The Common Good
February 2006

Mixed Messages

by Josh Andersen | February 2006

Does Ricky Martin's sexed-up music undercut his anti-trafficking activism?

Ricky Martin is trying to carve out a new vocation as modern day “hero.” The hip-swaying, loca-living superstar is lending his fame to the anti-trafficking movement by appearing in ads designed to educate the public to the horrors of modern-day slavery.

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Martin is rightfully disturbed that 27 million people are currently enslaved in forced labor and sex-related industries. Close to 80 percent of trafficked victims are female and 50 percent are children. He probably heard testimonies of young girls who are kidnapped or coerced into brothels, robbed of all their rights, and forced to service men, sometimes 15 to 20 times a day.

“Human trafficking is one of the cruelest and craziest problems in the world today,” Martin said. Preach it, brother.

But as I reflected on the goodwill of the former Menudo heartthrob, I filed through my mental Ricky Martin file cabinet, trying to recall his exploits prior to his new work as humanitarian. There was his music video from the groundbreaking release “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” Martin depicted the “crazy life” as an existence of wild dancing and even wilder bedroom activity. I vaguely recall a scene involving hot wax, candles, and a young woman who could have been exaggeratingly referred to as “half-dressed.” I realized that every hazy recollection of Martin involved sex, lust, or some kind of heart-pounding, dance-related promiscuity.

This guy has been peddling sex! He’s made his fortune on a kind of R-rated, MTV-sanitized pornography.

I doubt Martin sees any connection between his career as international sex symbol and the fact that the modern world is as overheated as the Roman Empire on a rowdy night. After all, he is overshadowed by a North American industry that produces truckloads of pornography for domestic shelves and international distribution, blanketing the globe with increasingly raunchy sex acts.

It is clear that international sex trafficking is a complex and dark world, created by a number of nuanced forces. But at the very center of the industry is the basic law of supply and demand. All over the world there are men who want sex on demand, who want young girls. Many of them want what they’ve been conditioned to want by pop culture, media, and marketing—namely, waif-like women, scantily clad and ready to “serve.”

Ricky Martin deserves praise for his efforts to educate and mobilize a public prone to apathy. He is undoubtedly paving the way for other celebrities to use their immense resources in the fight against trafficking. But I think Martin—and others like him—should think long and hard about mixed messages.

When he shakes the hand of a young girl freed from sex slavery and smiles for the publicity shot, he should remember the lyrics from his new song, “This Is Good”: “I got your salt skin dripping on the tip of my tongue/...We’re here tonight and it’s so criminal wicked, dirty, sticky let’s touch.” And then the chorus: “...Come walk with me into the night/Feel me inside your body tonight.”

No one is going to hear Martin’s new song and run out to buy a sex slave. But Martin has just added to a global tapestry of ever-more-explicit sex in which women are treated as little more than men-pleasers. One can prance half-naked girls across a television screen only so many times before the message starts to stick: Women exist to satisfy the sexual appetites of men.

Could it be that this widely accepted idea feeds neatly into an international sex industry that shackles 10-year-old girls in prisons of forced prostitution? Could Martin be tackling symptoms while simultaneously spreading the disease? Yes, Ricky Martin, it’s a crazy life indeed.

Josh Andersen, a former Sojourners intern, is a student at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania.

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