Stuck in traffic

21 February 2006
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Commissioned by British television to set up interviews for a documentary on sex trafficking in Latvia, Tim Ochser finds himself an accomplice in the simplification of the phenomenon. To call sex trafficking "modern slavery" fails to see it as the consequence of the sexualization of culture. To get to the real story, he says, the documentary should have been about the men who use women as prostitutes.

This is a story, I’m sure of it. It’s a story about sex, once again, and it’s a shockingly, terribly, deeply touching story. It even has a rough name: the problem of sex trafficking in Latvia. All it needs now is some dramatic personae to flesh it out and make it real. All it needs now is a hook.

When a British television news station phoned me recently to ask if I would help them “arrange” a story on sex trafficking, I agreed immediately. I dislike such work but it pays relatively well, and I would have felt guilty passing up such easy money.

And so the story began. Laurence, who works as a journalist for the station’s Moscow bureau, wrote me an email with a list of things to arrange. I spent the next couple of weeks phoning around to line up several interviews. When I wrote him an email telling him exactly who and what was planned for his four-day trip, he immediately wrote back saying it was “gold dust”.

The following people were all waiting to be interviewed at neatly spaced intervals during his visit: the president, a senior figure at the International Office for Migration, the detective in charge of the anti-trafficking unit, a state prosecutor, an economist, two convicted traffickers in Ilguciems women’s prison, and two trafficking victims.

But the story was already known long before Laurence arrived in Riga. He just needed the right footage and some fitting facts to seamlessly put it all together. And that’s the problem, as the news people might say. Sex trafficking has become such a familiar story that the story itself is a victim of the clich�s endlessly used to retell it.

The basic idea of the story was to question why so many women are still being trafficked from Latvia more than a year after it joined the European Union. In other words, this horribly complex phenomenon was to be “explained” in simple terms of a socio-economic rationale, in which impoverished cause begets tragic effect. This is the language of news. This is the language of realism. This is the language of social tragedy.

The women who are trafficked are all poor, and therefore miserable, and therefore desperate, and therefore vulnerable. In their desire for a better life, they are easily lured into going to work abroad on false premises, at which point their passport is wrenched out of their possession and they are forced into prostitution until someone or other finally rescues them. That’s the all-too-familiar story: apparently there is no other way of telling it.

Watching Laurence go through interview after interview, I almost felt sorry for him. His job is essentially to perpetuate the fallacy that the world can be wholly understood as part of a linear and progressive historical narrative. With the help of a slick voice and some pithy phrases, sex trafficking can be explained and contextualized as a contemporary problem, to be addressed, and eventually overcome, in order for it to cease to be newsworthy. His unenviable job is to stoke the phosphorescent fire that is slowly consuming the world.

While he was interviewing Ilmars Mesz, who works for the International Organization for Migration, I took the time to have a nice talk with Natasha, the station’s Moscow producer who had come along on the trip to help out with translating.

She showed me photos of her baby on her mobile phone and told me the convoluted story of how she had come to work for the news station. Her eyes were kind and gently curious, and we warmed to each other immediately. She hadn’t been to Riga since the 1980s and she was intrigued to see how much it had changed.

As we talked outside Mesz’s office, I noticed several shelves filled with video copies of the film “Lilja 4-Ever”, which the IOM uses to try and warn young girls of the dangers of accepting offers to work abroad. It’s an almost unbearably brutal film that shows how a teenage girl, living in some grim and forsaken imaginary ex-Soviet Union town, gets lured through a combination of naivety and desperation into going to Sweden to pick strawberries. Upon arrival, she gets locked into a flat, and is forced into sleeping with an endless stream of faceless men, until one day she manages to escape and kills herself to put an end to her misery.

I wondered why “the problem of sex trafficking” could only be explained by a film like “Lilja 4-Ever” or the news story that I was witnessing being put together. Was it really that simple? Or did language only permit the story to be told in this way?

Sex trafficking is often called a modern form of slavery. It is certainly every bit as abominable as racial slavery and it is right that it attracts so much political condemnation. It must be confronted in every way possible.

But where our idea of racial slavery is dramatically represented by noble-looking, shiny-skinned black men being loaded onto wooden ships in chains, the acts of her own, deluded free will, crossing legitimate borders. Her desperation and naivety are her chains. The bed in the flat or brothel in which she is locked up is her ship. Or at least that is the popular understanding of how thousands of young girls and women end up being trafficked every year.

