An Interview with Tim Matsui on Sex Trafficking in the United States

Posted by: Stand Magazine | Wednesday, June 22, 2016

STAND: How did you get started telling the stories of victims of human trafficking?

This really started about fifteen years ago when I worked with students whose teacher committed suicide during an investigation into inappropriate conduct. I began to learn about sexual abuse, victimization, and trauma. What happens when you start talking about this stuff, people start disclosing to you. I heard a lot of stories about rape and abuse; in response, I began working with some of these people to help them tell their stories. This work became a nonprofit for which I received an Open Society Documentary Distribution Grant, taking about a dozen classroom talks to sixty-five within a year. We also built out a bunch of other engagement programs which is something that informs my work today. I found running a small nonprofit difficult and full of conflict, and my interests drifted to human trafficking. With a friend’s couch in Thailand available, I began what turned into several visits to Thailand and Cambodia researching and reporting on trafficking for both labor and sex. There I learned a lot more about root causes, like poverty, health care, economic opportunity, education, and migration. All of this is important because it’s the foundation for my work in Seattle. I had all of these relationships from my sexual violence reporting, I had proven myself internationally, and I had a larger project in mind, not just a photo story. Seattle started to look at domestic minor sex trafficking, using methods I’d seen applied abroad. I then researched and wrote grants for four years, trying to find support for this project. The Alexia Foundation’s inaugural Women’s Initiative Grant is what gave me the seed capital to pursue the project.

STAND: Your film The Long Night documents sex trafficking in the Pacific Northwest. How prevalent is sex trafficking in the United States?

It happens, but I don’t think it’s possible to put accurate figures on it. There are a variety of reports out there, but when you dig in, you find that their data is kind of fuzzy. Their sample size is small or their estimates are of other estimates. The experts that I work with here in the Seattle area won’t cite any specifics with the exception of the report the City of Seattle commissioned in 2008 which could name 238 individuals and estimated 300-500 children were being exploited for commercial sex at any one time in King County. In 2013, King County did a follow-up study with stakeholders and found there wasn’t enough uniformity in data collection to be able to put numbers on the issue. This is something one of my partner organizations is trying to address with standardization in data collection. And good luck trying to get the FBI to give you hard numbers. I’ve tried and they keep deferring, for good reason.

STAND: What are some of the barriers to eliminating or reducing sex trafficking?

Demand is the primary reason sex trafficking exists, and that demand is mostly men. While I will not say all adult consensual commercial sex is exploitive, as I’ve met and interviewed empowered adult sex workers, there definitely are exploitive practices within the industry. I draw the line at children. So does the UN, the U.S., and many other government bodies. If Uncle Joe or a school teacher is having sex with thirteen-year-old Jane, our society calls it rape or sexual abuse of a minor. Exchanging money shouldn’t make it ok. You ask about barriers; we are the barrier. Our aggregate lack of knowledge about the issue, our willingness to be bystanders, our failure to address root causes like youth homelessness, after school programs, mental illness, poverty; the list goes on. These are the real barriers to reducing sex trafficking. Creating drop in shelters and emergency programs for victims is great, but we really need to look deeper.

STAND: How can films like yours (or other forms of media) help bring about social change?

Films like The Long Night are meant to create empathy and build awareness. People want to do something, but often times they don’t know what that is. I think the critical part is the “Impact Campaign” which I’m learning takes a lot of work. Almost as much as the filming itself. But I believe if you’re going to document a social or environmental issue it’s appropriate to develop an impact campaign or partner with organizations who can make a difference. I’m doing both.

STAND: What are some steps men can take to reduce sexual violence in our communities?

Straight up, don’t rape. And to understand what rape is, in all its various forms. It’s nuanced. I like the “yes means yes” campaign. What I think this really comes down to is role modeling for boys and young men, teaching them to respect and value girls and young women. Similarly, to show girls and young women that they are valued and can pursue their dreams without fear. We need to change our social norms.

STAND: Who are some men you admire for the stand they’re taking on this issue or others related to human rights or the environment?

I don’t know; I don’t really think of this as men or women, it’s more people who I respect. And my scope is limited. I definitely have some photographers whose work I admire. Donna Ferrato did the first, and I would say defining, photographic work on domestic violence with her book Living with the Enemy. Another photographer who documented Seattle youth street life some thirty years ago is Mary Ellen Mark who also co-produced the film Streetwise, from that same body of work. These are both traditional journalism/documentary works. Marcus Bleasedale has done amazing work on resource extraction fueled conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo with “Rape of a Nation,” and more recently on the Central African Republic with Human Rights Watch. What’s important about these two pieces is how the reporting actually created some change through the partnerships he’s established. Another person is Teru Kuwayama who created Basetrack. The site is now offline, but it was a first-ever use of field reporting, social media and an interactive website to build community around a Marine battalion deployed in Afghanistan and their community back home. This isn’t a human rights or environment story, but it is modeling community building, awareness, and information sharing, which are key components to creating change. I think you’ll note a theme here … and that a lot of what I’m looking at stems from my photojournalism community. But, after all, that’s what I do.

STAND: What are you currently working on?

I’m still working on the impact campaign for The Long Night, doing what I can given the difficulty in getting funding. Things are going well in the partnership realm and actual events, but funding is (as always) the issue. That said, I’m looking to do a second film on this subject that explores the demand side of the trafficking equation; who are the pimps, buyers and consensual sex workers? And just recently, I’ve done some filming work for a local NGO that explores harm reduction models. Which is something one of the subjects in The Long Night could use.