Somaly Mam: The Holy Saint (and Sinner) of Sex Trafficking

Somaly Mam saved countless girls in Cambodia. Does it matter if her campaign is built on a web of lies? Gerhard Jörén

Nestled on the banks of the Mekong River, Thloc Chhroy looks like the typical rural Cambodian village. Mango trees thick with fruit are everywhere. Fishermen cast their nets from small motorboats. Elders lounge in hammocks, while children on bikes too big for them bounce along rutted dirt tracks.

But this is no ordinary village. Every now and then, a shiny four-wheel drive bounces down the dirt track that leads to a refuge center of an organization whose name in French is Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Précaire, or AFESIP. (Rough translation: Helping Women in Danger.) Inside the vehicle you may spot a powerful government official, a heavyweight journalist or even an American movie star. They all come to meet with AFESIP's president and co-founder, Somaly Mam, and support her courageous work fighting sex traffickers.

Mam is one of the world's most compelling activists, brave and beautiful, and her list of supporters is long and formidable. Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and actresses Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon and Shay Mitchell, as well as New York Times Pulitzer-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof, have all toured AFESIP centers in Cambodia. Queen Sofia of Spain has for years promoted Mam's cause and even visited her in the hospital last year when she fell ill. Mark Zuckerberg's former PR guru, Brandee Barker, whom The New York Times recently described as "perhaps the most sought-after image consultant in the startup world," is a board member for the Somaly Mam Foundation, and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is an advisory board member.

Mam has raised millions with a hectic schedule of meetings all over the globe with the good, the great and the super-rich—from the U.N.'s Ban Ki-moon to the pope. One day she will be speaking at the White House, and the next day she'll be enthralling schoolchildren in a remote corner of Cambodia.

Mam claims to have rescued thousands of girls and women from sex trafficking, a dangerous and formidable feat. Her story becomes even more inspiring when you hear her shocking tale of being sold into sexual slavery. In 2005, she published her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, which became an international best-seller. Mam was one of Time's 100 most influential people in 2009 and has over 400,000 followers on Twitter.

She has done so much for so many, does it matter that key parts of her story aren't true? This is a story about a story—but not quite the amazing one Mam has been telling at cocktail parties in Manhattan and Beverly Hills, or on The Tyra Banks Show. Nonetheless, it's an astonishing tale.

Book of a Genesis

In 2011, Mam sat down with Sandberg at Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women summit and told the hushed audience what had motivated her to become a crusader against sexual slavery. "I have been sold in the brothel by the man who come and tell me that he's my grandfather," she said. "I stayed in the brothel nearly then 10 years. The brothel owner bring us all together, we all sit on the ground, and he tell us we have to do what he ask us to do. But one girl…she refused to do what he asked to do so he take a gun and kill her, so that is the day that I have been escaped from the brothel."

Mam declined to be interviewed by Newsweek for this article and has declined numerous requests for comment since I started reporting on inconsistencies in her stories in 2012. But she has repeatedly claimed that her tragic tale of abuse began in 1979 with a voyage through the rolling hills of Mondulkiri, a part of Cambodia that back then was still dense forest. Accompanied by a man she identifies only as "Grandfather," she trundled past stilted homes inhabited by tribal villagers and forests that were home to sacred spirits.

In her autobiography, Mam tells how "Grandfather" turned her at a very young age into his domestic slave. He would gamble and drink, and when he came home, he sometimes beat her until she bled. He eventually sold her as a virgin to a Chinese merchant and then forced her to marry a violent soldier when she was just 14. She was later sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she recalls being tortured with electrodes hooked up to a car battery.

But after years of servitude, Mam writes, the brothel owner, Aunt Peuve, began to give her more freedom. She still worked in the brothel, but she sometimes lived with some of the foreigners working for the plethora of humanitarian organizations that rushed in to help the country recover from the depredations of the Khmer Rouge. In 1991, she met Pierre Legros, a young Frenchman working as a biologist in Phnom Penh. This meeting, she writes, changed her outlook on life and convinced her to leave the world of prostitution for good.

She and Legros got married and moved to France in the early 1990s. Legros says he was amazed at how easily Mam took to life in Europe. "She found a job as a maid. She found a job before me. She handled the situation very quickly.… It was the Somaly that I knew. It was a woman, a warrior. She was a small warrior. I worked with her and made a big warrior out of her."

In 1994, they returned to Cambodia. Legros had found a job working for Doctors Without Borders, and Mam began doing volunteer work in one of the organization's clinics for patients with sexually transmitted diseases. Cambodia then had a sex trafficking crisis and the highest rate of HIV/AIDS in the Asia-Pacific region. Mam says her past and future were staring her in the face: Her destiny, she decided, would be to help girls escape her country's notorious brothels. Mam, Legros and a friend started AFESIP, a small but feisty nongovernmental organization.

Mam and Legros were an intrepid and attractive couple fighting for the most worthy of causes, and the media soon began to take an interest. At first they were hard-pressed for cash, but a France 2 documentary broadcast in 1998 gave AFESIP major exposure and helped get Mam chosen as one of seven celebrated women honored with the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. Among the other winners were Emma Bonino, a former European commissioner for humanitarian aid, and Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a Nigerian-born doctor who had campaigned for decades against the genital mutilation of women.

Legros was now thinking big, far beyond the borders of Cambodia: AFESIP satellites offices were opened in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, France and Switzerland. He knew that Mam needed more media exposure if their grand ambitions were to be achieved. "We knew that the visibility on television is very short-lived. You're known and then you disappear. I always said to Somaly, 'The real thing to do after the television is to write a book.'"

After Mam made a televised appearance with Bonino in the early part of the past decade and talked about her own story, several publishers expressed interest in a book deal. Legros recalls that an agent working for one publishing house in Paris burst into tears while listening to Mam tell her story in her office. Published in France in 2005; published in America three years later, The Road of Lost Innocence was translated into Japanese, Swedish and over a dozen other languages.

About a year later, Mam set up the Somaly Mam Foundation, the next step in her long journey to international recognition. As the years went by, Mam and her organization went from triumph to triumph, bringing in more and more money. Mam is now a superstar in the mostly gritty world of nonprofits, and a jet-setting global icon, but she always insists that her real life is with her "girls" back in Phnom Penh.

Somaly Mam at an AFESIP shelter in Kompong Cham province. Gerhard Jörén

A Chilling Performance

Mam has done much for those girls, and a few of them have done much for her. Mam's success has been due to her energy, her fearlessness and her charisma. It is also due to the shocking stories she and her girls have told.

In 2009, Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times about a girl named Long Pross, who had finally summoned the strength to tell her stunning story of sexual slavery. He reported that a woman had kidnapped Pross and sold her to a brothel, where she was beaten, tortured with electric wires, forced to endure two crude abortions and had an eye gouged out with a piece of metal by an angry pimp. Pross, Kristof said, was rescued by Mam and became part of her valiant group of former trafficking victims fighting for a world free of sexual slavery.

Pross also told her disturbing story on Oprah and appeared in the PBS documentary Half the Sky. "Believe it or not, when I returned home, my mother and father didn't want me around. I wasn't considered a good person," she says in the documentary.

Equally hard to believe is the fact that Pross's family, neighbors and medical records all tell a different story. Dr. Pok Thorn says he performed surgery on Pross when she was 13, after her parents brought her to a hospital with a nonmalignant tumor covering her right eye. Photographs in her medical records clearly show the young girl's eye before and after the surgery.

So how did she come to be one of Somaly Mam's girls? Te Sereybonn, director of Cambodia's Takeo Eye Hospital back then, says his staff contacted AFESIP to see if they could admit Pross to one of their vocational training programs.

Another of Mam's biggest "stars" was Meas Ratha, who as a teenager gave a chilling performance on French television in 1998, describing how she had been sold to a brothel and held against her will as a sex slave.

Late last year, Ratha finally confessed that her story was fabricated and carefully rehearsed for the cameras under Mam's instruction, and only after she was chosen from a group of girls who had been put through an audition. Now in her early 30s and living a modest life on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Ratha says she reluctantly allowed herself to be depicted as a child prostitute: "Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well."

She, like Pross, was never a victim of sex trafficking; she and a sister were sent to AFESIP in 1997 because their parents were unable to care for all seven of their children.

Somaly Mam on her way from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong, where a lot of young women are forced into prostitution and trafficked to neighboring Thailand. June 1, 2005. Thierry Falise/LightRocket/Getty

Lost Innocence

Interviews with Mam's childhood acquaintances, teachers and local officials in the village where she grew up contradict important, lurid details in her autobiography. Many of the villagers in Thloc Chhroy say they never met or even saw Mam's cruel "Grandfather," the rich Chinese merchant who allegedly raped her or the violent soldier she says she was forced to marry.

Orn Hok, a former commune chief, remembers well the day Mam arrived in the village, noting, "Somaly came here with her parents. She is a daughter of Mam Khon and Pen Navy."

Pen Chhun Heng, now in his 70s, says she is a cousin of Mam's mother and rejects the notion that Mam was adopted or that she was raised (or kept) by "Grandfather."

