Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt? reads the subtitle of an article in Slate. I don’t think we need to generalise about all sex jobs or all jobs in clothing factories/sweatshops, but given the Rescue Industry’s obsession with getting people out of sex and into other work, it is always good to see information showing it’s not that simple. By which I mean that finding alternative jobs that are actually satisfactory to people is not easy and neither is helping them. Helping people is not only difficult but meaningless unless there is an understanding of what people want themselves.
Moral crusaders intent on saving people from sex work rarely engage with the enormous subject of what activity will provide income instead and how. The present worldwide craze assumes that any job will be better – meaning more dignified, fulfilling, heartwarming – than any sex job. Alternative occupations offered, however, are universally gender-stereotyped for women who are assumed to be traditionally feminine and domestic. Aid organisations and rescue projects relentlessly treat women in poorer countries like backward children and still call attempts to help them out of selling sex rehabilitation. The photo at the top illustrates a nearly universal association of sewing with obedient, meek women, but organised sex workers have specifically addressed the sewing-machine cliché in protests, as shown below.
It is true that a lot of people who sell sex wish they could do something else instead, the way probably most of the planet does. We fall into jobs by chance, or because someone told us they would be good for us, or because we studied some skill and then felt we had to use it even if we don’t enjoy it much. We stay in jobs because we don’t find another better one, and nowadays we are afraid to lose even the worst of jobs. Note how the concepts of precarious labour and the new precariat apply to sex work.
These excerpts from the conclusion of Ken Silverstein’s A Brief Tour of the Cambodian Sex Industry (Slate, 19 May 2011) demonstrate the problem of assuming a job making clothing is always better than sex work. Note: apparel means clothing in the US.
. . . 20 percent of Cambodian sex workers interviewed for the 2009 U.N. report said they took their jobs because of good working conditions or relatively high pay. (Fifty-five percent did so due to “difficult family circumstances.” About 3.5 percent were lured, cheated, or sold into sex work.)
Are sex workers exploited? Absolutely. But so are textile workers. When I was in Cambodia in 2009 to report on the apparel industry, I obtained the “company profile” of a firm that produced T-shirts, trousers, and skirts for companies like Aeropostale and JCPenney. It said the plant’s 1,000 workers produced 7.8 million pieces annually. Taking a rough estimate of $25 per piece retail, each employee generated approximately $195,000 in retail sales annually, for which she received about $750 in pay, factoring in typical overtime rates.
“A lot of women no longer want apparel jobs,” Tola Moeun, a labor-rights activist with a group called the Community Legal Education Center, told me. “When prostitution offers a better life, our factory owners need to think about more than their profit margins.” 19 May 2011, Slate
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist