This past summer, Exodus Road staff and visiting bloggers had the honor of interviewing two prostitutes in a thriving red-light district in Asia. The women’s stories of trafficking, survival, strength and love deeply impacted all of us in the room. Here, Sam Stephenson, who led the interview process, shares his personal thoughts about the experience. We hope you’ll be as touched as we were.
*This Story Contains Sexually Explicit References and Strong Language
Every Saturday morning for the last six months has started with a run. I lace up my tennis shoes and peel off my front porch onto a system of running trails that spans several states. I usually try to start without music or podcasts. Remember to breathe. Remember that this place is beautiful. Remember that you are. Remember that rhythm is a gift. And that lasts all of six minutes. I stop, plug into my iPod and work through the podcasts that have piqued my interest over the last week. I am carried through my runs by one sided conversations with Krista Tippett at OnBeing, Dave Isay at StoryCorps, and Ira Glass at This American Life. Today, a brisk spring morning Krista Tippett and Dave Isay keep me company in an OnBeing Interview called The Everyday Art of Listening.
“MR. ISAY: Yep. And, but this is an important one. (Laughs) My grandparents, like, loomed very large, you know. And I, you know, to me, I think you probably feel the same way. To me, the soul is kind of contained in the voice. So there’s just something very powerful about having that, you know, record of someone.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. But, you know, that idea that the soul is contained in the voice, I mean, do you have any kind of recollection of when you started to think about it that way?
MR. ISAY: Yeah, you know, I think, I was telling you before we went on the air that I tend to just kind of write down stuff that other people say. I’m a very linear thinker. And, I guess I’m a good collector of other people’s deep thoughts. But I remember there was an article about Borges in the New Yorker maybe 20, 25 years ago. And in the last line he said, the soul is, you know, that the soul is contained in the human voice. And I was like that’s it. (Laughs). And I’ve been saying it ever since.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I have to say I agree with you, and it’s kind of — it’s a mysterious thing. It’s actually hard to break down any more than that, isn’t it? It’s just an experience you have.”
The soul is contained in the human voice.
Two days later I waltz into The Exodus Road offices, brimming with confidence. “What if we interviewed a prostitute? No agenda, no long term gain, just tried to create a space for them to share their stories.
“I like it.” Laura Parker, Vice President of The Exodus Road, said. “Let’s try it when you get to Southeast Asia.”
Two months later, I was in Southeast Asia. In June, The Exodus Road hosted four bloggers on an exposure trip to Southeast Asia: Jamie Wright, Heather Armstrong, Roo Ciambriello, and Kristen Howerton. If this interview was going to happen, now was the time.
Laura and our interpreter set out to find two girls. “I think having two of them, friends, will make them more comfortable. What do you think?”
“Try it,” I say, “just make sure they know we are journalists.”
I sit in the hotel room with Heather, Jamie, Roo, and Kristen. We wait. Are the glasses set up right? What about these chairs? Is it too cold in here? Will this be comfortable?
Laura arrives back at the hotel a half hour later. Behind her walks our translator, dressed in a modest summer dress that flows graciously down to her ankles, and two women, Nam and Sai. Nam is wearing a blouse printed with flowers and trees. A short skirt makes it about a quarter of the way down her thighs. She has pulled her hair into a pony tail that falls on the right side of her face. Flip flops slap on the ground as she makes her way through the room. Sai is dressed in a red tank top and a small blue skirt. Her bright red lipstick beams in contrast to her dark shoulder length hair and brown eyes.
“Nam shared her story first. Nam was a cute girl who appeared in her late 20’s. She came in wearing a very short skirt and grabbed a towel from the bathroom to place over her legs. Despite seeming a bit embarrassed at first, she quickly spilled her story.” (Kristen Howerton: What I learned about sex trafficking from an evening with two prostitutes.)
“I will go first. Where do I start? Well, I first fell in love when I was 14.” Nam says, smiling, glowing with nostalgia.
“I got pregnant. And had an abortion. My mom and I got into a huge fight. Screaming. Crying. Screaming. She looks at me and says, if you want to f–k, at least do it for money,” She continued, So I left the house. I wandered around my neighborhood and met a new guy.”
As Nam tells her story her hands wave in grandiose gestures. She is quick to bring an air of comedy to a dark tale. Her smile, laugh, and joyful tone stand in direct opposition to the themes of her story.
“And that guy took me to Bahrain. He paid for my flight. And when I got there, he took my passport. And I worked for him as a prostitute for 12 years. It took me 12 years to figure how to get back home. To be honest, after a couple of years, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go home. At the time, I was addicted to meth, and I had a boyfriend that I thought I loved. Well, I thought he loved me too. He just took my money, that’s what they do.”
Sai giggles, covering her mouth. She knows. This is what guys do.
“Sai, why don’t you share a little.” Nam said. Smiling, nodding forward, as if to usher her into the conversation.
“I am shy to say, I am three months pregnant.” She said, staring softly into a glass of water situated on the coffee table that separates us. Beads of condensation accumulate and run down from the sides of the glass. “I will have to work until I am seven months pregnant or I wont be able to take care of my baby.”
“But, I know the father doesn’t love me. He is a married man. I send him 40 percent of my paycheck, because I love him, and I don’t know why.”
She pauses. Catches her breath. Or prepares her breath to continue.
“F–king, f–king, f–king. All I’m doing is f–king. Six to eight guys a night.” Sai cries, her tone has shifted dramatically. She is trembling. Angry. Sad. Both at the same time.
She points her finger at me. “If you loved your wife, would you let her f–k like this?”
Before I can answer she continues. A soliloquy is being birthed. “Men, so many men come to Thailand. And they stare at our tits. And they forget. They forget that we have hearts. And if you get told you don’t have a heart enough times… well, you become an addict. Every girl you meet on these streets is an addict. It’s one of four things for all of us… all of us: gambling, drugs, alcohol, love. Why do I say that love is an addiction? Because we know we will never receive it.”
Nam mmmm’s in agreement. Her mmmm is an amen to the pain that she too has experienced. A show of reverence for the shared realities ripples between the two friends. I have seen this in faith communities back home.
Sai continues “Me? I’m addicted to love and gambling.”
Sai sits back down, takes a big gulp of water. Bright red lipstick smears across the glass.
I am back home now. Saturday is just around the corner. Again, I will lace up my tennis shoes, peel off the porch, and hit the trails. Again, I will start without the music, without the podcasts.
Remember to breathe. Remember that this place is beautiful. Remember that you are. Remember that rhythm is a gift.
Remember that these girls you met, are human beings. Remember that hearts are always, always, always more important than bodies. Remember that you can give love to everyone that you meet.
Remember to tell someone that they have a heart, and that that matters.
- Sam Stephenson, (Former) Director of Fundraising, The Exodus Road
To read additional stories from the trip from the blogging team, go here.