STEPPING UP: RED LIGHTS
Fighting human trafficking in Cambodia
In 2002, while traveling in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Manhattan lawyer
Guy Jacobson encountered a group of 5- to 7-year-old girls on a side
street. One of them aggressively tried to solicit him for prostitution,
saying: “I yum-yum very good. I no money today. Mama-san boxing
me”—referring to the madam of her brothel, who would beat her if she
came home empty-handed. Horrified, Jacobson went on to make the recent
film, Holly, about a Vietnamese child prostitute, and founded Red Light
Children, a nonprofit to end human trafficking. He talked with
freelancer Sherry Amatenstein.
Guy Jacobsen (center left, standing) with his Holly film crew and Cambodian
children on location in K11, the brothel district of Phnom Penh
I grew up in Israel and moved to New York
when I was 16. I went to high school here, then moved back to Israel to
join the Army. The day after I fin-ished basic training, a war with
Lebanon broke out. I stayed on, and then after the war, I returned to
the States, to Brooklyn, and went to law school. I graduated in ’93 and
then worked for a couple of big-city law firms for about 10 years.
At some point, I decided I wanted to do art.
I wanted to make things. I had always dabbled in writing novels and
articles, and even wrote a couple of movie scripts, but I didn’t want
to sell those scripts. I wanted to produce them and make them myself.
So around 1999, I started Priority Films, my film production company—to
produce some of the films I’d written.
I started making lighter films, wacky
comedies, and suspense. But around early 2001, I decided that I wanted
to do more. So I decided to see the world. I went to the Czech
Repub-lic, Germany, Spain, France, Hungary, Taiwan, the Philippines,
Singapore, and then kept going, to Aus-tralia, Tasmania, New Zealand,
and then to Southeast Asia and Thailand, Laos, Sri Lanka, India, the
Mal-dives, and China, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal. Through-out, I was taking
the time to think deeply about things, to focus on writing books and
And then one day about five years ago, while
trav-eling in Cambodia, I was walking on a side street and suddenly
found myself surrounded by a group of over a dozen little girls—five
years old, maybe six. And they began very aggressively soliciting me
for prostitution. Their hands went straight to my privates, and then
one of them told me in broken English, I yum-yum, very good. I no money
today, mama-san boxing me. That meant that the madam of the brothel
where she lived would beat her up if she came home with no money.
I gave her some money. I walked away. But I said to myself that I had to do something about this.
you start paying more attention to anything in life, it’s amazing what
you can start to see. What I saw in Cambodia that afternoon in 2002 was
not an isolated case. There are some 2 million kids who are kidnapped
and sold into prostitution and sexual slavery and various other forms
of sexual exploitation worldwide every year. The Coalition Against
Trafficking estimates there are more than 400,000 under-aged
prostitutes in the U.S. alone, and more than 12,000 in New York City.
Of course, I knew that there is underage
prostitution, and, of course, I knew that there are pedophiles. But
it’s such a horrible thing that you don’t want to believe it. You see
an article about it, but you don’t want to know.
The common perception is that these kids are
runaway 17-year-olds from impoverished backgrounds. But it’s not that.
It’s about blond-haired, blue-eyed kids from America and young children
from all kinds of economic backgrounds. And this exists in every city,
in every country. In the UK, somebody got a life sentence for
kidnapping and raping a three-monthold baby. In Paris, there was a huge
ring of pedophiles that was busted, close to 100 of them, buying and
selling and raping kids as young as six months old. I mean, most us
just simply don’t connect the dots.
Human trafficking is unlike a lot of other
crimes against humanity, those concentrated in one geographical place,
like Darfur, and related to civil wars of some kind. But human
trafficking? It happens all over, in every city in every country in the
world. Kids can be taken advantage of everywhere. They don’t have a
voice, by definition. What will they do, vote? March on Washington or
the Parliament in Britain to protest their situation? Many times, kids
who are that young aren’t aware that they’re victims. Often, they’re
living this life with other kids just like them, so it seems normal.
It’s amazing how quickly that kind of life becomes normal.
And it persists because the trade in
trafficking comes to more than $30 billion a year. There are quite a
few people that make some money out of this, and whether they are
corrupt government officials in various places, corrupt police, or just
organized crime, it’s become an epidemic.
So after this encounter in Phnom Penh, I
thought, what can I do? The more I spoke with people, as I found more
information, I realized it’s not that I’m the only idiot around that
doesn’t know about human trafficking. Nobody with whom I spoke knew
much more than I did, if anything at all. So in July 2003, I thought, Wait.
I have a film production company. I can utilize mass media to raise
awareness of an issue that is not on people’s agendas. I can put it on
their agenda and let people know what really is happening.
