NEW YORK — A filthy bedroom, pungent with the smell of sex and cheap perfume, is recreated for the curious. There is peeling wallpaper, soiled condom wrappers littering the floor and a dirty sink filled with half-used lipstick tubes and cigarette butts. Along one wall, a stained bed heaves under the weight of invisible, moving bodies engaged in rough sex.
The scene is part of British actress Emma Thompson’s controversial and powerful new public art exhibit to raise awareness of international sex trafficking. The exhibit is housed inside a chain of seven railroad boxcars, arranged as if waiting to depart at any moment, their exteriors slathered with degrading graffiti meant to stigmatize the captives portrayed inside.
Called "Journey," the exhibit, which opened in New York this week and runs through Sunday, attempts to unmask the denial that keeps the bustling sex-slave industry hidden in plain sight. [Long Island is a region where trafficking is rampant, curators say.]
Thompson says that she, herself, woke up to the issue after being introduced to a woman who had been a sex slave at a massage parlor that Thompson passed each day on her way to the London subway. "I was devastated that it was happening so close to where I lived and that I was doing nothing about it," she said.
Thompson is chair of the Helen Bamber Foundation, a London-based philanthropic foundation formed in 2005 to help victims of cruelty. It was through Bamber – an 84-year-old woman who was on one of the first rehabilitation teams to visit the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 — that Thompson first heard the story of Elena, a young Moldovan woman trafficked into Britain at the age of 19. Elena’s story inspired Journey.
I caught up with Thompson and Bamber Foundation co-founder Michael Korzinski at the exhibit. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation. "Journey" leaves Sunday for Madrid. New York City is the exhibit’s only U.S. stop.
What was it about Elena’s story that first inspired you to take action?
Thompson: I think it was simply how easily traffickers are able to prey on victims of tragedy. Elena’s father had died and she’d gone to work in the market selling vegetables and she was very unhappy about her life. She had to leave school.
A woman in the market came up to her and invited her home, then offered to get her a nice job as a doctor’s receptionist in London. She told Elena that she’d be able to save money, send it back home, and go back to school, so Elena handed over her passport and ended up in London six weeks later, only to be told that she owed them 50,000 British pounds ($82,900) to pay for her journey to the U.K. and that she would have to earn that money by working as a prostitute.
When Elena said no, that’s when the beating started. She was put into solitary confinement for two weeks. Then they told her they would hurt her family. I think it’s very important for people to understand that girls who are forced into this kind of slavery have been tortured, beaten, raped and threatened. It’s not the personal threats that really carry the weight; it’s the threats of harm to these girls’ family members that eventually breaks them down.
Elena is quoted as saying that prior to her confinement, she’d never seen a man naked; while in confinement, she says, “there were never less than 40 men a day.” Then she got arrested in a raid and was thrown into jail, where British authorities treated her badly. Eventually, she told trafficking investigators her story but it was clear that by then, she was deeply, emotionally scarred.
Thompson: When sex slaves are thrown into jail they usually can’t speak English; the vast majority of the men and women trafficked come from Eastern Europe and they have no papers because they are illegals. In the detention centers, they are not helped in any way and then they are deported.
But wouldn’t deportation be a form of escape for many of these people?
Thompson: When Elena came to the Bamber Foundation, she wasn't in very good shape. She'd gone home but she wasn't herself anymore, and couldn't face her mother or her family. She was someone deeply ashamed, someone utterly stigmatized by what she was doing and what had happened to her. She was someone who, in her own mind, was not literally worth helping.
Why did you choose this method to tell the story of human trafficking?
Thompson: Because there have recently been some very good documentaries and films about the problem. There’s a brilliant film called Lilja Forever and a great TV series called "Sex Traffic" that is pertinent. Unfortunately, though, I think sometimes when you present things too graphically, people get frightened and they can’t cope with the suffering. I wanted to find a way that I could engage people without scaring them off. I wanted to use shipping containers because trafficking is all about moving people about. I designed one of the containers and we had some very high-profile artists each taking one of the other cars to fill out the experience.
How are people reacting to"Journey"?
Thompson: When it opened in London in September, I’d say 99.9 percent of the people were just appalled; they didn’t know what to do. People would come out of the exhibit outraged. Some of them, though, come out of it feeling very hopeless about it all. At the moment, we’re trying to figure out what ripples out and what impact this exhibit does have in the communities we visit. Traveling this piece around, of course, is one of the most important things you can do to explain what this is and what sex trafficking does to people. What really struck me was a young man, maybe about 24 or so, who came up to me the other day to ask me how someone is supposed to recover from something like this. He said it must take a very long time. It's that kind of awareness that we're after.
One part of the exhibit conveys the denial of some of the men who buy sex. One of them, interviewed on tape, says he believes he's actually doing himself and the girl he patronizes a favor. "When we're done, she goes on with her life and I go on with mine," he says. He seems to have no idea that the women he's been with are in captivity, being held against their will.
Thompson: I don’t think the average person knows and no one wants to know about suffering; they have got enough going on in their own lives. You have to find ways to engage people without having to depress them. What people want is to be offered a chance to do something useful, and there isn’t a single person I’ve met who doesn’t want to do something about this problem after having see the exhibit.
Korzinski: Some of the psychological impacts of the girls who a forced into captivity this way, after a while, are apathy, memory loss, insomnia, physical pain, severe depression, listlessness and insomnia. It's not unusual to see some of these girls simply acting on auto-pilot, as if the life inside them is over.
What can the average person do?
Thompson: If you’re someone who buys sex, you can go to the madam and demand to see the girls’ passports. Anyone can report any incidences of suburban households that may have a great slew of young girls walking in and out of the front door for no apparent reason. If you’re a store owner and some girl comes to you for condoms and tissues and doesn’t speak English, you can ask her if she’s all right. You can, mostly, just open your eyes and your ears. It’s time for everybody to look at what’s going on around them and to take responsibility, to proclaim that it is not okay to sell human beings, for whatever reason, and that this kind of thing should not be allowed to continue.
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