Archive for the ‘Sex Tourism’ Category

Reflections on Amsterdam

by Michelle Brock on October 27th, 2012

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I can’t remember the last time I was really angry.  Perhaps when I got my clothes stolen in Africa 8 years ago.  Experiencing this emotion in Amsterdam this past week has felt odd – like an unfamiliar acquaintance stopping by for a visit, making a home amongst my usually-positive thoughts.

Jennifer Tunehag, an incredible woman who we got to know in Sweden, told us that sometimes after she’s spent hours or days doing anti-trafficking work, she just feels moody and can’t figure out why. Then she connects her bad mood to the heaviness of the issue she is dealing with – the missed victims, the scarce resources, the overwhelming needs.  In essence the bad mood is a manifestation of deeper emotions – like grieving the suffering of others.  This past week I have been moody and angry, and at the root of it all I feel deep sorrow for what we have heard and seen.

Amsterdam is known as a city of freedom.  We learned from locals that it is a deeply embedded cultural value to live free from government interference as well as others telling you what is right and what is wrong.  Sadly, we’ve witnessed the abuse of this freedom.

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Backing up interviews in Amsterdam

On Tuesday we had the opportunity to interview two victims of “loverboys,”  traffickers who pose as boyfriends with the purpose of grooming a girl for prostitution. This is quite common in the Netherlands.  I can’t tell you what it feels like to look directly into the eyes of a victim, as they bravely share their story with the hopes that it will make a difference in the life of another.  We consider it an honour to steward their stories to the best of our ability, as each word is so valuable.  As we headed out, Jay apologized to them on behalf of men, affirming that the males who abused and sold them were not real men at all.

Following the interview we went to the notorious red light district of Amsterdam, De Wallen.  That night we went without cameras, just to see what we were dealing with.  It wasn’t the girls in the windows that shocked me as much as the men that were buying them.  As we neared the district we heard singing and chanting, by about 200 guys around a bar who were watching a football game before descending upon the district to either celebrate or lament their victory or loss.  Most were drunk.  One man reached open his arms and yelled “I LOVE AMSTERDAM!”

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As this was all happening, I had the opportunity to bring soup to the women in the windows with my friend Saskia, who works for an organization that provides nutritious meals for those in the red light district.  She has gotten to know many of the girls, and as we approached, the looks on the girls’ faces went from sexy and seductive to delighted that soup had arrived.  This made the men nearby uncomfortable, as all of a sudden these women became real humans, not just food to be devoured.

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Heading out with soup!

A few of the ladies invited us inside their windows to talk.  We talked about hair, about soup, about their customers that night.  They all seemed tired.  Some a little self-conscious. One girl looked nervously out her window at the men chanting at the bar and mumbled “dangerous.”  A lot can happen when the curtains close behind them, when they are alone with a man who is drunk or violent.

And this is where the debate begins. What does freedom look like?  Some women in the district say the don’t want pity, because they are doing this to support their family back in their home country.  Some that Jay and I saw looked very young and scared, half-heartedly posing.   We saw one burly man, who did not appear to be a customer but likely either a brothel owner or pimp, walk into the brothel with three girls, and all of them looked very uncomfortable.  Some who end up in Amsterdam have already been doing this for years all around Europe, and by the time they get to Amsterdam, they have experienced so much abuse that De Wallen actually seems like a good deal.  Everyone has a different story, and it is not fair to stereotype and try to peg everyone’s experience into some kinds of “typical story” format.

As Saskia mentioned  to us, prostitution is very easy to get into but very hard to get out of. Despite what side of the ‘choice’ argument one lands, that is very clear indeed.  Whether one is a victim of a loverboy, an international trafficking ring, or poverty – or made a series of choices on their own, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a gross abuse of vulnerability happening in the sex industry.

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On the way to an early morning interview


I admire the courage, compassion, and devotion of many we have met and spoken with in Amsterdam this week.  I cannot begin to thank those who shared their hearts with us, as well as some of the incredible work being done to stamp out organized crime and exploitation.  I have also thanked Jay many times in the past few days for being a good man.

