“Sold” – A Novel About Sexual Slavery

Last week I read the novel “Sold” by Patricia McCormick about sex trafficking in Nepal and India.

It’s tells the story of Lakshmi, a 13-year old Nepali village girl sold into prostitution by her step-father to a brothel in Calcutta.

McCormick traveled  to both India and Nepal to talk to former sex slaves from Nepal and India. They revealed the horrors of their experiences — being beaten, raped, starved and locked away, sometimes left for dead.

Sold novel

Sold novel

Fortunately, McCormick’s writing style makes this a fast read (I’m a slow reader but still finished the book in one night). I was glad for it too — the material is so gut-wrenching that I wanted to be done with the book quickly.

The story is told from Lakshmi’s point of view, with McCormick using a combination of spare prose and free verse (some chapters are just a few sentences long).

Lakshmi laments in one chapter that the brothel is destroying her:

A few days later, when I am finally strong enough to get out of bed, I pass a mirror. The face that looks back is that of a corpse. Her eyes are empty. She is old and tired. Old and angry. Old and sad. Old, old, a hundred years old.

I’ve been to many villages in Nepal. I even lived in one for 3 months in 2000, teaching English to village kids like Lakshmi. Many of those (as young as 6-7 years) would miss school for weeks at a time to work so their families could eat. The poverty is desperate in rural Nepal, but I had no idea back then that it leads adults into literally selling their children into sexual slavery.

Scott Burke Teaching in Nepal (2000)

Scott Burke Teaching in Nepal (2000)

After I got into the volunteer-travel business in 2001 though, I learned about humanitarian issues like this in Nepal and in the other dozen countries where I sent my clients to volunteer. I’ve learned that sexual slavery not only exists but is a thriving business; also, it is not some distant, abstract concept — it’s happening everywhere, even in my hometown of Philadelphia.

A couple of years ago I was at a happy hour with former colleagues from my old life in the IT field. One guy told the story — again — about how he used to take his business clients to the “washy-washy” in Philadelphia where he hired Asian prostitutes for them. This time I took him aside and told him, “Um, you know those girls are slaves, right?”. He genuinely seemed surprised.

Even closer to home (although 5,000 miles away from Philadelphia), I got a phone call last year from “Lisa” — one of my dear friends and colleagues in Ghana in west Africa. Lisa told me that her best friend was thinking of going to Italy as a prostitute — so what did I think of that?

My answer was, “dumb idea.”

I know her friend well. She’s a nurse, educated, kind, good family back in the village. She helped me get back on my feet (literally) when my back went out in Ghana a few years ago. To think that anyone, let alone a sweet person like her, would get caught up — willingly! — in the Africa-to-Everywhere sex slavery trade was mind-boggling.

I notice African prostitutes in lots of places around the world. I was in Hong Kong a few years ago to take a group of students to Vietnam to volunteer for a week. The word “ghetto” is too high class for this dump. I’m an early riser; and with the jet lag too, I was awake at 3 and 4am each day. I’d wander down to the open-air “lobby” of the hotel filled with crummy retail shops.

The African girls in the lobby, dressed in almost nothing, some even barefoot, would approach me constantly, all of us dodging rats the size of cats. I wanted to talk to them, find out who they are, where they’re from, and how they’re getting back home. But I didn’t. I thought it might be a bad idea to get arrested for soliciting (mistakenly or not), with those students expecting me to take them to Vietnam in a few days (I read later that prostitution is legal in HK?).

Room at New Guangzhou Guest House, Hong Kong (2010)

Back to Ghana and my conversation with Lisa:

As she and I continued talking on that same phone call, I searched online to get more info. I found out how, just like Lakshmi and the Asians in Philadelphia, the girls from Ghana (and Nigeria) going abroad as prostitutes all suffer the same fate — held captive for many years, abused in every way possible, with their passports stolen or destroyed upon-arrival by their madam so they have no way of returning home.

My answer after seeing this stuff online was, “Put her on the goddamn phone and let me talk to her!”

As her friend told Lisa though, her family is so poor back in the village and her nurse’s salary is small. And the people in Ghana recruiting local girls for the pimps in Italy paint a rosy picture of life in Europe. Plus — and this was the saddest part for me — she said that she’s having sex anyway, so why not get paid for it.

 One of the things I found online during the phone conversation was a newspaper column in Philadelphia written by Stu Bykovsky, regarding the documentary “Not My Life” about labor and sex trafficking around the world.

My heart sunk when Stu actually mentioned “Lake Volta” in Ghana as one of the feeder towns for prostitutes going abroad. Over the last decade I have sent more client-volunteers to this location than any other I offer. I’ve traveled there myself at least half a dozen times. Some of my fondest memories and friends are there. To think that this semi-rural area, home of the Ewe tribe, is a major feeder for worldwide sex slavery is tragic beyond words.

Well, it’s been well over a year since that call with Lisa. As far as she’s told me since, her friend decided not to go to Italy. It’s a relief of course. But girls like Lakshmi in Sold have not been so lucky. I encourage you to read the book; learn the details of her story; and hope the day comes soon when the madness of sex trafficking will end.