Breaking Into Brothels

Michele A. Clark on Aaron Cohen and his ‘night-frighting’ techniques

Michele A. Clark works for the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest regional security organization. Deputy coordinator in the Office of the Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings, she has worked with Aaron Cohen on assignments around the world. Asked via e-mail about the method Cohen uses, “night-frighting,” or infiltrating brothels by purporting to be a paying customer, she replied:

I am no stranger to stealth, duplicity and raw sex for sale. My father was a covert operative. And by the time I met Aaron, I had been involved in this work for five years. I have also done undercover work. The most challenging for me was posing as a madam and potential buyer in a South American country to see how young we could get girls. This meant spending hours in shady bars, drinking watered-down drinks and pretending to chain smoke and look bored, all the while knowing that hidden mikes were running, that there was certain information I needed to get. When the young girls came by to “audition” for my male partners in rooms equipped with hidden video cameras, I had to appear jaded and talk tough—yet inwardly be ever vigilant and miss nothing. I am a former actress, and this was the hardest part I ever played.

Brothels are creepy to those who have never been inside. By the light of day, they are pathetic—they stink of stale alcohol, and the tables, banquettes, etc., that look so elegant in dim light are revealed as cheap and tawdry by the light of day. They are, for many, normal reality, just as any other dysfunction becomes reality for those stuck there.

By going in, being a party boy, buying time in a room designated for sex, Aaron would then sit and talk to the girls. Most girls, as I had seen with my other pals, are rather incredulous that a man wants time with them without sex, but their relief and their curiosity, drawn out by Aaron’s charm, make them feel comfortable in opening up to him. He learns about new recruiting methods (in hair salons, and through intake clerks at public health clinics). He learns about the hidden younger girls. He learns about the particular idiosyncrasies of the trafficking dynamics—and the different pecking orders that develop among the women. In some countries, he was able to identify links between human and drug trafficking. And yes, he was able to learn profound, intimate, painful details of the lives of the girls and young women he talked to.

In this area, he is not unique, since others have done undercover work leading to rescues, prosecutions, closing of brothels, naming and shaming of countries with “hidden” trafficking. But there is a certain complexity and creativity in Aaron that makes him special. In those of us who take on sex and vice, from cops to prosecutors to social workers—men and women—there are degrees of fascination with the dark side in addition to the desire to help. There is also the particular courage that is not afraid of the seedy side, of depravity, or raw, exposed exploitation and its miserable consequences. These are usually extremely complex, gloriously flawed, deeply human, people. But, if you are going to bust crime and free the victims, you have to do this from the inside, get inside information, understand inside operational methods.

This work does take a toll, and it has taken a toll on Aaron. He does put himself in danger, and as you know, he got shot, has been threatened, was poisoned. He does put his body through a lot—drinking, sleeplessness. And he puts his mind, heart, soul, the deepest parts of himself, through a lot as well. One of the most important parts of our trips was always the debriefing of the “night frights.” First, I would sit down with my laptop and get the stories. But then, putting stories aside, sometimes with champagne, sometimes with cheap local beer, we would talk about the rest. What he saw. What the girls said. What they were like, and what they lived through. And how it made him feel. The fear, the rage, the helplessness, the fear of losing a bit of his own soul if he numbed himself to protect himself, but not wanting to be numb, so that he could hear the stories, learn about their lives and potentially do something about it.

We took Gina, one young trafficked girl that we were able to get out of a brothel, shopping and bought her the first gift she received for the baby she was expecting (but whose father she did not know). Others, Aaron took out to get their nails and hair done. For others, he would buy designer jeans. These are small things. They do not in and of themselves create a future, a life, and some might call them trivial. But they do serve to keep hope alive because they are gestures of very real, personal, genuine caring. They do not follow “victim-assistance protocol,” but they follow the human heart. And in this, Aaron is unique. Yes, he sees to shelter work, police training and international awareness-raising. And he brings to these important concerns a lot of creativity and nonlinear thinking. But he has not forgotten that the heart of the matter is the young woman, the girl, the child who is a living, breathing human being, with hope and desires and dreams.

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