I do, however, leave the city feeling exhausted and almost a little wounded in a way.  Wounded by the stories of abuse and exploitation, by the reality that there are men willing to abuse vulnerability, and by the fact that I can’t snap my fingers and make it all better.  But that if course is why we all have a part to play, so let’s take that responsibility seriously.





Cheers! Delta Airlines and Hilton Hotels Join the Fight Against Sex Trafficking

by Michelle Brock on May 30th, 2011


I hesitate to call the airport my second home, because at times it feels like my first home.  As the daughter of a humanitarian development worker, I was raised in several countries – which has resulted in a flood of memories rushing at me whenever I find myself walking through the sliding glass doors of an airport.

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Little Michelle on a mission

Some of these memories include me proudly carrying package of Huggies diapers through customs as a toddler, watching floating sheets of city lights pierce the darkness of night through my airplane window, and jumping on hotel beds before my parents even had a chance to set down their luggage.

These lovely childhood memories have been somewhat hijacked during my travels lately. Since becoming an abolitionist, I catch myself keeping an eye out for young women or children travelling alone or with someone suspicious.  I watch the way people interact and occasionally even sit strategically in places where I can eavesdrop on conversations.  Calling me a paranoid creep is perhaps not an overstatement, and I am always embarrassed when my “trafficking suspect” merely ends up being a dad with his two teenage girls on their way to visit grandma.

As silly as my self-assigned spy missions seem most of the time, the reality is that international trafficking takes place at airports around the world every day.  A man I met with a number of months ago opened my eyes to the difficulty and complexity of spotting trafficking victims at airports, as many of them do not realize they are being trafficked until they have left the building. Hotels are often the next step in the sequence, and victims find themselves on lock down in a foreign land.

delta logoFor this reason, I am extremely pleased that two big companies in the travel industry have decided to step on board with ECPAT International to do their part in the fight against trafficking.  In March of this year, Delta Airlines became the first major airline in the world to sign the ECPAT tourism Code of Conduct.  As such, it will implement policies to stop child trafficking and provide training to help its employees identify and report trafficking activities or victims they come across. Delta will also raise awareness through its Sky magazine.

As posted on their website, the executive director of ECPAT-USA had this to say:

All travel companies could unwittingly be facilitating the sex trafficking of children. If they do nothing to raise awareness or to prevent child trafficking, they risk becoming an indirect and unintentional conduit for the abuse that takes places.  We applaud Delta Air Lines for taking the first step toward helping fight the sex trafficking of children that has become a global epidemic.

hiltonHilton Hotels, the world’s leading global hospitality company, followed suit last month. Though some are concerned that addressing such a grim reality will hurt the hotel chain’s image, others say that taking a stand against exploitation is in fact good for the hotel chain’s reputation. I agree.

The downside is that many traffickers use seedy motels instead of luxury hotels to keep costs low, but hopefully Hilton’s example will inspire some smaller chains to adopt similar initiatives.  There also needs to be a movement that goes beyond stopping children from being trafficked, as many victims are over 18.

Regardless, these companies are taking the lead on an important issues, and for that I applaud them. There needs to be more trained professionals watching out for warning signs – the warning signs that the average traveller (like me) may overlook or misinterpret.

For more information on the ECPAT Code of Conduct, you can see their website.  You can see Hilton’s press release here and an article about Delta Airlines here.  To see a list of all the companies that have signed the code, click here.  To sign a petition to get other hotels to do the same, click here.  Maybe this will impact where you choose to spend your money on your next vacation!

Michelle Brock


Should Pedophiles Get to Keep Their Passports?

by Michelle Brock on February 2nd, 2011

wrenshallYesterday a Canadian man from Calgary, Alberta was sentenced to 25 years in a U.S. prison.  John Wrenshall had already spent time in jail previously for sexually abusing choir boys at a Calgary church, but clearly had not learned his lesson.  When he got out, he decided to set up shop in Thailand and invited men from all over the world to abuse the 4 to 12 year-old Thai boys he held in his home.  You can get more details about the case from this article by the NY Daily News.