Brothel district of Phnom Penh (above); promotional poster for the movie, Holly (inset, below); and a room inside one of the brothels photographed by Jacobson and his film crew for Holly, and a new film called K11, due out later this year
that’s when I decided to write Holly. It’s the story of a 12-year-old
Vietnamese girl who is sold into prostitution by her family and
smuggled across the border to Cambodia. She’s still a virgin and she
lives in the brothel section of Phnom Phen, where she meets an
American, and they develop a friendship. But by the time he’s starting
to understand what is going on with this girl and decides he wants to
help her, she gets sold to a trafficker and disappears. Through his
desperate search to find her, we tell the story of human trafficking.
We shot it entirely on location, in real brothels and in the real
red-light districts, without sensationalizing the issue or using any
nudity. Holly shows the life of these kids who have been trafficked.
In the course of researching Holly, I got to
a point where I knew all the statistics. I knew the human trafficking
problem at the macro level. But I realized that I didn’t know how a
12-year-old girl in this situation speaks, what she does in the
morning, or at night, or what interaction she would have with clients.
I didn’t want to do a film with cliché dialogue.
So I went back to the red light district
where I encountered the problem—that was the story I wanted to tell—and
went into the brothels, pretending to be a customer, all the while
simply speaking to them, researching their lives along with our film
It was dangerous: when we got to Cambodia to
film, we got a call from Interpol telling us that we were insane to be
going to the most dangerous place in the world to make a movie about
the world’s most dangerous subject matter. You’re all going to die, get
the hell out of Cambodia, they told us. But we didn’t leave; instead,
we hired bodyguards with AK-47s to protect us.
We weren’t killed, but every day, we had
people sabotaging our trucks and equipment and trying to stop us. We
had to pay someone to have our equipment released at the airport in
Phnom Phen; our trucks in Thailand were held at the border until we
paid someone another amount. It was continuous work just to be able to
film. There were so many people who had a vested interest in us not
making the movie, from the government right on down to the local
organized crime dealers.
Holly is not Cambodia. It’s very, very
important to emphasize that. Holly is a story of one girl that happened
to be a Vietnamese girl in Cambodia. But Mexican girls are trafficked
to the U.S. Is that any better? Korean girls are trafficked to the
U.S., American girls are trafficked to Dubai; Ukranian girls or
Bulgarian or Romanian or Hungarian girls are trafficked all over
Europe. Brazilian girls are trafficked, too. I mean, when is it okay to
traffic girls? Is it ever okay? I couldn’t make a movie about all 2.5
million kids so I focused on one, in one place. But the problem exists
in every city and in every country in the world.
And the laws that need to be put in place to
stop it are not just in Cambodia. Cambodia needs such laws, but then so
does the United States, the UK, Germany, France, Canada, South Africa,
Israel, New Zealand, Australia, and every other country in the world.
A Cambodian village near Phnom Penh
That’s why I formed Red Light Children, or
redlightchildren.org. At some point, as we were working on the film, I
realized that awareness, alone, isn’t enough. So you go and see Holly
or you hear about it and you get very depressed and angry about it, and
worried that your kids or grandkids or brothers and sisters, regardless
of where you live, could be whisked away by traffickers. Kids disappear
in Times Square in New York City all the time. So it’s not like, Oh, it
would never happen to my kids. Wrong. It’s absolutely your kids, too.
So much of this problem persists because
people simply don’t want to acknowledge it’s happening. Not
acknowledging that a problem exists—like AIDS— usually means that
nobody is going to try to do anything to stop it. I think people prefer
not to believe there are really bad problems in the world. But I don’t
think it’s right to simply pretend that something is not happening.
What reasonable person can justify why five-year-old girls should have
20 to 30 clients a day— or, put more bluntly, be raped 20 to 30 times a
day, every day? I cannot even think of any such argument.
Or, why is it okay for somebody like me
who’s 44 to go online to speak with a 12-year-old boy or girl in an
explicit sexual conversation when I should know they’re a minor? Why is
it okay for somebody like me to ask them to perform sexual acts on the
Web cam? Why are there no laws to say this is illegal or to punish me
so severely that I won’t do it?
Growing up in Israel, it was clear that you
couldn’t only take a stand when somebody is harming or discriminating
against your own people. It’s like the adage that people share about
the Nazis, that goes something like this: When the Nazis came to take
the gays, I didn’t stand up and object because I wasn’t gay. When they
came to take the Jews, I didn’t object because I wasn’t a Jew. When
they came to take the Catholics, I did not object because I wasn’t a
Catholic. When they came to take me, there was nobody left to object.
I’m a big believer in this. It’s not about
personal credit or heroics; it’s about the dignity of others, of all of
us. And it becomes personal when these little kids grab your private
parts. At that point, you can make a decision: Do you want to take a
stand or do you not? Do you want to be reasonable or not? I’m not a
Sherry Amatenstein is a New York freelance writer.
Cartography by Jim McMahon
Photographs courtesy Guy Jacobson