It is misleading to explain sex trafficking simply as a modern form of slavery: the reasons behind sexual slavery differ to the historical reasons underlying colonial slavery, except for their shared motive of sheer greed. It is also inadequate to explain sex trafficking solely as a consequence of poverty, for sexual subservience has always existed in some shape or form. It has just never been called sex trafficking before.

The shock of sex trafficking is not that it happens, but that it happens here and now, in civilized Europe, right under our noses. And yet I suspect there is something affected in many people’s “shock”.

Prostitutes have long served as the ultimate romantic symbol. They embody better than anyone the schizophrenia inherent to language. They have been portrayed countless times in film and writing as fallen, peripatetic figures, cursed by ill fortune, but essentially good, and with the power to redeem. They do not symbolize an object of desire, but the desire to overcome desire.

The sex slave has confounded this woefully romantic concept of the prostitute, because her plight graphically illustrates the new, essentially pornographic idealization of women. The prostitute was an accepted part of life: the sex slave, however, is a shocking violation of human decency. These women are coerced and forced into sexual servitude, while normal prostitution is a vocation, an ontological fact, a charming old humped-back bridge that leads to the murky world of male desire.

Throughout history slaves were able to “earn” their freedom, either by buying it or being released by their master. The sex slave does not perform the kind of work that can be rewarded with freedom. Her body is abused beyond belief. By the time she has slept with ten men, or twenty men, or a thousand men, she is all but dead as a woman.

Sex trafficking should not come as a shock. It is merely a brutal simulacrum of modern economic practice. It horribly illustrates the shocking hypocrisy in our attitudes towards sex and the utter poverty of our imagination that we can only conceive of it as a form of modern slavery rather than a grotesque consequence of the intensely sexualized culture we have created.

No story on the subject of sex trafficking ever delves into the lives of the men who pay to use these women as prostitutes. But, if anywhere, that is where the real story lies. That is where we should be looking if we are to understand anything from this vile phenomenon.

The president – of all people – made some astute comments about sex trafficking when we went along to her “castle” to interview her. In fact, she greatly went up in my esteem for the frank and intelligent way she spoke on the topic.

We got there half an hour early, as her press officer had requested us to, and went through a rigorous security check before being admitted. We were then escorted by a burly security guard upstairs to an ornate antechamber.

Goga, the cameraman, hurriedly rearranged the furniture and set up several lights to get the shot he wanted. We kept the president waiting past the appointed hour and there was a slightly tense air of anticipation as her press officer kept sticking her head round the door to ask if we were ready. Fifteen more minutes, Goga said. Fifteen? the press officer asked in a shrill voice. Five, Laurence haggled. And the door shut again.

When Vaira finally entered the room she was wearing her best face of presidential sagacity. She shuffled into her chair and squirmed from the incredibly bright light Goga had placed next to her chair. She explained how she had just done a two-hour interview with Swiss television and asked how long this interview would take. I wondered if she had eaten dinner yet. She looked a little irritable through her presidential facade.

Laurence began the interview with a spectacularly stupid question. He asked her why joining the EU hadn’t alleviated the poverty that created the sort of conditions in which sex trafficking was possible. Vaira was clearly irked but she remained in presidential mode. She spouted out some statistics to explain that Latvia was thriving economically, along with several other banalities she probably recites by heart for the endless interviews she has to give “about” Latvia.

But Laurence was clearly trying to establish a link between three words: “Latvia”, “the European Union”, and “poverty” and he kept prodding away for a response that better suited his story.

Vaira’s face subtly contracted into a presidential grimace at this inane line of questioning. She remarked that there was still prostitution in Britain despite the fact that it was in the European Union, and added that it was the oldest profession in the world and would probably be the last.

The more irritated she got, the more frank her answers became. I was impressed by many of the things she said and I whispered to Natasha that she was talking with exceptional intelligence for a president. She was hardly saying anything revolutionary, but neither was she succumbing to the formulaic comments most politicians would resort to the situation.

When the interview came to an awkward end she was quickly out of her chair. Laurence gave her his business card and offered to send her a copy of the story but she was almost certainly annoyed, probably by the way his questions had tried to simplify an issue she feels strongly about. For his part, he looked a little despondent so I tried to cheer him up by telling him that at least she had given him some great footage to use.

After that we called it a day. They were all exhausted as their Aeroflot flight had been delayed the night before and they had had to spend the entire night in the departure lounge of Moscow airport waiting for the fog in Riga to lift.

