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Duly Noted

Monday, Nov 28, 2011, 1:37 pm

“Seventh Grader” is Not a Slur: The Naked Anthropologist vs. Nick Kristof

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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Street scene in Phnom Penh, no known connection to the sex trade, for illustration only.   Jonas Hansel, Creative Commons.

Dr. Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist, tears into New York Times columnist Nick Kristof for his supposedly "childish," "preening," "vulgar," and colonialist coverage of raids on brothels that employ children in Cambodia:

Lately Kristof live-tweeted a brothel raid alongside Somaly Mam, supposedly blow-by-blow. I am not going to complain about twitter, but the 140-character limit does foster reductionism and clichés. But more important is his claim later that thanks to him and Mam:

In Anlong Veng, Cambodia, 6 more brothels have closed since the raid I live-tweeted there that rescued a seventh-grader.

Great balls of fire, what colossal nerve to make such a claim. I know he is trying to reach the mainstream but it is so offensive he would refer to a young person in Cambodia with a made-in-USA  label like seventh grader.

There is something Geraldo-esque about live tweeting a raid on a brothel, especially if the raid is portrayed as a pure and simple act of heroism. Real life is sadder and messier than that.

Agustín studies the sex trade and has published a book on sex trafficking. She makes some valid critiques of sensational coverage about "rescuing" "child sex slaves" from Cambodian brothels. For example, she notes that not all children who work in brothels are prostitutes, and not all are coerced. Moreover, most are doing this work because they are struggling to survive.

Before barging into brothels, would-be liberators should think hard about whether they're solving the problem, or merely attacking the symptoms and hurting the very people they sought to help. Journalists covering these raids should keep their critical distance and not become cheerleaders for one highly controversial approach to helping child sex workers.

Agustín lost me when she wrote, "it is so offensive he would refer to a young person in Cambodia with a made-in-USA label like seventh grader." Really? What's wrong with "seventh-grader" as shorthand for a girl in her early teens?

It's an American idiom for an American audience, but term may even be accurate within Cambodian educational system. This report from the World Food Program talks about Cambodian primary school as having Grades 1 through 9.

Whatever his shortcomings, Kristof has written a lot about the importance of education for poor girls worldwide, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt about the grade terminology. And c'mon, it's twitter.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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