As I read this horrific and sad story, one question kept coming to mind.  Why was Wrenshall allowed to keep his passport? Why was he allowed to travel to an impoverished country full of vulnerable children?  Did customs even know he had served time in jail for sexually abusing young boys?  If so, did they not find it disconcerting that his destination was a sex tourism hot spot?

canadian passport 300x200This is where rights and freedoms come in.  When you get out of prison you have ‘paid’ for your crime. Legally at least. But perhaps some rights must be surrendered forever when one chooses to engage in certain behaviours.

What do you think?  Should the passports of pedophiles be confiscated forever? And as I asked in a previous post, what do our prisons need to do to be more effective in dealing with sexual predators?

Thanks to my friend Allison for sending the articles my way!

Michelle Brock


Vacationers: Watch Out for Pedophiles in Bali

by Michelle Brock on January 7th, 2011

I read an article recently about Bali, Indonesia, which is a popular vacation destination for Australians and other wealthy tourists. Here is why this island paradise is attractive to pedophiles:

  • Living costs and real estate are going up, widening the gap between the rich and the poor
  • There is a cultural acceptance of child sex. Sexual abuse is seen as normal
  • Bribery results in lighter sentences for offenders
  • In tourist areas, children are allowed near hotels
  • Law enforcement officers do not actively investigate trafficking cases but wait for children to report the crimes first

bali orphanage1 300x225Men are often seen buying kids toys, paying for their education, or even teaching English. The payment for these things come in the form of sex. The Eastern part of the island is specifically targeted, as it is impoverished and desperate for ‘white man’s money.’

Canada’s Criminal Code Section 7 (4.1) prohibits child sex tourism, and Canadian citizens caught doing this in foreign countries can be charged and prosecuted in Canada.

Though it is expensive to investigate such cases, Canadians are increasingly receiving prison sentences for taking advantage of vulnerable children in places like Cambodia, Colombia, and the Philippines.

If you are taking a trip to Bali or another tropical destination,

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here are a few things to consider:

  • summer vacay1Do not pay for sex, even if it is with someone who claims to be over 18.
  • Leave the resort and allow yourself to see the poverty that the real Bali suffers from
  • Keep your eyes open. If you see a white man with a bunch of local kids, take note. Â If you see a Canadian sexually exploiting children, call Crime Stoppers (1-800-222-8477) or contact the consulate.

Let’s all do our part so locals can experience paradise in their own backyard, instead of allowing pedophiles to ravage the lives of their children.

Michelle Brock



Film Review: HOLLY

by Michelle Brock on August 31st, 2010

Holly FilmOn my visit to World Vision earlier this month, one of the employees I interviewed gave me a film to watch called HOLLY. To be honest, I always approach movies about sex trafficking with caution and some skepticism, because sometimes the film is either poorly made or demonstrates a very unrealistic and inaccurate picture of the issue. HOLLY, which highlights trafficking in Cambodia, was refreshing in this regard.  The plot is introduced as follows:

Shot on location in Cambodia, including many scenes from actual brothels in the notorious red light district of Phnom Pehn, HOLLY is a captivating, touching, and emotional experience. Patrick (Ron Livingston), an American card shark and dealer of stolen artifacts, has been ‘comfortably numb’ in Cambodia for years, when he encounters Holly (Thuy Nguyen), a 12-year old Vietnamese girl, in the K11 red light village.  The girl has been sold by her impoverished family and smuggled across the border to work as a prostitute.

Holly’s virginity makes her a lucrative prize, and when she is sold to a child trafficker, Patrick embarks on a frantic search through both the beautiful and sordid faces of the country, in an attempt to bring her to safety.  Harsh yet poetic, this feature forms part of the ‘K-11′ project, dedicated to raising awareness of the epidemic of child trafficking and sex slavery through several film projects.  The film’s producers endured substantial hardships in order to be able to shoot in Cambodia and have also founded the RedLight Children Campaign, which is a worldwide grassroots initiative generating conscious concern and inspiring immediate action against child exploitation.

