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The Naked Anthropologist · Asia-Pacific

Asia-Pacific

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I’ve been ill a great deal this year and for the past month bowed down by a death, but the imminence of August cranked me up sufficiently to vent my now annual disgust at tours from the US that take well-paying travellers to gawk at and pity poorer people in Other Countries (who always smile in the photos taken, of course). If there is anything I hate it’s this. In 2011 I wrote Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour, illustrating it with the egregious Kristof, who has not a jot of shame about looking like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider. Given the sexual aspect, the word prurience came to mind: socially-sanctioned permission to be a voyeur, to go to bars abroad you wouldn’t set foot in at home as part of a do-gooding ‘social justice’ trip. To my mind, this is sex tourism.

This year’s tour to Thailand Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking is aimed at aspiring individuals. What might they mean by that? And why do they call this a delegation to end trafficking rather than, if not pure tourism, a first step towards understanding trafficking? The pretension is obviously meant to provide something to add to CVs, the way internships in impressive-sounding organisations do, though at least those last some months, whereas this tour takes a week (5 -12 August). Look at the rhetoric:

Global Exchange Reality Tours is facilitating this delegation to Thailand geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings. Participants will receive a comprehensive education in the mechanics of human trafficking, as well an understanding of its underlying causes. Participants will meet with those who have been freed from slavery and learn what it means to rebuild one’s life after having been a victim of trafficking, and will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle to expose and ultimately end the trade in human lives.

This is B-movie-type public-relations prose: facilitating – delegation – geared – confronting – realities – global trade – human beings – comprehensive education – mechanics – human trafficking – participants – comprehensive education – mechanics – underlying causes – freed from slavery – rebuild one’s life – frontlines of the struggle – expose – end the trade – human lives. Nothing concrete, nothing real.

For those who aren’t clear as to why I call this colonialism, note the clear differentiation between Subject (tourist) and Object (exotic other). I believe this is the first time they claim tourists will talk with people who have been freed from slavery – an obvious pitch to the cheapest of sentiments. I am appalled that Global Exchange maintains any credibility. Last year I wrote the following in Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk, because online sales of folkloric and supposedly authentic third-worldish objects is how GE started:

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

This year they provide an itinerary, which includes:

In the morning drive to Chiang Mai: Check into Guesthouse
Visit local project
At night visit nightclubs and bars to observe night activities

It’s been made clear to me that ordinary people in the US have no understanding of what colonialism means and how they themselves perpetuate it. That needs work. Perhaps having broken the spell of not writing I’ll begin again now, even if it is August.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Numerous novels tell the story of attempts to rescue sad prostitutes or fallen women unconscious of their own degradation. It is a classic theme that took shape in the 19th century, signalling new beliefs in social reform: the possibility that those at the bottom of the social heap were not doomed to stay there but with help could rise up and better themselves. William Holman Hunt’s 1853 The Awakening Conscience, which depicts a fallen woman‘s moment of epiphany, is unusual in omitting any Rescue person showing the way, lifting her up, teaching her how to live.

One version of the prostitute’s saviour is a confused, melancholic man who ‘loves’ her and aims to remove her from the life. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a naive meddler in Vietnamese politics also sets out to rescue Phuong, the young mistress of a jaded older journalist. This book from 1955 is recommended reading for those interested in the Rescue Industry, and I bring it up because the review of another book relates it to Greene’s work.The novel is Patrick Holland’s The Darkest Little Room, the setting is also Saigon and the reviewer’s insights into the main character’s Rescue complex are pointed.

The only off-note in the review is the cliché murky in the headline, as if every time sex goes on sale the moral lights have to go out.

Flawed saviour sucked into Saigon’s murky sex trade

Emily Maguire, The Australian 6 October 2012

“The nights I have spent with prostitutes have been some of the saddest nights of my life,” Joseph reveals near the beginning of the book. He goes on to explain that the sadness comes when the sex is done and he must see the “deep unfeeling blankness” on the face of the “pretty young prostitute”. It’s a telling moment; Joseph is terribly sentimental about sex work, and so unable to see the women who do it as anything other than more or less useful accomplices in his project to redeem himself via loving, and thereby saving, a fallen woman. . .