Sam Nareth, a childhood friend of Mam's, says Mam first attended school in the village in 1981 and remained there until she got her high school diploma. "She finished secondary school in 1987, and Somaly and I went to sit the teachers exam in Kompong Cham together."

Thou Soy, who was the director of Khchao High School in Thloc Chhroy, distinctly remembers Mam attending classes between 1981 and 1987, as does the current commune chief, Thorng Ruon, and his two predecessors. Mam was well-known and popular in their small village, a happy, pretty girl with pigtails.

Not even Mam can keep the story straight. In February 2012, while speaking at the White House, she said she was sold into slavery at age 9 or 10 and spent a decade inside a brothel. On The Tyra Banks Show, she said it was four or five years in the brothel. Her book says she was trafficked when she was "about 16 years old."

Mam's confusion isn't limited to her book, or the backstory for some of "her girls." In 2012, she admitted—after being confronted with some of my early reporting—that she had made false claims in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in which she said eight girls she had rescued from the sex industry were killed by the Cambodian army after a raid on her shelter in 2004.

Rights workers and police officials, including Deputy National Police Chief Lieutenant General Un Sokunthea, who was head of the Interior Ministry's anti-human trafficking department in 2004, and a senior official at the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, have also strongly denied highly publicized claims by Mam, in Glamour magazine and The New York Times, that traffickers kidnapped her 14-year-old daughter in 2006 and videotaped the girl being gang-raped in retaliation for Mam's work. Legros and Aarti Kapoor, a former legal adviser to AFESIP, both say the young girl was never kidnapped; instead, they say, she had run away from home with her boyfriend.

Legros, who split from Mam in 2004 and lost custody of their children in Cambodia, now says he is not surprised that the truthfulness of her autobiography is being questioned. And although he brokered the book deal and selected the ghostwriter, he denies helping Mam make up her stories. He adds, however, that "I did not search the truth. My objective was that she felt good with herself."

Mam Dearest

Many of the people who have been charmed by Mam refuse to believe that she is anything other than what she claims to be. They talk of how inspiring she is and how holy her mission is. Fashion photographer Norman Jean Roy, who in 2008 documented Cambodia's sex trade and shot some heartrending portraits of Long Pross, once said of Mam, "One of the things that's unique about her is that she has this almost saint-like quality about her when she walks into a room, when she walks around the children."

But those who have worked with Mam in Cambodia say there is a vast difference between the image she puts forward in the media spotlight and the one she shows in Phnom Penh. "[With donors], she's very polished and very on and very charming…exceedingly charming," says Candace Blase, who worked as a volunteer psychologist for AFESIP in 2011. "And when people are not there, she can be tyrannical; she's moody, she's erratic, she's entitled." Blase adds that she saw Mam ordering the girls she looks after to carry out personal chores for her.

Another former employee of the Somaly Mam Foundation in Cambodia recalls conversations with Mam in which she said she was invincible. "She feels unstoppable. She used to talk to me about wanting to put things in people's food and how easy it would be to poison someone.

"It was such a traumatic and hostile environment," the former employee continues. "We were treated very much in a hostile and aggressive way. You're either part of the group or you're not, and if you're not part of the group, bad things can happen to you. And that was said in sometimes very direct terms."

Former employees in Cambodia of both AFESIP and the foundation admit they knew about some of the questionable techniques used to raise awareness and funding, but they say nobody spoke up due to a mixture of fear of Mam and threats from others. "Why does everybody keep quiet about everything?" Blase asks. "I think it's very hard to accept that a woman who is in a nurturing position, which she sort of is, has the capacity to be the way Somaly is.… People keep their mouths shut because it's in their own self-interest to do so."

Daniela Papi, founder of PEPY, an organization that promotes education and youth leadership, argues that those doing heroic aid work become immune to criticism. "Most people want to believe that people are good," she says. "We see this hero and we buy into the hero, and actually the person we are defending is ourselves. It's not them anymore, it's yourself for being duped."

According to a close acquaintance of Mam's in Phnom Penh, who insisted on remaining anonymous for fear of retribution, there have been doubts about Mam's life story for years, but "it's all about image, getting to the big shot who has a lot of money and who feels sorry for this kind of story. They're very successful, and they have been very successful in an incredible way because they connect with the right people, and they have all the movie stars, famous rock stars and famous people supporting them, and [all those people] are still being taken for a ride now."

