- 10 Aug 17
Lisa Harding’s new novel, Harvesting, is a powerful tale about the current sex-trafficking crisis in Europe.
There are few books harder to read than actress, activist and now author Lisa Harding’s first novel Harvesting, a story of two young victims of sex trafficking. The story is beautifully composed, alternating between two engaging first person perspectives – spiky, 15-year-old Samantha from Dublin, and sensitive Nico from Moldova, who is just turning 13.
Harding became aware of sex trafficking in Ireland when the Children’s Rights Alliance asked her to read monologues written by young girls trafficked into Ireland. Although the subject matter is harrowing, Harding paints word pictures, outlining what is happening to the girls, but allowing the reader to fill in the details.
“I was very conscious of writing nothing too graphic,” Harding explains. “I didn’t want to sensationalise it or even describe sex through a long lens. What I wanted to do was stay close inside their minds as a kind of study in trauma instead of sexual abuse – but it is. We know it’s happening.”
The author was aware that handled incorrectly, the material could be titillating. Before approaching publishers, Harding sent the book to NGOs and organisations working with women who’ve been trafficked.
“I was really worried about that,” she acknowledges. “The other thing that worried me was, ‘Who am I to tell this story?’ I’m not an expert, I’m not a psychologist, but I was so moved and disturbed and haunted by these stories that I just let it come out.”
Her involvement with the Children’s Rights Alliance came about by chance, she says.
“I was in Fair City at the time and Emma McKinley from the Children’s Rights Alliance got in touch,” explains Lisa. “She asked if I’d like to come in and front the campaign. It was part of an international movement against the trafficking of children and young people. I said ‘yes’, but I didn’t realise the extent of it, and that there was sex trafficking happening here in Ireland. It’s actually impossible to get statistics. They’ve got Blue Blindfold, which is the Garda anti-trafficking unit.
“They have very low figures on their website, because they only have people who’ve come forward and spoken about their ordeal. But NGOs deal with more of the hidden stuff and girls who are too frightened to come forward. That’s why so few traffickers get prosecuted. In terms of statistics, they don’t know except for individual cases that they come across. They do know that Irish girls can and do fall into the rings, because they’ve dealt with some who are Irish and get in over their heads. And they’ve dealt with Eastern European girls, but because of the climate of fear it’s impossible to find accurate statistics.”
Earlier this year, Ireland adopted the controversial ‘Nordic model’, which decriminalises the sale of sex. The Sex Workers Alliance Ireland claim the law will increase the risk of violence to those who sell sexual services – a position endorsed and supported by Amnesty International. However groups like SPACE International (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment), and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre amongst others welcomed the move.
“All of the NGOs I spoke to support the criminalising of the purchase of sex,” says Lisa. “Again, I’m not an expert. I’m going by talking to representatives from SPACE International, Ruhama, the Children’s Rights Alliance and that seems to be a good starting point. What they have to do is tackle demand.”
Traffickers can be men or women, and in Harvesting there are women who groom the girls and are complicit in their abuse. Did Lisa meet any of these women during her time with the campaign?
“No, but I did hear stories about them,” she notes. “The only way out for some of these women who get trafficked is to become a procurer or a pimp. They’re stuck in the system. Generally they’re a little bit older, but they don’t have to service 12 men a day if they start to groom the girls. There are some women traffickers, but from what I’ve read, it really is a tiny percentage.”
Moldova is the poorest country in Europe and the central source of sex trafficking throughout the continent. However, progress is being made to curb the problem.
“There’s been a lot of work done on the ground,” says Harding. “A lot of young girls might have been promised jobs or marriage – that they’re going off to be an au pair or a nanny and have a better life. But the NGOs are going into the villages talking to families and making them aware of what’s happening.”
Although progress is being made in Moldova, the current refugee crisis has sadly been a boon for traffickers.
“There are terrifying numbers of separated children and minors,” says Harding. “Something like 10,000 migrant children went missing last year, and they think around 80% of them have been sex trafficked.”
Human trafficking is a billion-euro industry – the bulk of which is from forced sex work. Harding initially planned to write from the perspective of traffickers and clients as well as victims, but ultimately found it impossible.
“I couldn’t write the men,” she says. “They’re all sons to begin with – they can’t all be brutalised and come from horrific families. It’s really hard to understand; a lot of them have sisters, some of them have daughters, wives. As a writer you try not to get moralistic and judgemental. But it’s very hard to write a fully realised, complex character who does that.
“I have wonderful men in my life, a lot of feminist men, but still my head went, ‘It’s only men that are capable of this level of abuse.’ My mind got quite dark during the winter I was writing the book. I was walking around thinking, ‘Who? Is it you? Are you capable of this?’”
Harvesting is published by New Island.