Frontline: Sex Slaves


Spinster Aunt Perceives Flaw in PBS Documentary

Dear Readers: We occasionally critique television here on Ferdy on Films, etc. I’ve had my problems with the scare-mongering tone of the PBS docuseries “Frontline” for some time now, and today my favorite radical feminist spinster aunt, Twisty Faster, has taken the show properly to task for its hypocritical approach to the sex trade. I felt I had to share this astute piece of criticism with you. This is a no-holds-barred critique, and you may not agree with some or all of it, so be prepared.—Marilyn

Last night’s Frontline documentary on human sex trafficking—”Sex Slaves,” originally broadcast in 2005—clawed at every cranny of the obstreperal lobe. Definitely not heartwarming.
I’ll skip the basics, assuming that the advanced blamer is acquainted with the mechanics of human trafficking, because I wish to register a complaint. Well, several complaints. Actually, it’s one large complaint upon which a few dangling dingleberry complaints depend.

The large complaint is that the film is itself sexploitational. It is without question voyeuristic, and at times it borders on actual pornography. And why shouldn’t it? Porn has been normalized into a legitimate art form.

Naturally, people who watch PBS believe themselves to be above that sort of thing, but they still need a reason to watch a show about women’s oppression. They might come away with a few useless “facts,” but these must be delivered from within a framework of entertainment. And entertainment, in 2009, is sex and melodrama. Thus, the “Sex Slaves” teaser:

“An undercover journey deep into the world of sex trafficking, following one man determined to rescue his wife—kidnapped and sold into the global sex trade.”

A murder of spinster aunts could charter a yacht, order a vat of guac and a barrel of margs, and ruminate on the Lido Deck all day long, but we’d never come up with a more formulaical Chivalric plot than that. Are you kidding me? Evil villains, a damsel in distress whose virtue is at stake, and a gallant champion who literally rescues her? Oh, and the damsel is 4 months pregnant. Add sentimental fetus-anxiety bonus points.

A kind of grainy prurience attends nearly every sequence of footage. The B-roll street scenes are shot according to a familiar sexploitation formula: the self-consciously verité-esque camera singles out a pair of comely hips encased in sexy jeans, lingers lustily, and finally pans up to reveal the whole woman as a hottie. Meanwhile, the authoritative male voiceover—the disembodied Voice of God—masks this sleazy voyeurism with academic gravitas. When he describes Ukraine as Eastern Europe’s ground zero for “beautiful women,” and the visual is a taut young Ukrainian midriff, it is meant to be accepted as scientific fact. After all, although the qualitative differences between the two are few, this is a documentary, not an episode of “Law & Order: Mutilated Women Unit.” But the greasy ease with which the documentarist’s camera violates women who are just walking down the street minding their own beeswax is an invocation of the global accords governing fair use of women: all females are de facto sex objects, and hot girls—shots of women who aren’t Beauty2K-compliant didn’t make the final cut—are vulnerable sex slaves waiting to happen.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: DudeAmerica just can’t resist hot young prostituted Russians!

Sure, the producers are against human trafficking. Who isn’t? But can we please have a film about it that doesn’t parrot asinine patriarchal narratives about helpless damsels and male valor, that doesn’t itself exploit the very women whose exploitation it purports to abhor, that does more than just hint at some vague notion of women’s “poverty” as the reason for human trafficking? The rapists who abuse all the women in this film, where are they? Where’s the outrage over the notion that “the sex trade” is a “multi-billion dollar industry,” not because Ukrainian women are poor, but because the world is full of assholes who will pay to rape them? Just once I’d like to see somebody—anybody—point out that “the sex trade,” i.e. rape slavery, is not a consequence of women’s desperation and a few unscrupulous pimps. It is the consequence of a social order based on the fetishization of dominance. l

This article has been reproduced from I Blame the Patriarchy under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.


4 thoughts on “Frontline: Sex Slaves

  1. Twisty seems a bit behind the curve on this one … it’s been modus operandi for the TV “news” trade for years. Of course, it harkens back to the days of good ol’ Cecile B. DeMille and company who sold porn in the guise of Biblical epics, and probably before.


  2. Sure, the producers are against human trafficking. Who isn’t?
    Well, human traffickers, but I guess that’s implied. I have no idea what to agree or disagree with because I didn’t see this so I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Twisty.
    But (and not to be prosaic) is the documentary actually about a man trying to find his kidnapped wife? If so I suppose it’s as valid a story to present as any unless they’re trying to present it as a full picture of human trafficking.
    Hell, I don’t know, I have to watch it. I think Frontline has all their episodes available online. I think. I’ll go check.


  3. I couldn’t find that episode but I did find these three online:
    India: The Sex Workers
    Moldova, The Price of Sex: Women Caught in the Sex Trade
    Russia: Moscow’s Sex and the City, the Reality of Russian Women.
    So, yeah, FRONTLINE seems a tad obsessed with this subject, huh? The Russian one is about the actual Russian tv show that apes Sex and the City. Yes, that’s right, FRONTLINE did an episode about a television show about women in Russia being sexually liberated. That is some hard-hitting journalism.


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