Elon Musk’s latest rant misses the point on sex trafficking in Thailand

Just not right.
Just not right.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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Elon Musk hasn’t presented any evidence in claiming the Thai cave rescue diver who criticized him as a PR hound is a pedophile linked to sex trafficking. And he gets it wrong on the true nature of the scourge.

In an email exchange with Buzzfeed reporter Ryan Mac, Musk called Vernon Unsworth a “child rapist” (he had previously also called him a “pedo guy”), going on to say:

[Unsworth] is an old, single white guy from England who’s been traveling to or living in Thailand for 30 to 40 years, mostly Pattaya Beach, until moving to Chiang Rai for a child bride who was about 12 years old at the time. There’s only one reason people go to Pattaya Beach. It isn’t where you’d go for caves, but it is where you’d go for something else. Chiang Rai is renowned for child sex-trafficking.

Musk claims Unsworth traveled to Thailand for a “child bride” but his longtime girlfriend is actually 40 years old, and they met only seven years ago. (Unsworth says there is no truth to any of Musk’s allegations.) Alongside the wild charges he has flung at Unsworth without providing any proof, the image Musk paints of Thailand and the region of the cave rescue is both inaccurate and incomplete.

Alezandra Russell, founder of anti-trafficking nonprofit Urban Light, described for Quartz what sweeping, oversimplified remarks get wrong. “The stereotype is that an old man goes to Thailand and engages in illicit sex with underage sex workers. That’s a narrative that we really need to shift,” Russell said. “It’s no longer just girls—it often includes boys and men. Real change happens when you have the full story.”

In addition, Cory Nickols, US director of strategic partnerships at Destiny Rescue, a nonprofit that focuses on the problem of child trafficking, notes it’s not just foreigners who fuel sex tourism in Thailand. “As much as it is an issue amongst Westerners, it’s also an issue among locals,” Nickols told Quartz. Reuters also reports that “children worldwide are more likely to be preyed upon by residents of their own homeland than foreign tourists seeking illicit sex.”

Musk’s words will likely be far more widely read than actual data about Thailand’s ongoing trafficking crisis. “I think it’s important that people in positions of great influence and impact make certain the narrative is reflective of the reality,” Russell said. (Tesla and Musk did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

The reality is a troubling enough. According to Walk Free Foundation’s 2016 Global Slavery Index, an estimated 425,500 people live in conditions of modern slavery in Thailand, including sexual slavery, Reuters reports. The Asia Pacific is actually the region with the most concentrated cases of modern slavery, according to the International Labor Organization, which says there are 4.8 million victims of sexual exploitation worldwide.

Whether Musk intended for his email to be off the record or not, the actual nature of sex trafficking continues to get overlooked, advocates say. “The reality is there is a lot of compassion fatigue,” Russell said. “While I wouldn’t recommend that Musk did it the way he did, we do need to make sex trafficking a topic we deal with nationally and internationally.”