family homes and business windows.
Communities were shaken, and still are.
On May 14, police confirmed that they had found Bosma’s burned remains on a farm near Waterloo. One suspect is in custody, and the police are searching for others. Some believe that this may have been a thrill kill. This horrific incident has consumed my mind for the past two weeks, and my heart aches despite not knowing the family personally.
Shortly after Bosma went missing, we got an email from a friend who worked for years with street youth. He pointed out that homeless people and at-risk teens go missing all the time – yet it doesn’t even make the papers. But the moment a rich white male goes missing, everyone jumps on board.
I heard similar things from others, including anti-trafficking advocates, who wished that the same attention being drawn to this case would be applied to those who are missing from poor and marginalized communities. Native girls and women go missing all the time, often ending up in trafficking rings or in ditches, yet no one seems to care. In British Columbia, a man named Robert Pickton murdered at least 26 women – many of them prostituted women from Vancouver’s East Side – and even though police received tips about something going on at Pickton’s pig farm in connection to the missing women, a full investigation was not a priority.
Missing women from Vancouver's Downtown East end
My husband Jay had a beautiful response in light of the Bosma case, which reflects our heart in this.
Regardless of the fact that one person’s pain is prioritized over another’s, let us not become embittered. Let us not permit it to spoil our loving spirit.
Let us mourn for this man and his family, and tell his story. And let us also mourn for those who society considers to be the “least of these,” those who have been forgotten and marginalized.
We must let this be an opportunity to expose our own racisms and prejudices, and a chance to learn or re-learn what true, unbiased compassion looks like.
Pain is real, whether one is rich or poor, white or black, young or old, celebrated or marginalized. Refusing to take part in one person’s pain will not alleviate that of another.
This crime has wounded many of us because it is closer to home than ever before. Perhaps this is an indication that many of us are living in a bubble of safety and complacency, where we can avoid the painful realities of those who have not had the same opportunities.
The memorial service for Tim Bosma is taking place on Wednesday, May 22. This is a time for us to mourn with those who mourn, and my hope is that this would be a starting point for extending this love to those in our communities that have been forgotten.
We can do both. We can enter into mourning with the Bosma family, and we can enter into the pain of those on the margins. Our hearts have a capacity to love greatly.
My sincere condolences go to Tim’s family during this difficult week, as well as to those whose loved ones have been forgotten.
Last weekend I was sitting out on the front porch at my inlaws’ place, sipping iced tea and enjoying the beautiful spring weather. A neighbour passed by on his bicycle and we asked him to join us. He is from Bangladesh. We started talking about the recent factory collapse that has caused the deaths of over 1,000 garment workers in his country. His countenance fell. ”I’ve decided to not purchase any clothing made in Bangladesh until labour laws change,” he said. Pain was etched into his face.
On Wednesday April 24, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed with about 3,500 workers inside. Large cracks had been discovered in the walls the day before, but despite this, workers had been ordered back to work on Wednesday. They were told that their month’s pay would be withheld if they did not enter the building. A survivor recounts:
“The owner of Rana Plaza along with gang members holding sticks were standing in front of the main entrance gate threatening that they would beat us with sticks and break our bones if we didn’t work that morning. We were frightened and had no choice but to go in to work.”
An hour later the building crumbled. Here is a list of labels that were being made in the building that collapsed:
Joe Fresh, owned by Loblaws Inc. of Ontario, Canada (custom records and labels found on site)
Velilla – Spanish work clothing company (labels found on site)
And here is where the finger pointing begins. The race to the bottom, a bi-product of unchecked capitalism, ensures that no one is really responsible for what happened.
Plausible deniability: A condition in which a subject can safely and believably deny knowledge of any particular truth that may exist, because the subject is deliberately made unaware of said truth so as to benefit or shield the subject from any responsibility associated through the knowledge of such truth.
The owner of the plaza that housed the garment factories doesn’t claim responsibility, because the factories had chosen to operate in the building without demanding structural upgrades first.
The owners of the the garment factories are not responsible, because they are only trying to meet the demands and deadlines of the multinational corporations who they make clothing for.
The companies who sell clothing in their stores are not responsible, because they assume that the government of Bangladesh is enforcing labour laws that align with their codes of conduct.
The government of Bangladesh is not responsible, because if they start to reinforce labour codes, international corporations will pull out of Bangladesh, with significant economic ramifications.
The customers buying clothing are not responsible, because they assumed that the company selling them would be monitoring their factories. And, at the end of the day, stylish clothing for low prices trumps any further investigation as to where that clothing comes from.
In essence, the landlord blames the factories, the factories blame the multinational corporations, the multinational corporations blame the government, the government blames the economic climate, and the customers blame their ignorance or inability to afford clothing that is ethically made.
And no one is left to take responsibility for the hundreds of people crushed under the weight of concrete.
