We all know that 'sex slavery' is bad, right? I don't think many people would argue that it's OK to kidnap someone, or manipulate them into coming to a country, and then force them to have sex with strangers to repay an imaginary debt.
However, there are a few problems with the way the issue is represented, which has an impact on how we view it. Four Corners' recent expose, 'Sex Slavery' http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2011/10/06/3333668.htm, is quite problematic for a number of reasons. While it was clearly aiming to expose the extent of the problem, which is of course commendable, it manages to both completely marginalise the victims and sexually objectify them - not cool.
For a start, why call is 'sex slavery' at all? We're talking about 'force', so that really means that it's not 'sex slavery', but 'rape slavery' (you have to consent for it to be sex). It might seem like a trivial distinction to make, but there's something a bit titillating about calling it 'sex slavery' that disappears when it's labelled 'rape', and I think it's important to make the violence of the acts visible in the language we use to discuss it.
The majority of the program is taken up by a doomed romance narrative about a victim who was not a rape slave - a man. Abraham Papo was allegedly murdered while trying to rescue his girlfriend, who had been taken as a rape slave (narrator Sally Neighbour even calls it a 'scene from a tragic romance'). Bashed to death with a tyre iron outside the brothel where his girlfriend was being held captive, Abraham Papo's story is certainly a tragic one, deserving of recognition. However, such a strong focus on another (exceptional) type of victim squeezes out the women whose abuse the program was supposed to be 'exposing'.
While the victims' voices do begin to appear as the program progresses, most have been re-voiced into English from the women's native languages, and their stories take a back seat to Deanna Papo's, which focuses more on the brutality of her son's alleged murder than the rape trade the program is supposed to be uncovering. Of course, it makes more gripping television to focus on the grieving mother whose emotion is plain on her face and in her voice than victims who, for obvious reasons, do not want to show their faces on camera, and cannot express themselves vocally to viewers because they do not share a common language. However, the disproportionate focus on the alleged murder rather than the myriad rapes subtley suggests that Papo was the 'real' victim - perhaps the most victimised - which lessens the sense of injustice regarding the rape victims.
Sally Neighbour uses words like 'degradation' and 'humiliation' to describe the treatment of the women, but the fact that the majority of the footage of these victims is of their semi-naked bodies in fact invites the viewer to participate in this degradation, humiliation and objectification. The program repeatedly shows hidden-camera footage of Asian women emerging from behind a curtain one after the other, with their faces obscured. They are wearing only their underwear, presumably parading so that the 'clients' can choose from amongst them. Although the program is obviously critical of their treatment, there is nevertheless a voyeuristic pleasure available in this type of portrayal that adds to the titillation that so often accompanies the issue.
Drawing attention to the harm of rape, and allowing victims' voices to take centre stage, is critical when raising the issue on television, and media producers could be doing a lot better on that score.