While it feels uncharitable to criticize them for bringing attention to abused women, magazines like Marie Claire (and Glamour, which used to publish Mariane Pearl's sex slavery pieces) do seem to look to sex trafficking as the way to inject some Seriousness in between all the makeup tips and dress-for-your-shape ideas. Like stories about breast cancer or other diseases, they seem designed to give the magazine a certain kind of cred — but unlike disease stories, they're often played for shock rather than pathos. In Marie Claire, Abigail Pesta's "Diary of an Escaped Sex Slave" doesn't stint on descriptions of torture — pimps gouge young sex slaves' eyes out, cover them with insects, and shove hot chilies into their vaginas. There's an argument to be made for showing us all that — disgust can turn to outrage can turn to action — but what about a totally extraneous scene in which Pesta's car runs over a puppy on a Cambodian road? Sometimes the piece seems less about stirring up rage against sex slavery, and more about offering a prefab image of Death and Destruction in a Foreign Land.
Said prefab image, of course, must come with a dash of Hope, which in this case wears nice outfits. Of Sreypov Chan, an escaped sex slave turned aid worker who does seem totally heroic, Pesta writes, "In her shiny pink raw-silk dress, she looked as if she'd discovered she had the right to exist." Later, she says,
Sreypov, in a crisp white cotton button-down blouse, black pants, and white heels with sparkling silver trim, kneels on the floor as the women circle round. Sitting there, with her perfect posture, she looks like hope personified.
In fine ladymag fashion, the symbols of liberation and a renewed sense of self-worth are ... clothes. Pesta's essay comes off as just the flipside of Marie Claire's fashion and lifestyle coverage — being a sex slave is apparently the opposite of dressing pretty. And while the story of Sreypov is moving, and the online version includes a link to an anti-sex-trafficking charity, the piece still feels like it was intended to make editors feel good for having run it, and readers feel good for having read it. Does sex trafficking need to be stopped? Absolutely it does. Will alerting individual magazine readers to the problem make that more likely? Maybe. But Pesta's article (which, we should mention, was no doubt heavily edited by Marie Claire brass) reads less like a call to action than like a quick stop in Realityland on the way from Dresses to Shoes. And women like Sreypov deserve more than a quick stop.
Diary Of An Escaped Sex Slave [Marie Claire]