Joseph cannot see sex workers as fully human lest he be forced to admit that some don’t want saving and, thus, he cannot be the hero he so desperately needs to be.

Emily Maguire’s understanding of Joseph tallies with what I concluded much of Rescue is about after a long time wondering why people saying they wanted to help prostitutes did not listen to what they had to say. In Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities I laid out the foundation for theorising about a Rescue Industry.

Real-life characters like Nicholas Kristof and Siddharth Kara belong to the sentimental tradition of men who want to rescue fallen women and thereby construct for themselves an identity as virtuous Knights in Shining Armour – which is also a path to prestige and power.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropology

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A National Geographic television special called 21st Century Sex Slaves employs the melodramatic voiceover common to all trite police documentaries, but it goes further. The ever-evolving Rescue Industry now has a large media branch, where camera crews film undercover operations and men act out hero fantasies (women get subordinate roles, usually as faceless victims).

The wannabe Special Agent in this story is Steve Galster, head of something called Freeland Foundation, which bizarrely seems to have been dedicated to preventing wildlife trafficking before jumping on the human gravytrain. I wonder if they found it an easy mental shift from pangolins to young women; the rhetoric is the same:

Freeland is dedicated to making the world free of human slavery and wildlife trafficking by increasing law enforcement capacity, supporting vulnerable communities and raising awareness.

Law enforcement is a Man’s game, right? So these men otherwise associated with saving animals and running NGOs now have an excuse not only to hobnob with real cops but also to play cops themselves. The camera spends a lot of time on Galster, whose features recall pretty-man Special Agents Gibbs and DiNozzo in NCIS, but Galster is a weak, non-charismatic character. National Geographic has taken television shows like NCIS as inspiration in all sorts of ways – but the excitement is conspicuously absent.

Notice the technique: the camera records crowded streets where lots of young women mill about. The narration mentions that many have gone into sex work on their own, but as the camera pans past, the voiceover talks about willing and unwilling women in the same breath, implying that everyone you see is a potential slave.

In this attempt at a thriller the Bad Guys are Uzbeks, in just the same way that Law & Order often singles out an ethnic group’s misbehaviour: Russians in Brighton Beach is a popular one. Here a Thai police chief laments how his country is being abused by foreigners (the trafficking Uzbeks). But it’s wildlife-saviour Galster who gets the main role, despite his inability to convey drama. The whole thing is, like the BBC series on Mexican sex slaves, infotainment, a misleading blend of facts, factoids and fantasies.

Unsurprisingly, Pattaya is one of the locations chosen for this cliché-ridden show, where one place offers Only European Girls. I doubt they pick up any of the irony.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Last September I wrote about so-called Reality Tours to meet victims of sex trafficking. Now it’s August and several people have written me from Bangkok about the tour taking place there this past week. I remember when I first heard about Global Exchange educational tours, while visiting a little storefront in San Francisco in 1989. I have a memory of puzzling over the brochure amidst shelves and tables piled with ethnic jewellery and objects from Other Cultures. The shop on 24th Street is still there, according to a contemporary description:

Global Exchange offers fair trade crafts produced in over 40 countries. Proceeds go toward improving lives in these villages. They have a vast selection of unique items from all over the world. This is a great place to pick up a gift for the person who is hard to shop for.

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

The tour to Bangkok is entitled Thailand: Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: Delegation? Delegates are meant to be official or elected representatives. I shudder to think who people on the tour believe they are representing. Why not call themselves what they are – tourists? Those who think themselves sexually liberal may sneer at Christian tourism – aka missions – but there is not so much difference from the point of view of the objects of their solidarity and pity.

My analysis is not purely theoretical. A couple of decades ago, I happened to be working on the Mexico-US border, in a project whose main task was to provide legal advice to migrants who’d crossed the border illegally and wanted to make a claim for asylum in the US. (Yes, another kind of helping). Lots of people wanted to but few could provide the kind of evidence required by immigration authorities. While stories were checked and papers processed, asylum-seekers had to hang around in halfway-houses found for them by the project.

