I took my daughter to the zoo the other day. We fed giant fish, strained to see the sleeping bears in the corner of their habitats, schemed about getting our own baby pet monkey. This particular zoo sometimes has shows with both lions and tigers mostly in the evenings for the tourists, but in the day, these magnificent animals are in these concrete holding areas, with glass panels for visitors to watch.
Now, I’ve never been much of a zoo person and battle the ethics of the whole enterprise, anyway, but these small, sterile holding cells for trained lions and tigers took my disdain to a whole new level. One fake tree. An old tire. A concrete bench. A flat landscape mural. A space smaller than my home office. And these creatures are gorgeous and powerful and awe-inspiring and . . . so sad and bored looking. They were a long way from an African savannah, even the fake ones U.S. zoos create for them.
And we were hustling our way through the corridor when I saw something that made us both stop. Two full-sized lionesses were sitting together in a corner of one of the glassed-in observation rooms, when a single young woman walks undramatically into the room in flip flops. We thought maybe she had food, maybe she was going to do some training exercises, perhaps she was a vet and going to check them.
And I kid you not, she walked into that cell and stared those two lions right in the face and held up her finger and pointed at them once. It was a stern movement, like the ones I might give my kids if they’re fighting in the back row of a church service. And then she casually leaned back on a nearby stump, and started playing her smartphone. She completely ignored the two beasts less than three feet away, and started scrolling through Facebook.
And those lions? Those lions stayed right where they were. They watched her, but they didn’t make any movement towards the trainer or towards each other. And my daughter and I couldn’t believe it. These creatures had the numbers and the natural power to literally tear the woman apart, but they just blinked at her warily, yawned, stretched. These magnificent Queens of the Jungle were pacified by nothing more than a raised finger.
A raised finger. . . and a shared history of power and control that got the three of them there in a room of concrete and glass.
And five hours later, in front of a crowd who will pay good money for a show, these same two lions will jump through hoops for bites of formerly frozen steak. The cell phone will be gone, and the trainer will have a wand that glitters perhaps in her hand instead. And the tourists will assume the animals are happy because they will be brushed, maybe even in a costume or two.
It will all be a lie, but it will be a lucrative one. And the crowd will buy it because they are sold it. The lions aren’t in chains, after all.
And that experience, these pictures, drip with meaning of a million lessons, a thousand analogies. Lessons about lies and truth, power and control, giving up the inherent power within us. But as I sat there watching those lions that day with my daughter, I couldn’t help but think of the complexity of identifying trafficking victims — especially in the sex industry, and especially among a thriving red light district of thousands. When I first started out in this work and did my initial google searches on the issue, when I first heard the term “modern slavery,” I assumed the mechanisms of exploitation were more black-and-white, cut-and-dry. People tied to beds, slave blocks and live auctions, tears of relief during rescue missions. It didn’t take long to dispell all of those myths.
Because the issue of human trafficking and modern slavery is a complicated and layered one. The forces of exploitation can look a lot more subtle, though no less powerful, than a physical handcuff. It’s a web of lies and deceit, threats and money. It is the strong preying on the vulnerable, the breaking of a spirit, under the guise of make up and iPhones and loud dance music. It’s a field where people (even governments and law enforcement) don’t maintain the same definitions of a “victim,” where adult prostitution as a chosen profession often clouds the issue, and where theories and opinions, drama and darkness run rampant.
As far as social justice issues go, human trafficking is a complicated field of land mines.
But the complications of stories don’t negate the necessity of the telling of them. The threat of not having all the answers by no means erases the importance of stepping into the arena to begin with to try learning some of them. If there’s anything I’ve realized over the last several years, it’s that things are not typically what they seem– be it lions in arenas or girls on stages.
I’ll be hosting later this month a small group of diverse, intentional, courageous women here in Asia that will be doing just that– stepping into the arena with us and discerning the often ugly truth behind the shiny veneer. They’ll be traveling with our teams, asking hard questions, wrestling with the partial solutions, and unpacking the complicated web of exploitation that make human trafficking such a lucrative and thriving global business. I’d love you to follow along. We’ll be sharing lots of social media and video content throughout and following the trip, in an effort to really give others an honest, engaging picture of the work here on the front lines. You can check out the landing page here, or follow us, if you haven’t already on social media (@TheExodusRoad).
And when you see the content that emerges over the next few weeks, when you are tempted to assume that all men and women in red light districts enjoy working there and have free choice to do so because they are smiling in the pictures, do me a favor and remember the lionesses here at the zoo, would you? Remember that sometimes control doesn’t have to involve visual chains and that important stories, even the complicated and confusing ones, are worth trying our very best to tell, too.