Somaly Mam at the Somaly Mam Foundation Gala "Life Is Love" in New York City, Oct. 23, 2013. Mike Coppola/Getty

"Pull Out the Most Gory Story"

At the heart of the questions surrounding Mam is a debate within the nonprofit sector on the acceptable tactics for fundraising and educating the public. For a long time, there has been a strong push to move away from using children to raise funds. "If your goal is fundraising, you actually have an incentive to pull out the most gory story," Papi explains, "and so we get completely false realities of the world."

Experts in sex trafficking say that while it is a serious problem, the scale and dynamics of the situation are often misunderstood, in part because of lurid, sensationalistic stories such as those told by Mam and her "girls." In 2009, 14 organizations and academics, including George Soros's Open Society Foundations, wrote a letter to Salty Features, an independent film production company based in New York, to thank it for its interest in making a film about Mam's work in Cambodia.

But they advised against having the documentary focus on Mam due to AFESIP's lack of understanding of the sex industry. In an interview for Euronews in 2012, Mam said girls as young as 3 are being held in Cambodian brothels. Experts in the field say that is almost unheard-of. Patrick Stayton, who formerly ran the Christian, faith-based International Justice Mission (IJM) in Cambodia, says, "They may have had a supply of younger girls between the age of 14 and 17," but adds, "We've never seen prepubescent girls, or very, very rarely."

"[O]ver the last 10 years, the public justice system's response to commercial sexual exploitation of children has improved significantly," IJM stated in a report last year, noting a huge difference in donor funding for projects dealing with child victims of the sex industry and sexual abuse. "The decrease has been noted most within the group of young minors."

Thomas Steinfatt, a professor of statistics at the University of Miami, has done several reports on sex trafficking for the U.N.'s Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. In a 2008 study, for which he spent months conducting surveys in all corners of Cambodia, he estimated there were no more than 1,058 victims of trafficking in Cambodia and has said the situation has improved markedly since then.

The number of children, both those observed as sex workers and those mentioned by management or by sex workers in the 2008 data, was 127, with 11 of the children verifiably under age 15 and six under age 13. The high-end estimate for the number of children likely involved in sex work in Cambodia in 2008 was 310 children.

In response to a newspaper story about victim stories allegedly fabricated by Mam, Sébastien Marot, the executive director of Friends International, an organization that helps train and educate children in precarious situations, posted a response on the organization's website: "A large number of organizations get sucked into using children to raise funds: making them talk about the abuse they survived in front of a camera, having their picture in a pitiful situation published for everyone to see. In worst cases, the truth is distorted or the stories invented to attract more compassion and money. The impact on the lives of these children is terrible: If they come from an abusive situation, such a process re-traumatizes them and in any case it stigmatizes them forever."

A Crack in the Wall

I have spent over two years in Europe and Cambodia unraveling Mam's many stories through a series of newspaper articles, and for most of that time, she, AFESIP and her foundation have stonewalled. They have resolutely stood behind their leader, their hero. It was only in the past two months, while I was reporting this story, that cracks started to appear.

In April, after repeated requests from Newsweek for an interview with Mam, Gina Reiss-Wilchins, the foundation's executive director, said in a statement on the foundation's website: "Following an internal review, the Foundation has recently launched an independent, third-party investigation to further examine these claims. Somaly Mam is in full support of this review. We can only hope that this does not deter other survivors from sharing their experiences, because it is their courageous voices that bring promise of a world free from trafficking."

The foundation's board retained the law firm Goodwin Procter, which has offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia. The firm also declined to speak to Newsweek, citing attorney-client privilege. Goodwin Procter and the Somaly Mam Foundation also declined to say when the investigation would be completed and if the results would be shared.

In April, Mam spoke to her supporters about the controversies swirling around her in a statement posted on the foundation's website. "Many of you know my story of what I have been through. This pain never leaves me.… I have lived my life day by day, with love and forgiveness, and the belief that helping others could give them voice and choice and create change. I wrote my book to shed light on the lives of so many thousands of other women who have shared my fate. They have no voice, so I let my voice stand for theirs."

That message still seems to resonate with many of the people who admire Mam. In October, a post on what purports to be her Facebook page said: "I Fall, I Rise, I Make Mistakes, I Live, I Learn, I've been Hurt, But I'm Alive, I'm Human and I'm not perfect but I learn every day and with every one to be better, but I promise you never perfect…teach and show me on the positive way…thanks."

In response, one of her supporters wrote: "I've been there myself and though mistakes have been made along the way, they were often done so with a much more powerful intention…and that has proved true here. Those mistakes have led to helping so many people and bringing international attention to a VERY serious problem…kudos to you!"

Correction: Due to an editing error, Pen Chhun Heng was misidentified as a woman.