When we met up early the next morning for coffee in the lobby bar of the Ridzene hotel they were all fresh-faced and eager to get at the story, having slept well and eaten a good breakfast.

We began by going to Riga Airport as Laurence wanted to get some shots of British men streaming through the arrival gate after flying in on a cheap Ryan Air flight. Sure enough, they came right on cue. Many of them had a strangely disgusting gleam in their eyes.

Laurence stood there with his microphone trying to snag one for a quick interview, while I stood there with Natasha grimacing at the sight of them. I thought it was audacious of him to even circumspectly link these mindless, would-be sex tourists with sex trafficking, for all they factually had in common was a shared prefix. But when he asked Goga to go and get a shot of a Ryan Air plane standing on the runway I understood that the airline itself was to feature as a character in the story. The new EU: it’s so cheap and easy to cross borders, or something along those dubious lines.

It snowed that evening: a thick, serene, beautiful snowfall that doubtless did nothing to dampen the desire of all the drunken foreigners running around the city. Laurence wanted to get some shots of “Riga at night” so we went to the Old Town and Goga shot a few strip clubs, bars and large groups of marauding British men.

Laurence wanted to do a “to camera” at one point, but a drunk English guy kept bothering him as he tried to do the piece. It was a nervous moment as the man was clearly up for a fight: he just wasn’t sure if he should pick one with a television journalist. Eventually his friend came and led him away, apologizing to us for his behaviour. It was only 9 o’clock at the time.

A little later we went to La Rocca nightclub to shoot some footage there. I had been there once many years before and vowed never to return, but this was work. We were all dressed very plainly and the woman at the cash register looked at us contemptuously when I explained that the owner was expecting us. We were told we had to check our coats in. Then we stood around awkwardly, waiting for the owner to come and get us.

A Russian girl looked at Laurence’s rather protruding belly and made a vomiting gesture to her friend and they both laughed, before returning their gaze to the throng of pumped-up men around them. Fortunately, Laurence didn’t see this disturbing little incident. I was starting to feel queasy from it all. The thought came to me: this is hell on earth.

The owner soon came and took us on a grand tour of his vast club. He was very friendly as he was no doubt pleased to be getting some free publicity on British television. As I looked at the vast crowds of people, all flagrantly looking at each other looking at each other, I asked him how many people in his club would, in his opinion, have a one-night stand that night. He laughed at the question. About twenty five percent of them, he said. That’s quite a number, I replied. That’s why they come, he explained.

Natasha and I sat in Studio 69 and had a drink while Laurence and Goga went around taking some shots. A stripper was busily wrapping herself around a pole, that most banal and unerotic of phallic symbols. Several in-house “beauties” were languidly dancing on the small dance floor, waiting for a man to come and offer them a drink.

Natasha seemed very uncomfortable with the situation. She told me that the shoes the women were wearing were “last year’s fashion” in Moscow. I found her words touching and they endeared her to me even more. She clearly felt intimidated sitting there in her thick, brightly-coloured striped jumper surrounded by all these “beautiful” women. I tried to console her by saying that the women were all dancing with their heads, not with their hearts. I also remarked that a nightclub was the most insubstantial of illusions. All you had to do was flick the light switch on and you would kill the mood in an instant.

We left around midnight and were astonished to see how long the queues were outside. The men were mostly Russian and they looked so utterly uniform to me that they could have been in line on a military parade ground. It was an utterly depressing spectacle, and I was the first to get into the car.

The most important footage for the story though was inevitably that of the victims and traffickers themselves. They were the ones who made the story happen. They were the news. They were the stuff of countless UN reports, and conferences, and political debate, and shocking newspaper articles.

We spent a couple of hours in Ilguciems prison where Laurence interviewed three women who had been convicted of trafficking, for a fee that I had previously agreed with a ministry PR official. At first he suggested 50 lats for each woman, but I said that amount was too much. These women were convicted traffickers, after all. But as they wouldn’t go on camera without payment, I suggested 20 lats per woman and he agreed on the women’s behalf.

Before the interviews began, a prison official wrote out receipts for each of the 20-lat payments, which greatly impressed Natasha. She explained to me that in Russia the money would go straight into the official’s pockets, assuming they were even allowed to film in a prison at all.

The first two women showed up wearing their best clothes. They told their stories in Russian. Natasha translated. Laurence nodded. Goga filmed. I watched. I couldn’t help but feel amazed by their ordinariness. I felt like I had passed them by on the street a hundred times. But what had I expected? They explained in monotone voices why they had done it. They explained that they were victims of the men they worked for. And then they went back to their cell and presumably removed their make up and got back into their punitive clothing.