On one occasion, I was at the enormous garbage dump in Matamoros, where hundreds of people live amidst rubbish of all kinds, picking and carting bits to sell outside.  A group of Reality Tourists came up to some children to ask them questions. The children, accustomed to flies crawling over their faces, did not move to brush them off. The tourists, horrified by the flies landing on their own eyes, faced an excruciating dilemma: They wanted to express interest in and respect for the garbage-dwellers at the same time they wanted to run away screaming. But if they ran away, what would it say about the humanity they were fleeing?

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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The other day someone asked if I believe what Nicholas Kristof wrote about sex slaves in Half the Sky or do I think he is lying. In the book he tells a story of being taken into Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata, where he saw unhappy young women said to be under the control of exploiters. At least one of the women told him she wanted to get away. Do I believe he visited Sonagachi and talked to a couple of unwilling workers? Yes, because I am sure his guides to this very large area took him specifically to meet them.

Based on that one experience and what his guides said, he characterised the DMSC, an organisation that supports sex-worker rights in Sonagachi, as corrupt promoters of child prostitution. More than 10,000 people work in Sonagachi, so although DMSC try to prevent children and unwilling people working there through Self-Regulatory Boards, it would be impossible to know what is going on all the time.

Many of those worried about trafficking express special horror about children, by which they sometimes mean anyone under 18. You will recall how Kristof’s use of the tag seventh grader annoyed me, when he tweeted about accompanying a Somaly-Mam brothel raid in Cambodia. A campaigner harassing Craig of Craigslist flourished pictures of women in classifieds who are said to look too young.

Recently a scandal erupted in Singapore because some supposedly respectable men paid for sex with a female under 18. Whether she was or not, photos showed her dressing childishly. Kristof might look at the Thai sex worker and researcher who spoke at Don’t Talk to Me About Sewing Machines and think she is too young. Kristof is sentimental about children, romantic about women and comes from a culture where a lot of young people dress up convincingly to look older than they are. He is a total outsider to the sex industry, ignorant of the possibility that workers commonly try to look younger than they are (to attract clients).

Kristof is a colonialist; he imposes his own narrow cultural attitudes on people he looks at and interprets their lives according to his values. A thin body dressed in t-shirt and shorts says child to him. This mindset makes it impossible for him to read what’s going on in a bar he stumbles into – including, probably, in the United States. To see these people while invading a bar with armed police, where events move fast, many are frightened and impressions are fleeting, exacerbates the problem. I wouldn’t believe anyone’s assertion about other people’s age glimpsed in those conditions.

The Singapore situation illustrates another kind of confusion:

While the local age of consent is 16, the age for commercial sexual transactions – prostitution is legal in Singapore — was raised in 2007 by two additional years. The government acknowledged at the time that there was little need for the new law. “Although there is no evidence to suggest that we have a problem with 16- and 17-year-olds engaging in commercial sex in Singapore, we decided to set the age of protection at 18 years so as to protect a higher proportion of minors,” said senior home affairs minister Ho Peng Kee on the floor of Parliament when the bill was introduced. “Young persons, because they are immature and vulnerable and can be exploited, therefore should be protected from providing sexual services.”

Only when they get money for it, however. Sixteen-year olds can ‘provide sexual services’ for free in Singapore with no problem.

After my talks about migration, sex work, gender perspectives, culture and rights, someone in the audience usually brings up age. The  format goes like this: What about the 12-year-old girl sold by her parents to a pimp? Lately, I have taken to pointing out that this is a rhetorical ploy (maybe unconscious) aimed at pushing discussion of a complex topic to its extreme edge, to the case we can all deplore, the ‘obvious’ case of misery. The point is to expose the fallacy of the speaker’s (my) ideas.

The other day I said no one should be making decisions about other people’s degree of will or acceptance of their situations and then generalising to huge groups of people. One response was: No one should be making any assumptions about the degree of will for a 10- year-old girl or boy in the sex trades? After pointing out the rhetoric (used by abolitionists and anti-trafficking people all the time), I answered yes, no one should be making assumptions about 10-year-olds either. How do we know what led to her selling sex? What choices was she faced with? What might happen if she were suddenly extracted from her situation? It is easy to take heroic positions at the extreme of a continuum, but the vast majority of cases lie along its middle, whether people are young or old. To make the extreme the case all policy should be based on – as well as all emotion and compassion – is irresponsible, an infantilising Rescue Industry strategy to be avoided whether you like the idea of kids selling sex or not.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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