It took me almost a decade to make this film. First I needed to find the women who had been trafficked. Then I needed to muster the nerve to ask them questions that made me hate myself for hours after each interview. Then, I had to tell them the real truth. I am here to take your picture.

Filmmaker Mimi Chakarova. Photo Credit: Bryan Shih

“Of my face?”

“Yes.”

“After everything I told you?”

“Yes.”

I would explain that if people don’t know, they live in darkness. “If they see your face, if you let me show them how I see you, they will understand. They will feel compassion. They won’t judge you,” I would say. Four years later, the photos and notebooks were no longer enough. “People need to hear your story. On camera. They need to see how you move, how you talk, how you breathe…” I would explain how I’m making a film about sex slavery – this combination of words that even as I write them make me cringe and remind me how we label pain, how we remove ourselves by using big words: “sex trafficking,” “sexual exploitation,” “gender-based violence,” “degradation of the family unit and societal values,” etc. But what do these words mean to an abused girl?

I can spend hours answering questions about the sex trade and corruption. I can spend weeks telling the stories of the young women who survived. But one thing I wasn’t prepared for as I worked on my film was the pain of others. I didn’t realize the channels it would open – the silence and shame so many of us live with. And the need to tell someone who won’t judge or blame.

Over the years, I have heard so many stories.  The main equation is always the same, but the components and circumstances are different.  When I was reporting in Athens last summer I was surprised to see young Iraqi boys being sold for sex. I was surprised to see how many are trafficked from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, hoping to make it to Western Europe, but then getting caught along the way. I was surprised to see the age of girls drop in places like Albania — traffickers are hungry for young flesh. I was surprised when I first learned how sex with pregnant women is more expensive, or when women in Dubai discussed the preference of their clients from England versus Saudi Arabia.

I don’t know if anything shocks me anymore. I’m very sad to say that because this is a sign of how this work has impacted my own understanding of humanity. There are many who administer horrendous acts for profit.  I can honestly tell you that I wish I could permanently erase some of this information. It’s not even the shock of it that troubles me. It’s the fact that I know about the awful and sadistic deviations that humans are capable of even in times of peace.

I would be naive to think that sex trafficking can be eradicated, but at the same time I am very frustrated by the statement that prostitution is the oldest profession. This cliche has no place in the slavery dialog. We all know that slavery has existed since the beginning of time. So has war. But accepting these awful acts in the twenty-first century belittles humanity. The demand for cheap sex will always exist and the supply is abundant — the majority of people in this world live in dire poverty and desperation. I do believe that even if we can’t eradicate sex trafficking, we can significantly reduce the numbers. To do this effectively, we need to combine forces– law enforcement, the international court systems, accountability, thorough media coverage and NGO efforts.

What gives me hope is having been in the presence of men and women out there whose mission in life is to help others. I’ve met amazing social workers whose salaries are pathetic and their hours, endless. But their persistent dedication to trafficked women and children is a reminder that there are many unrecognized heroes in our world.

Mimi Chakarova is an award winning, internationally recognized film maker and photojournalist.  Her new documentary film, the Price of Sex, is the culmination of almost a decade of work going undercover to interview trafficked women, anti-trafficking activists, local authorities, “johns” and human traffickers. To hear the stories she has collected over the years or to find out more about her new film, please visit http://priceofsex.org/. The site includes the film trailers, the screenings schedule, and a general resources page.