In Playground: The Child Sex Trade in America, filmmaker Libby Spears traces the United States’ role in global sex trafficking, while also documenting how prevalent the problem is in the U.S. Becky Garrison, author of The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail, spoke with Spears earlier this year at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, where the film debuted.
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What compelled you to create this documentary?
I was in the Philippines in 2001 doing another documentary when I came across the story of the “comfort women” who were trafficked during World War II to service the Japanese Army. It was the first time I had heard the term “sex trafficking,” which is so appalling and horrific to me. I became obsessed with that topic and began shooting stories about the women who are being trafficked around military bases in Southeast Asia. I realized quickly I was in over my head and there was a lot of personal risk I couldn’t take. When I came back [to the U.S.], I realized this was happening here, which is where the documentary ended up.
How do U.S. citizens influence the global demand and growth of the sex trafficking industry?
It all goes back to U.S. capitalism. Statistically, everyone thinks this is an overseas problem—from the backdoor brothel to the child pornography bit. But the majority of this is happening in the U.S. in terms of where the money is being funneled from ultimately. Most of the victims of child pornography are American.
How does our society’s hypersexualized culture contribute to this problem?
Our society is undereducated about sex, yet overly sexualized. It is one thing as adults to be exposed to that but children’s minds aren’t developed enough to handle it. The most important thing we can do is educate kids about sex. They’re being exposed to and inundated by images every day and yet parents aren’t talking to their kids about the emotional aspects of sex. It’s in these subtle ways that it penetrates and affects people.
What were some struggles you encountered while trying to film such an explosive subject?
The hardest thing about raising awareness about this subject is that you can’t show child pornography. We were careful in the film not to exploit a subject that’s already very difficult, but at the same time you have to tell the truth. Some of these stories are hard to listen to because these kids have been through a lot. The people who have been exploited are incredibly protective—as they should be. No one wants to talk about it or show their identity. You can spend three months filming somebody and they end up changing their minds. You have a release and could show it, but, of course, ethically you’re not going to do it.
Why did you focus on Portland, Oregon?
This city felt to me like a barometer for any city in middle America because it’s a typical small city. I felt if I could find this happening there, then it’s happening everywhere.
As your film points out, we tend to view child sex trafficking as sex acts, not as a criminal acts. How do we make this shift?
Again, I think this goes back to education. I’ve shown the rough cut of this film to law enforcement officers who arrest these girls. Afterward, I’ve had cops come up to me and say, “Thank you. I had no idea.”
What kind of response have you gotten from those trafficked as children?
After I showed the film at the University of Texas in Austin, I got an e-mail from a woman. She told me she had to run away from home because it wasn’t safe, adding that based on what she saw in the movie, you can guess what happened to her. Fortunately, she found people who took her in and cared for her. Currently, she’s in grad school at UT and doing fine. She said, “Thank you for caring and telling this story.”
How can documentary filmmakers use their films to enact change?
As a filmmaker, there’s a huge responsibility when you’re telling these types of stories. The best way to do it, if you really are trying to get a message out, is while you’re out there filming and meeting people try and establish your partnerships as you go. If you really want to get your film seen by a lot of folks, then it’s all about partnering with these other organizations. What tends to happen is that people make their movie and then think how they can use these other outlets.
What plans do you have for this documentary?
The most important step for this film is getting it into the hands of people who are going to take it and move forward with it. We work closely with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and they’re going to use the film in law-enforcement training. This is huge because they are the biggest organization that trains law enforcement in this country. In addition, we’re partnering with the University of Texas School of Social Work to create a curriculum for schools throughout the country for future social workers. Also, we’re involved with groups like Minga and the Polaris Project, which are organizations that deal with the global sex trade.
For more information, see www.playground project.com.