Cover Still from a video produced by the International Justice Mission. The minor in the image is an actor.

After this true-crime serial, listeners will know what OSEC stands for, and why it is a modern-day scourge that needs us to help stamp it out

CONTENT WARNING: This article includes references to abuse and sexual exploitation, particularly of children. 

 

It’s hard to recommend The Fight of My Life: Finding Ruby, a podcast series that premiered on Monday, September 5. The topic is nothing short of stomach-turning, but the story is extremely important and grippingly told via first-hand accounts—it’s all very hard to listen to, but it is impossible to tear oneself away.

With two episodes currently out (and four more to be released on following Mondays), listeners will find themselves deeply invested in the story of “Ruby”, the pseudonym for a Filipina who was 16 years old at the time of the events she speaks about here. Faced with a run of bad luck at home in rural Philippines, a job offer falls into her lap that seems to be heaven-sent. Ruby finds herself traveling to another province, where she is swiftly entrapped and forced to produce sexually explicit livestreams. She has been trafficked, an underage girl forced into making child sexual abuse material.

It is every woman’s worst nightmare, and rightly so. But the sheer horror of the topic also means that the online sexual exploitation of children—referred to as "OSEC" by those working to fight it—is rarely spoken about in public. The makers of this podcast are asking listeners not to turn away.

At its surface, Finding Ruby can be seen as an excellent true-crime podcast, so fans of the genre might find it easy to get into. Podcast host Rich Thompson masterfully paces the story, weaving in Ruby’s first-person accounts with those of law enforcers, anti-OSEC advocates, and of ordinary people like Thompson himself, who stands in for every listener who must grapple with the darkness that this crime reveals.

Ruby’s segments are an unprecedented look inside what goes on inside these modern-day bordellos, and it’s a harrowing account that will sear itself into memory. She talks about the houses in which she and other girls were kept as virtual prisoners, where she had to be on “duty” for eight hours a day, six days a week, performing to a webcam under the direction of johns often half a world away. The details that can only be described by someone who was there—like the peculiar smell inside the house—bring listeners into Ruby’s world for that terrible time she was there.

But more than that, the podcast is also a very good piece of advocacy, dropping bits of difficult, important information that should shock any listener. We learn that there are no figures on how many children are exploited in the industry, but that the United Nations estimates that, in the United Kingdom alone, there are about 750,000 sexual predators online at any given time; and that the median age of victims is just 11 years old. We learn that the Philippines, disturbingly, is at the epicenter of the problem, providing rich hunting ground for predators and the criminals who enable them. At the other end, it is seemingly ordinary men from developing countries who provide the demand. The podcast puts a name to both victim and perpetrator in these crimes, helping the public remember that on the other side of these harrowing statistics are human beings.

 

Perhaps it would be easier if you knew that Ruby is no longer a victim, and more than a survivor, she is a survivor leader—someone who speaks out about her own experiences to give hope to women and children trapped in the industry, and who is helping mobilise diverse groups from all around the world to the cause. Smart, well-spoken, and deeply determined, she is now in her twenties and works with the International Justice Mission in shining light on the issue.

It also helps to know that the podcast isn’t just about the dark underbelly of the internet, where the worst of humanity lurks. It’s also about the global effort to put a stop to the sexual exploitation of children, and the strong-willed men and women who work tirelessly for the cause. International organisations like IJM work with local law enforcement, and the interviews also bring home the point that NGO workers and police officers are very real people too. Philippine National Police Colonel Sheila Portento, for one, is a refreshing presence on the podcast—level-headed and focused, but also very human.

Rich Thompson acknowledges that getting involved in the conversation—or even just being aware of it—is a sacrifice of a sort, because it takes something out of you. But if simple awareness itself is hard, it already is a contribution to the fight: evil cannot survive in the light, Thompson reminded the audience at the podcast launch. Finding Ruby is not an easy listen, but in order to retain our collective humanity, it is ultimately a necessary one.

 

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