Dowser Interview: Guy Jacobson of RedLight Children Campaign
After being solicited for sex by a barrage of very young girls while traveling through Cambodia, Guy Jacobson learned two things: First, child sexploitation was not something many people talked about, or even knew about. Second, the solution was not just to remove the children from these destructive situations—they would inevitably be replaced by the next child—but rather to lower the demand. Dowser got the inside scoop on Guy Jacobson’s RedLight Children Campaign, which uses film and mass media to raise awareness about the child sex industry and to pressure governments to combat it.
Dowser: Child sex exploitation is nothing new, but your approach to end it is. Can you tell us how you are tackling this problem in an innovative way?
Jacobson: For a long time, the focus of this issue has been, ‘let’s help the victims.’ But if we remove one kid from a brothel, he or she will immediately be replaced by another. Our tactic is to go after the sexual predators in order to decrease the demand, and thus decrease the need for the supply.
How are you working on a global scale to decrease demand for sex with children?
At RedLight Children we ask, ‘What new laws need to be passed? What current laws need to be improved? How do we enforce these laws?’ We are also using mass media to raise awareness.
Do you ever get discouraged by the scope of the problem you are combating?
Unfortunately, we cannot eradicate child sexual exploitation. What we hope to do is put a tiny dent in the number of children exploited through deterrence, effective laws, punishment and enforcement. A few percentage points less of tens of millions of victims worldwide translates into hundreds of thousands of people saved.
Where did you get the idea to start the RedLight Children Campaign?
About six years ago, after ending a career as an investment banker and as an attorney, I traveled around the world. While in Cambodia, I was walking down the street one day and found myself surrounded by a group of girls—some as young as 5— who were aggressively soliciting me for prostitution—hands straight to the private parts and I’m trying to remove their hands.
One of the girls said, ‘I yum-yum very good. I no money today. Mama San boxing me,’ meaning she hadn’t made any money yet that day, and she’d get beaten up by the madam of the brothel. I said to myself, ‘I have to do something about this issue.’
I was horrified to learn that the child sexual exploitation I encountered was a global epidemic that affects over two million kids a year, across economic lines and international borders. And it was a story that, for whatever reason, was not being told.
In July 2003, I decided that with the film production company I’d recently launched, I could utilize mass media to raise awareness for this issue. I decided to make three films: Holly, and two documentaries that are to follow.
Your film, Holly, was released in 2007 and received widespread acclaim domestically and internationally. A percentage of all ticket sales went to the RedLight Children Campaign. Can you tell us the premise of Holly?
It’s a love story between two characters who have nothing in common besides being completely lost. Holly is a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl who was sold into prostitution by her family and has just arrived in the brothels in Cambodia. She meets Patrick, a shady character who works for local organized crime, played by Ron Livingston. They develop a friendship, but by the time Patrick decides to help Holly, she disappears and gets trafficked. They both try to escape their fate and find each other again.
Where did you film Holly? What were some of the challenges?
We were naïve. We wanted to shoot everything on location. I wanted to understand the character of Holly: What does she do in the morning? How well does she speak English? How does she think? I went undercover in the brothels of Phnom Penh, speaking with pimps and customers, traffickers and victims. I had the opportunity to observe and get inside that world.
Three days after we arrived in Cambodia we got a call from Interpol. ‘You guys are insane,’ they said. ‘You are in the most dangerous country in the world to shoot a trafficking movie. You are going to die. Get the hell out.’
I’m Israeli, so I’m not impressed when people tell me I’m going to die. I said, ‘We’re not leaving.’ Interpol said, ‘We already know from our informants that there are contracts out on your lives by the Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian mafias.’ We didn’t leave, but we did hire an army of bodyguards with AK-47 machine guns. We spent six months shooting three films. Every day there were challenges.
Did you encounter corruption in Cambodia?
There are corrupt cops and government officials in Cambodia just like there are in every government, bureaucracy, and position in which people can abuse their power.
If the Cambodian government is making tens of millions of dollars from prostituting their children, us coming in and forcing the world to pay attention is costing them actual money out of their pockets. They will interfere in any way they can. But it’s important for people to realize that Holly is not just about Cambodia.
What purpose does Holly serve for your larger campaign?
We use Holly as an entry point for discussion. People are very uncomfortable speaking about the issue of child sex exploitation. Holly offers a mass media platform that is more palatable. It also gives a true portrayal of this world that otherwise is difficult to explain.
Who are your most important supporters and partners?
Our interns and volunteers; the U.S. State Department also has an amazing team in the anti-trafficking office; And LexisNexis not only put their money where their mouth is, but truly got involved, and does outreach with the public and private sectors.
How can people can get involved in tackling child sex exploitation?
On our website you can enter your information and we will tell your congressmen or government that this issue is a priority for you. We need to tell our legislature, ‘Here is a comprehensive blueprint adopted by the U.N., the U.S. State Department, and other organizations that deal with this problem. We expect you to adopt it, too.’ The only way we will make an impact is with enough young people who will take a stand and say, ‘This is unacceptable.’
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Priority Films