Laurence was unimpressed with the first two women: their stories didn’t quite fit the story he wanted. But the third woman greatly impressed him. We shot her in silhouette in her cell to protect her identity. She tearfully explained that she was innocent, that she had desperately loved the man she was trafficking women for, and that she had no idea she was sending them off abroad to such a terrible fate. Both Laurence and Natasha emerged from her tiny cell shaking their heads in sympathy for her.

Of the many people we interviewed for the story, the ones I was most curious to meet were the victims. They had been extremely hard to find. Every NGO I called said that they protect the women who come to them for help by guaranteeing their anonymity. It is an admirable policy, I must say, but we still had to find at least one victim willing to talk about her experiences or else there was no story. I even asked LTV if they might help for I knew they had done several stories on the subject. But they could only suggest we go down to Chaka Street and talk to a few prostitutes.

In the end we found an NGO on Chaka Street whose director said she would find us two women to talk to for a fee. As she explained on the phone, they were very poor and needed all the help they could get.

We went there on a Saturday afternoon. The staircase had a stone sculpture on each landing, which was something I had never seen before. The director, a gregarious and rotund little Russian woman, explained that a sculptor lived upstairs and asked if I wanted his phone number. I told her that wasn’t necessary.

She talked for a good hour about her work after making us all a cup of tea. I nosed around her office, trying to see if I could find a clue as to why she did what she did. There was a room filled with basic medical equipment to check the health of the women who came to her. I asked if she was a doctor and she said that she was, although I strongly doubted it. There were some dubious-looking certificates on the wall claiming that she had been to this and that conference on trafficking, but nothing proclaimed her status as a qualified doctor.

The first woman arrived and Goga set up the lighting and camera for the interview. Laurence came out of the room after just ten minutes, gesturing that she was completely insane. I asked him why. He whispered that as far as he could tell she had deliberately gone to Germany to work as a prostitute and her experiences had nothing to do with being trafficked, which was what the story was all about. To my surprise, she left without accepting the payment we had agreed.

The second woman then showed up. She was grimly pretty and appeared older than her 26 years. But she had a charming smile which was friendly and sincere-looking, like that of a slightly sad and shy child. According to the NGO director, she had just found out the previous week that she had contracted HIV. She was sure that she got it while being held in Germany.

She was shot in silhouette by a window, an oppressively grey Riga day looming in the background. I stepped out of the room. I didn’t want to hear her story. For some reason, I couldn’t bear to.

When the others came out of the room some half an hour later they were all silent and sombre. I asked Natasha how the story went. She said that it was unbelievably awful. She cried while she was translating. The woman cried while she talked. I asked her if she believed her story. Every word, she replied.

After the interview, I had a cigarette with the young woman on the landing. Although she was from Ventspils and had a Latvian name, she barely spoke a word of Latvian. We smoked in silence. I felt horribly confused in her presence. This story wasn’t even about her. She wouldn’t see it. She wouldn’t benefit from it. It would make no difference whatsoever to her life.

The woman had explained to Natasha how she would have to line up alongside the other women in the brothel where she was being kept whenever a man came to have sex with one of them. But the men kept on choosing her, again and again. And looking at her face I could understand why. I don’t think it was because she was attractive (although no doubt for many men that was the reason), but because she looked so – no, there is no word for how she looked. But I will never forget the abstract warmth I felt while looking at her.

The story was done. Laurence said all they needed now to finish it off was some footage showing the two extremes of Riga. We drove to Moskachka and Goga excitedly shot some crumbling old apartment blocks and stumbling drunken old men to signify poverty. Then we drove back to the centre, where he took some shots of happy-looking people walking in front of Stockman department store to signify affluence.

That night we had dinner at Charleston’s restaurant. They were all in good spirits: they’d got a good story and were leaving a day earlier than planned because everything had gone so smoothly. We got pleasantly drunk and talked excitedly about things that I can hardly remember now.

In the end, I never watched the story that went out on television. The only thing that really mattered to me was the indescribable look in the face of the woman I had a cigarette with on that freezing cold landing, beside a lump of artistically carved stone.

Published 21 February 2006

Original in English
First published in Rigas Laiks 2/2006 (Latvian version)

Contributed by Rigas Laiks
© Tim Ochser/Rigas Laiks Eurozine

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