I endured various emotions while watching this film – brokenness and anger being some.  However the biggest feeling I experienced was frustration.  Frustration that Holly is stubborn and ungrateful for help.  Frustration that Patrick cannot solve the problem of sex trafficking in Cambodia.  Frustration that so many children are falling through the cracks.   In my opinion, HOLLY is able to portray the frustration that a lot of people face when trying to fight this modern-day evil.

Though I spent the rest of my day feeling uncomfortable and disturbed, I also felt very grateful that the movie accurately reminded us of the complexity of the problem. Culture, economic disparity, gender roles, language, personalities, social taboos, mental disorders, drugs, and misconceptions make for a confusing jumble when trying to help victims and break the cycle of trafficking.

I would recommend watching this film.  You can check out the film website here and purchase a copy here.

Michelle Brock


In the News: Kenneth Klassen Receives Canada’s Harshest Sentence to Date for Sex Tourism

by Michelle Brock on July 29th, 2010

kenneth klassenOn the surface British Columbia’s Kenneth Klassen appears to be a pretty average guy. He is a 59 year-old divorced father of three and an international art dealer.  But Klassen’s travels were not just for business – which was discovered when customs officers seized a suspicious package from the Philippines that he had sent to himself.  It was commercial child pornography.

Some of the DVDs police found had titles such as “First Timer” and “Child Abuse,” and showed him having sex with young impoverished kids between the ages of 8 and 18.  He had hired a woman to take a computer course so she could blur out his face from the clips, but these attempts to hide his crimes did not work.  Klassen was arrested when he came to pick up the package.  When searching his house and a storage locker in Vancouver, the police found 21 DVDs containing more than 200 images of child pornography, with girls as young as three years old, which he had purchased overseas.

Crown Counsel Brendan McCabe said that Klassen “said he was attracted to women that were extremely thin and that he had tried to find thin women, older women, but in Canada he found that impossible.”  Klassen also told the police that he targeted his victims because they were extremely thin, cheap, and easily available. As the Montreal Gazette reports, one of his 11 year-old victims agreed to have sex with him so she could buy herself a new set of clothes for her 12th birthday.

gavel 300x300His was the third sex tourism case that has been heard in a Canadian court, and yesterday the judge handed him the harshest sentence to date: 11 years. Ten years for having sex with 14 underage girls in Colombia and Cambodia, and one year for for importing child pornography.  The first case involved another British Columbia man, Donald Bakker, who was given a 7 year sentence for sexually exploiting young girls in Cambodia. The second case involved two Quebec men who received 2 and 3 year sentences for sexually exploiting boys at an orphanage in Haiti.

Though Klassen claimed to be sorry from the bottom of his heart, he also tried to challenge Canada’s sex tourism law by arguing that the incidents happened in other countries where Canadian courts have no jurisdiction. Hmm.  Sounds like a truly “repentant man.”

I asked Brian McConaghy, founder of the Ratanak Foundation (which operates safe houses in Cambodia for rescued victims) what he thinks of the outcome, and he had this to say:

“While this is the longest sentence handed down in a Canadian court we are still short of where we need to be. I want sentences of 18 to 20 years for this. We may get there eventually but it will take time, more public awareness and political will. So we are on the right track but still need more work.”

In other words, this is a bittersweet victory.  However it demonstrates that these cases are coming before Canadian courts more regularly, which will hopefully begin to discourage predators from victimizing children abroad.  Unfortunately there are numerous sex tourists that are not caught like the four individuals who have now been successfully sentenced in Canada.  We are moving slowly, but at least it is in the right direction! For all those involved in this investigation, I applaud you for your hard work.

For more information on the Klassen case, check out the following links:

B.C. man gets 11 years for child sex tourism by CBC News

CBC Video News Report on Klassen

B.C. Sex tourist gets 11 years for abusing girls by the Montreal Gazette

Sex tourist Kenneth Klassen sentenced to 11 years by the Globe and Mail

Michelle Brock


Overheard: "Men Are the True Victims of Prostitution"

by Michelle Brock on May 31st, 2010

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A few weeks ago my husband Jay had a conversation with the owner of a hotel in San Jose, Costa Rica.  The hotel is located in the red light district, and the owner was telling Jay that 1 in 3 of his customers uses prostituted women. The majority of these men range in age between the ages of 50 and 70.  When asked about prostitution, this is what he had to say:

  • “There are no pimps in Costa Rica.  If there are, it would be a maximum of one or two for the whole country.” Considering we already know of one pimp in Costa Rica, it is clear this guy has not done his research.
  • “The women are all doing this willingly and get rich doing it.  Prostitutes own half the real estate downtown!  None are forced into it.  They have an easy job, making money on their back.”
  • “Men are the real victims, because women are able to exploit them through seduction, persuading them to spend more and more money.”

