accessing the hardest to reach populations
On January 3, 2009, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed “If This Isn’t Slavery, What Is?” In it he described the torture and abuse of Long Pross, a teenage girl who was kidnapped, sold, and tortured in a Phnom Penh brothel, and had her eye gouged out with a metal rod when she tried to resist her second forced abortion. The story made her the face of “modern-day slavery.”
The story fit prevailing narratives about human trafficking and slavery, so no one questioned it, even though Kristof had actually not spent a significant time in Cambodia. Rather, he obtained interview data from Pross at a shelter housing victims of human trafficking. Five years later, Newsweek established that Pross had a nonmalignant tumor removed as a toddler, which is why she had a missing eye. This prompted Kristof to backtrack and write, “When Sources May Have Lied”.
Many people believe that there are 27 million slaves across the world today, even though that number was made up in 1999, without any serious empirical evidence, by Kevin Bales, sociologist and founder of Free the Slaves, an anti-slavery NGO. It is no surprise, then, that Kristof’s story remained unquestioned for more than five years as his argument agrees with the prevailing view that all sex workers are trafficked victims forced into prostitution. The exposure of Pross as a fraud does not disavow this view but it merely denies us one less poster child.
Stereotypes about trafficking victims persist because scholars and the general public alike assume they are inaccessible. This adds an extra challenge to researchers who wish to study those susceptible to trafficking. Like early ethnographies of the urban poor in the United States, the truthfulness of the work is easily doubted or dismissed as unrepresentative especially if it does not fit prevailing narratives of oppression. Because those most vulnerable are considered unreachable, the narrative presented, if not one of severe abuse, is assumed to not apply to those with the worst experiences.
We believe that properly documenting the experiences of the most vulnerable—meaning victims of crimes, human rights violations, and those engaged in illicit activities—is feasible. It requires a systematic research process where the researcher draws from multiple sources and engages in a process of triangulation rather than drawing from anecdotal evidence. It requires time. It also requires that scholars avoid convenience sampling of hard to reach populations. Ironically, those most convenient to reach (like Pross) are those we can label as having had the “worst experiences” as they are the ones easy to find in rescue shelters. Achieving a fuller picture of the experiences of the most vulnerable requires avoiding convenient sampling. This means we must diversify our access to the communities we study and track their experiences as they live them and not just as they reflect on them. Our experiences studying sex workers in and from Southeast Asia indicate this to be the case. The challenges and inconveniences we faced involve gaining the trust of various stakeholders, including “victims” and “traffickers”; undoing the prevailing assumptions or stereotypes that we likely internalized and brought to the field; and documenting the diversity of current experiences on the ground.
Taking on these challenges is neither easy nor convenient. Take for instance the experience of Parreñas in Tokyo, when she first tried to gain the trust of Filipino migrant hostesses, a group of workers labeled as sex trafficked victims forced into prostitution by the U.S. Department of State and one she wrote about in Illicit Flirtations. She met scores of them visiting their workplaces, and also restaurants and places of worship they frequented. Yet, not one would agree to sit down for an interview. Even baiting them with a US$50 payment for an hour interview proved futile. It would have been convenient to assume from their hesitance that none were in a position to speak about their experiences as their “traffickers” may have barred current workers from speaking to outsiders, and former workers were too traumatized.
After three months of failed attempts to secure even one interview, she decided that the best way to gain insight was by working alongside them. Giving her access to a potential workplace had been the trust of a nun known to give spiritual advice to hostesses across the community. Parreñas avoided convenience by seeking a bar in a working-class community—a type of bar where the media claims forced prostitution is likely to take place. Working at a bar only confirmed that her prior assumptions regarding prostitution were simply not true as she learned hostesses earned money via platonic flirtations.
Perhaps more significantly, working at the bar opened doors for her with not just hostesses but also club owners and recruiters in Japan and the Philippines, that is, the supposed “traffickers.” In contrast to her initial approach, which yielded a zero percent response rate, all those she approached in the bars agreed to an interview. Explaining this drastic shift, she learned that hostesses avoided talking to those unfamiliar with their work because of the effort involved in having to undo the misinformation guiding their questions. Indeed, she entered the field thinking that they engaged in prostitution, perhaps not forced, but prostitution nonetheless.
Following Parreñas’ lead, Hoang, in her book Dealing in Desire, worked as a hostess in Vietnam to examine sex work “backstage” after noticing that many of the sex workers she interviewed claimed to be victims of trafficking as a way to trick their male clients into buying them out of the bar. Hoang was able to see the narrative that sex workers gave to men just like Kristof and Bales to dupe them for money. It took months of systematic observations to see the discrepancies between the performance on the “front stage” and that on the “backstage.” Conversations with bartenders, motorbike taxi drivers, police officers and others led Hoang to analyze multiple segments of the sex industry that catered to an economically and racially diverse set of clients. Contrary to popular belief, none of the women she studied were forced to have sex against their will, violently raped, or abused by their clients. Across the four bars that Hoang studied, the madams and bar owners followed a strict moral code of consent that prohibited them from even taking a cut of their workers’ earnings from paid sex. Departing from the premise that all women are victims bought, sold, and forced into the trade, or that they experience severe labor exploitation, Hoang explains sex workers were motivated to work in the sex industry because it provides them with the only viable pathway for upward mobility when compared with factory work or other forms of service work. Importantly, she documents how the women in her study fabricated stories of abuse as a shrewd business strategy for their financial gain.
The depth of our narratives was made possible because we diversified our samples, and conducted our ethnographies alongside these supposed trafficking victims. In doing so we move away from affirming stereotypes unsubstantiated by data, and push scholars and the general public to replace their assumptions with hard empirical data.
Our research findings in Japan and Vietnam defy common knowledge on the most vulnerable. For this reason, our claims have been known to elicit outrage and doubt. On November 11, 2011, not long after the publication of Illicit Flirtations, the Deputy Director for the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons Alison Kiehl Friedman did an interview (on Public Radio International’s The World, broadcast on NPR stations) to publicly denounce the book and its critique of the mislabeling of hostesses as victims forced into prostitution. Public denouncements of our work are increasingly becoming part and parcel of researching vulnerable populations. Those whose work fit dominant narratives are celebrated and those who do not are either ignored or dismissed or sometimes savaged. As sociologists, we need to find reassurance and legitimacy in the rigor of our work and be committed to the ethnographic craft of documenting multiple experiences.
Kimberly Kay Hoang is in the sociology department at the University of Chicago. She is the author of Dealing in Desire: Asian Ascendancy, Western Decline, and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work.
Rhacel Salazar Parreñas is in the sociology department at University of Southern California. She is the author of Servants of Globalization: Migration and Domestic Work (2nd Edition).