There are a great number of awful things on Facebook, so I wonder if you've managed to see the most awful thing? It is an ad. It shows a beautiful young Asian woman bookended by beautiful white, blonde women, and they are all cozy together on a couch, each in her own unique pair of Punjammies. The copy reads: Created by women from India who wish to remain free of sex slavery.
When I first saw the ad I felt a bit guilty zeroing in on any single horrifying element while the rest of them were allowed to innocently lurk about. Still, I had to start somewhere, and the name–Punjammies–seemed as logical a place as any. I said it aloud to myself once. "Punjammies." My next thought was: "What flaxen-haired garden-trowel-wielding Connecticut-dwelling wife of the president of the International Bank of Satan thought it would be clever to combine the words 'Punjab' and 'Pajamas'?"
Indignation, of course, is not the same as proof. I emailed the company. "I just saw your pajama pants on Facebook and they're really nice," I wrote. (They are.) "I just wanted to know how came up with your name? Just wondering!" I figured that if the recipient was moved to wonder if I was really a customer or just some asshole who'd read 'Can the Subaltern Speak?', the exclamation point would throw them off the scent.
I was amazed when I received a quick answer:
"Our founder and CEO Shannon Keith was inspired by the beautiful colors of sari's [sic] while in India and it was there that she decided she needed a practical way/skill that women would learn in order to save them from a life of sexual slavery. Pajama pants have simple lines that were easy for the women to learn which was also ideal! Punjabi [sic] is a region in India as well as a type of clothing worn so we thought combining our two cultures into one name would be perfect! J"
Do I feel bad printing this email here? A little. But as soon as any feelings of shame start creeping up, I remind myself I'm not a white woman who went with a Christian charity/Christian Mission to India in 2005 and was so horrified by human trafficking that I decided to start a company called Punjammies, a word I created by combining the name of an article of clothing and the name of a region unrelated to this particular endeavor and over 1,200 miles from where those articles of clothing are made, and then, miraculously, the feelings of shame go away.
Moving onto the image: it bothers me that the Asian woman's attention is focused outward, while the white women look very helpful and nurturing towards her—suspiciously so, for an image with two white women around a woman of color right underneath the line "Created by women in India who wish to remain free from sex slavery." If this were a cartoon, the Asian woman might be saying, "I just love Punjammies" and the white chicks would just be cooing something like, "We're so glad we could make the magic of Punjammies possible! But if you want one of these stupid hats, honey, you're going to have to bring your own. "
The actual ad copy is "Created by women in India who wish to remain free of sex slavery." I wonder if were there other contenders for the spot of the word "wish"? "Wish" is nuts—so breezily hopeful, as if it said "prefer to remain free of sex slavery," or "yearn to remain free of sex slavery" or even "think it would rule to remain free of sex slavery." The tagline is so disturbingly arch I don't think anything I've imagined is much worse than what is.
Getting further inside the world of Punjammies—to their umbrella organization called International Princess Project—did not increase my sympathy. Their homepage alerted me to the fact that every Wednesday in January was Red Light Wednesday: "…Whenever you are commuting, we pause to think/pray for the people still trapped in red light districts all over the world." I wondered if anyone with any kind of sway questioned this campaign. If they had, they might have said something like, "You all know red traffic lights aren't the same as red lights in red light districts?" And I wonder if that concern was summarily dismissed with someone saying something like, "Hey, if there's a social media campaign where people take selfies when they've just woken up as a way of raising awareness about 'waking up' to the violence in Syria, you better fucking believe we don't need to give a shit if red traffic lights have nothing to do with red light districts."
Punjammies is just one of many companies selling goods made by former sex slaves. There's also the Nomi Network—their tagline is "Buy Her Bag Not Her Body," a deployment of rhetoric implying she's going to have to sell one or the other, and she is dependent on your choice to seal her fate. There's Purpose Jewelry, "handcrafted by survivors of modern day slavery… each jewelry tag is hand-signed by the girl who created it." There's JC Denim, "handcrafted by girls who have been rescued out of sex slavery." One more—just for the pun—a soap brand, Trades of Hope made by women who "have made a clean break from their previous lifestyle in the sex trade and have chosen soap-making as an alternative source of income." The first image you see when you go to their website is a blonde white woman standing by a boat on a tropical beach wearing a white maxi dress, under the copy "Empowering Women out of Poverty."
Punjammie fans and customers are proud of the work they're doing by buying and wearing Punjammies. You see a lot of words and phrases like empower, good deed, and making a difference.