A last embrace: Two victims uncovered from the rubble from the Bangladesh Factory Collapse. Photo by Taslima Akhter. Photo Source: http://lightbox.time.com/2013/05/08/a-final-embrace-the-most-haunting-photograph-from-bangladesh/#1
Of course, the reality is that every player in this sequence is responsible. It’s time to make this personal. If you have purchased a Joe Fresh item, you are responsible. If you don’t research where your clothing comes from, you are responsible. If you are a shareholder of once of these corporations, you are responsible. If you manage a sweatshop, you are responsible.
This goes for me too. This is a picture of me several years ago, before I was fully aware of where my clothing was coming from. I am wearing a grey, super comfortable Joe Fresh shirt that I bought for around $15.00. I didn’t realize where this shirt had come from. I was unaware that the people making it were earning wages of 14 cents to 26 cents an hour while working 13 to 14 ½ hour shifts – 6 and 7 days a week. Despite my past ignorance, I have decided to take responsibility today.
This shirt is the only Joe Fresh item I have owned, and I am donating the amount the I paid for it to the Bangladesh Injured Worker’s Relief Fund, set up by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. I have benefited from the labour of these workers, so the least I can do is support their families in a time of absolute crisis.
It will be interesting to see if companies are willing to take responsibility. Since Joe Fresh is close to home, let’s look at their promises in response to this tragedy:
“A new standard at Loblaw, ensuring all of our control brand products are made in facilities that respect local construction and building codes, and a commitment to have Loblaw people on the ground who will report directly to us ensuring that product we produce is made in a manner that reflect our values.”
However, making a real change would require Loblaws to alter its core value for the Joe Fresh line. In a video on their website, the Creative Director explains:
“The Westons came to me and asked me to create this line of apparel, and restrictions were: price point.”
Since restrictions is plural, I assumed there was more coming. But as it turns out, price point was the only restriction. Which means profit at any cost. This is why companies often seek out countries with poor government labour regulation. Cheap labour equals lower prices for customers and bigger profits for shareholders.
Analysts were told that there has been no measurable impact on Joe Fresh sales since the tragedy in Bangladesh.
I am very concerned for the 1000+ families who now have no income. These types of scenarios often push girls into the sex trade, and there is no doubt that traffickers are currently on a hunt in this area of Bangladesh where vulnerability and chaos abounds.
This raises the following question: if families in poor countries are made even more vulnerable to abuse, sex trafficking, and homelessness when a factory shuts down, doesn’t that mean we should continue purchasing products made in these factories, even if the conditions and pay are not adequate? If we stop consuming, won’t we put all these people out of work?
In this situation, I think the best thing that can be done is to plant the good and phase out the bad. Currently, the economics are twisted in such a way that workers in impoverished countries are dependent on their own exploitation. While I believe that we should stop purchasing clothing made by low-paid labour in places like Bangladesh and China, we must simultaneously support fair trade initiatives in these countries. I am perfectly fine with buying ethically made clothing from any country. Every dollar is a vote, and the more we demand ethically made products, the more it will impact communities positively. Eventually, ethically sourced products could become mainstream. People in Bangladesh could gain independence through real opportunities instead of depending on their exploiters for a quasi-livelihood.
7 Things You Can Do:
1. Go through your closet. For every piece of Joe Fresh clothing (or clothing from the other companies mentioned earlier) that you own, make a donation for the amount that you paid for them. Don’t own anything from these clothing lines? Look at the labels and make a donation for every piece made in Bangladesh, whatever the brand.
2. Sponsor a child in Bangladesh. For about a $1 a day, you can provide access to life-saving basics that change a child’s future. World Vision’s child sponsorship programs are community based, meaning that the whole community ultimately benefits in a sustainable and wholistic way. If you want to decrease the likelihood of someone ending up in a sweatshop – or other vulnerable situations – investing in a child’s life is a great place to start. You can refine your search to children in Bangladesh here.
3. Discover your slavery footprint. Find out by taking the survey here and see what you can do. You can find letter templates to companies and other resources too!
4. Run an ethical business. We need a generation of selfless entrepreneurs who have a people motive instead of a profit motive - businessmen and women whose driving motivator goes beyond lining the pockets of first-world shareholders. Currently there are very few companies that source ethically. There is a market for this, so start a business! Go to Made In A Free World for ideas.
5. Research where your clothing comes from. Google the company name with the word “labour practices” and see what you find. Or, pick a product and see if you can find what factory it was made in. My friend had to do this for a university class, and barely anyone was able to complete the assignment due to red tape and corporate run-around. Write a letter to the company in question and tell them that you would like them to source their products ethically.
6. Buy used clothing. This way, you are not contributing to the booming demand for new clothes that are made in these factories. Consignment stores are awesome for this. Bonus: you will save money!