I was thrilled that Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher joined the battle against sex slavery with their own nonprofit, "DNA." Sex slavery is a widespread affliction and has been one of my main causes ever since (as an international reporter) I interviewed dozens of teenage girls who had been sold into brothels. It was heartbreaking to see how these young women and girls were then thrown out like garbage when they had contracted HIV, tuberculosis and other diseases that made them too ill to make their pimps more profit.
The shock over these girls' devastated lives still haunts me, and any celebrity that gets behind this cause is to be applauded. Sex slavery is a taboo topic that many stars don't want to be associated with, and celebrities like Demi and Ashton, with their combined star power, can attract considerable publicity and capital for a cause that truly deserves more attention and clearly needs more exposure.
With a topic as heart-wrenching as this one, there is no easy publicity to be gained. Demi and Ashton have been ripped by the media regarding their videos that show Justin Timberlake taking a shave with a chain saw, or Ashton throwing away a stinking sock with the slogan: Real Men do their own laundry. Knowing their intentions are good, I wish their campaign "True Men don't buy girls" was a success; but, so far, it falls short. Real men open their beer with their TV remote and therefore don't buy girls? The clips with Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, Jamie Foxx, Eva Longoria and others are funny, clearly directed as a media blitz, but who are they actually talking to? Who are they targeting? Who will they reach?
Sex slavery happens right here and now, in the midst of our cities and villages, in the United States and everywhere else in the world. Demi and Ashton clearly have done their homework. Their website is credible, well-researched and full of good information. They know that in America, 76 percent of prostitution begins on the internet, and therefore they have chosen internet videos as a means to target the problem where it starts. That makes sense.
Yet the reality is dirty, painful and cruel -- the videos are so silly they miss the mark because they seem to make fun of the reality. Sex slavery is rooted in complex issues and involves many players: the women, their families, the johns, the pimps, the traffickers, law enforcement and many more. Inevitably, it takes time, continuous involvement, in-depth knowledge of the cultural background and hard, often tedious work to make progress in baby steps. Every time there is a real success story -- a woman saved from slavery, or police cracking down on a brothel -- it is a reason to celebrate, but it almost always took hard, continuous work.
Media attention is crucial, if done well. For instance, the CNN Freedom Project currently does a terrific job of providing compelling stories and background interviews with survivors, activists and law enforcement, to communicate a full picture and raise awareness.
The most successful celebrity philanthropy endeavors all prove that success comes with continuous involvement. Sean Penn does truly amazing work outside the limelight in rebuilding Haiti. George Clooney has spent an enormous amount of time and undergone tremendous personal risk (including contracting Malaria) to keep the world alert to the atrocities in much forgotten Sudan. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have devoted not only millions from their personal fortunes, but also time and real effort into causes such as rebuilding New Orleans and the plight of refugees around the world. Using their celebrity status and wealth, Bill and Melinda Gates have been able to gather billions of additional support dollars for global health causes.
There are many more outstanding examples. When celebrities don't forget the roots they grew out of -- like, Oprah, who truly accomplished a miracle when she built her girls' school in South Africa -- the outcome is a well-focused effort and money well spent, its effects multiplied many times over by the public attention such a project receives.
When stars don't work together with seasoned nonprofits, even if they start out well-intentioned, the effects are all the more disappointing. Take Madonna's Malawi disaster. It makes it all the more difficult to gather donations for education in Africa now. Stars need to put themselves in the shoes of the other parties -- the ones they want to help, the donors, the clients -- in order to be able to act appropriately and efficiently. It takes sincerity, time, energy, good people and detailed knowledge to make any nonprofit work, but this is especially true when targeting the sex industry. I hope Demi and Ashton got their friends to produce the videos for free. It would pain me to see donor money wasted on neatly polished, silly ads when I know that as little as $100 can keep a girl in school for a year in Asia -- and thus likely out of the reach of traffickers. As little as $25 pays for a month of trauma counseling when a trafficking victim in Cambodia needs support to start a new life. Star-studded ads are nice -- now let's see projects that actually help people.