I imagine that these Punjammies customers are very nice. But I hope they don't think they are contributing to the fight against human trafficking any more than I would be "helping fight illiteracy" by teaching one person to read. I would be fighting that person's illiteracy, certainly, but if I really wanted to use words like "helping fight illiteracy" I would hope that I would spend some more time and effort on the systemic issues behind it.
I don't mean to sound like a humorless undergrad—please, go ahead and buy Punjammies. Just don't come all over yourself afterwards thinking that you've fought the good fight. If you're truly interested in fighting human trafficking, you could donate a significant amount of money to a shelter in a region of your choice, or throw your time into advocating for decriminalization for sex workers. Or just start investing yourself in the full dismantling of the world economy, but know if your efforts work, it will probably suck for you.
The exact workings of these "rescue brands" often remain a mystery. They have an annual report on their website that provides almost no information. When I requested more detailed financials, a spokeswoman for Punjammies wrote to me: "In regards to more financial information, the women receive better than fair-trade wages and depending on the organization they are with, there are benefits that come into play as well. Another thing that is important to note is that as a nonprofit 501c3, all of the profits go back into the programs of IPP to help the entire ecosystem of the ladies and their children." They also made a nine-minute promotional video in which not one Indian woman gets to speak, or looks at the camera directly—although the two white women talk quite a lot about how they give women dignity where there was none before. "We have a zero-tolerance policy on slavery," the director says, in this video, breaking into tears. "It needs to be abolished."
I understand that some people are working hard to help these women, and that as a result, some women are being helped. My critique of Punjammies has more to do with the way they present themselves than with what they actually do, though I am suspicious of that as well. An organization whose language about themselves and its workers is so careless and full of classic colonialist tropes can't expect to be merely or automatically revered.
It is also certainly not a given that rescuing women in the sex trade is #makingadifference or #inspiring. Like Punjammies, many rescue programs or businesses openly capitalize on the dismal pasts of the women they are helping, meaning that the women within the programs may stay marked. In some cases, anti-trafficking programs can interfere significantly with public health work, as with this case study in Sangli, India. Aziza Ahmed and Meena Seshu write about neo-abolitionism, "a US-based movement of feminist abolitionists, conservatives and evangelical Christians to end trafficking globally," in which, "despite common knowledge that trafficking can occur in many labour sectors, the majority of attention of neo-abolitionists is given to trafficking in the sex sector." The emphasis depends on the basic idea that all sex work is trafficking, and Ahmed and Seshu refer to sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein's research on these anti-trafficking movements in the context of the 19th-century "White Slavery" panic and carceral feminism; they refer to the movement as "militarised humanitarianism."
The idea of Punjammies—that if you buy a pair of pajama pants then one less woman in the world will be forced to live a life of degradation and misery, and thus maybe also buying 10 pairs would be 10 times as good—is very nice indeed, though. And the Punjammie founders are almost certainly sincere. That said, imagine if 500, or even 100 years from now, the United States were extremely poor, and India were really rich. It's very well within the realm of possibility. Imagine also, if you would, that a major ally of India had taken away a lot of the United States' wealth and this was part of the reason—not all, but part—of why we were so poor. And what if handfuls of wealthy Indian women came here, and were like, "Oh my God, I see that a lot of you are prostitutes! That's awful! Let me give you a way to make enough money to not have to do that!" Believe me, I would be first in line to sign up.
But if they then went back to their country and were like "Oh, this month is anti-sex slave day, every time you cross the street think about how some woman somewhere is a street walker, get it!" and used my photo in websites, smiling, showing me sewing clothes I couldn't even afford, I would want someone to at least say, "Yeah, that is bullshit." And, if one of those Indian women came to a place where there were hundreds of us former sex slaves sewing pajama pants for all her Facebook friends and their Facebook friends and she wrote a blog post that was all about how hard it was for her, like this one on the IPP/Punjammies website:
"It was certainly an emotional struggle to actually put faces to statistics and proper names to tragedies we had merely only discussed about. But it was necessary. And powerful. And messy. And I won't lie, there was a lot of crying at inopportune times, and emotions that welled up in the my throat, making it hard to speak or even swallow,"
I'd want someone to say to her—just one person other than her shrink—"Lady. This isn't about you."
Sarah Miller writes for theawl.com, newyorker.com, time.com, thecut.com and others. Find her @sarahlovescali.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.