I don’t know about you, but it disturbs me that some people think men who use prostituted women are victims.  Though this was the first person we had met face-to-face who thinks of men as victims, it is a popular mentality and held by many to be true.  If a guy ever tried to convince me that he was the victim of seduction by a prostituted woman, I would simply tell him to not wander around in the red light district.  Forgive me, but my pity does not extend to such “victims.” Though there are some women who choose to sell their bodies for sex and go out of their way to seduce men for money, the overwhelming majority of prostituted women are victims.  Victims due to socioeconomic factors, manipulative relationships, deceit, fear, or in extreme cases kidnapping and forced prostitution.

What it comes down to is this: men have the power to decide whether to pay for sex with a prostituted woman or not.  Prostituted women often do not have the power to say no to having sex with a paying customer.

So who is really the victim here?

Trafficked women have been abused enough. If their abusers begin to see themselves as victims, we will have a serious problem on our hands. Your thoughts?



A Brothel Poem

by Michelle Brock on April 7th, 2010

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This is a picture of a poem written on the wall of what Brian McConaghy from the Ratanak Foundation calls a ‘rape cubicle.’  Translated into English, this is what it says:

There is a happy time, and then it ends
There is love, but for a short time and only in front of my face
Men boast we are pretty, but they are not honest with us
We boast we are pretty while we wear make up
No one knows it, but we are like petals falling from a flower
The only beauty we have is spiritual
Life is just life, it has no meaning

This breaks my heart.  Picturing a young girl in Cambodia writing this on the wall in between customers makes me so sad.  How old was she? Who was she sold by?  Where is she now?

These girls, even when rescued, have a long road to recovery ahead of them. If you are passionate about the fight against human trafficking and are professionally interested in counselling and psychology, helping girls like the one who wrote this poem would be a valuable way to contribute.

Check out what the Ratanak Foundation is doing to help exploited children in Cambodia here.



Costa Rica: A Hot Spot for Sexcapades

by Michelle Brock on March 23rd, 2010

Since becoming aware of sex trafficking as a global problem, I think about it often when I travel. Currently I am living in Costa Rica in Central America, where prostitution is legal and booming. In fact, it is becoming more and more of a hotspot for sex tourists, who do not want to travel as far as Asia to buy sex.

Not only are Costa Rican girls and women trafficked into Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, and Japan, but foreign girls from Russia, Colombia, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Eastern Europe have been identified as victims of forced prostitution in Costa Rican bars and strip clubs. Child sex tourism is flourishing in regions such as Guancaste, Limon, Puntarenas, and San Jose.

On the plane ride to San Jose, I sat next to an American man in his 40s who regularly visits Costa Rica by himself, though he has no friends, family, or business here. Hmm. It is no wonder why men are flocking here when there are articles like this one in GQ about getting laid in Costa Rica.

In my interview with the author of The Natashas: A New Global Sex Trade and The Johns: Sex for Sale and the Men Who Buy It, Victor Malarek mentioned that Ludwig Feinberg, a trafficker that was kicked out of Canada, relocated to Costa Rica with his human trafficking operations. This guy has some serious business-savvy. Because legalized prostitution makes victims more difficult to locate, Feinberg, along with many others, is able to make a boatload of cash in a place like Costa Rica.

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Down the street from where I live is a bar that is known locally as “Sonya’s Knob” (right). Prostituted girls work here under supervision of their “mothers.” I wonder what their stories are. Do they want to be there? It is a constant reminder to me of how exploitation of women exists everywhere.

Michelle Brock