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The Naked Anthropologist · 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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Refreshing news from a Sydney think tank: No increase in crime or drop in property values are associated with the existence of brothels in urban areas. Specifically Urbis found:

  • There is not a definitive relationship between the opening and expansion of one of Sydney’s major brothels and any increase in crime.
  • There is no proven correlation between decreases in property value and the location of sex premises in an area.
  • There is no evidence that anti-social behaviour in inner city areas can be attributed to the clients or staff of sex premises.

In an article published 14 June entitled Brothels – like funeral parlours – are legitimate and permissible land uses when properly located, Urbis describe how applications for expanded premises from sex venues encounter opposition on moral grounds as well as the usual objections (environmental, for example).

Urbis admit that even in Sydney it is difficult to quantify sex premises but offer a figure showing some of the known approved brothels there.

Urbis conclude that

Sex industry premises, much like other contentious uses such as funeral parlours, can cause a level of discomfort for some members of the community. At the same time, the sex industry has a role to play in the social and economic vibrancy of cities and sex premises are a legal and legitimate land use. Sex industry premises need not be relegated to marginal areas of the city where they will be met with the least objection. The potential discomfort and amenity impacts caused by sex industry premises can be minimised and effectively managed through robust and well-implemented management strategies and adequate planning controls on the part of local governments.

This is an argument for rational regulation of sex businesses, which may look like Sydney’s long famous Touch of Class, pictured at the top (and now closed, I believe). Street prostitution is not included here.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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It’s June, formerly a month I had pleasant feelings about but now the time when the US government issues its imperialist TIP report card to Rest of World about their anti-trafficking behaviour (see Institutionalised Arrogance). You may remember that Empower recently released a research report on the state of the Thai entertainment industry in which they said Anti-trafficking rescues are our biggest problem. Now, in anticipation of the next TIP report, they have issued an open letter to the prime minister. I asked them for a little clarification of one term that might be unfamiliar to readers: green harvest – see after the letter for that. And for an unusually nice report about Empower see 25 years in Thailand’s sex industry.

Open Letter to The Prime Minister of the Royal Government of Thailand from Empower

On the occasion of 5th June 2012, National Anti-Human Trafficking Day, Empower alleges that successive Thai governments have sacrificed the rule of law, their international human rights obligations and the well-being of migrant sex workers and their families in an attempt to please the US government and satisfy the American anti-trafficking agenda.

We accuse the United States government of using the issue of human trafficking to coerce its allies into tightening border and immigration controls. The US agenda has also created a climate where women crossing borders are all seen as suspect ‘victims’ of trafficking. Recently on the 21st February 2012 Empower released an in-depth research report, Hit & Run, done by sex workers, which clearly identifies how the State is breaching rule of law and police procedure while arresting wrong people.

Even though Thai governments have tried hard to appease the USA, Thailand remains on a ‘Tier 2 watch list’ and risks being further downgraded in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), due for release later this month. Empower sees the Trafficking in Persons Report issued by the US State Department as subjective and biased against the Thai Entertainment Industry in particular.

Furthermore Empower says the Thai government has so far failed to recognize the many improvements the Entertainment Industry has undergone in the last decade. The old days of the ‘green harvest’ and locked brothels are over. In the modern context, sex work is similar to other jobs. Exploitation in the industry is an issue of access to identity and work documents, labor rights and occupational health and safety. These are labor and human rights issues, not police or criminal issues.

Society is all too familiar with media images of uniformed police, fully armed, storming Entertainment Places and apprehending young unarmed women. Women desperately try to hide their faces; sometimes the women are naked and not even given time to cover themselves. The women and girls never fight back; most don’t even dare to think about trying to run away and not one woman or girl has ever been found carrying a weapon. These events were commonly shown in the media well before the new human trafficking hysteria. The image of a hero or rescuer has now been added to the scene. . . it’s all very exciting.

However society never sees or hears of what happens after the rescue. Society is not told that the women are put through a range of unnecessary medical tests regardless of consent or their human dignity. They don’t know that women have been detained against their will for over a year in government shelters. No one knows about the pain and suffering brought about by the separation from children and family. Who could imagine that the women, who are the main family providers, are not compensated in any way by the State, and given just 3,000 Baht, (about 200 Baht per month) from private anti trafficking fund when they are eventually forcibly and formally deported?

Under the law there are provisions for social assistance but in reality the focus is on punishment. Little wonder women escape from their rescuers when they can. Police enforcement of the law using raids encourages violence. We suggest that instead of continuing costly, and ultimately useless ‘raids and rescue’ missions, it is time Thailand resisted being bullied by foreign governments and instead worked to ensure migrant sex workers’ access to documentation and fair working conditions in entertainment places.

Today Empower Foundation is calling on the Prime Minister of The Royal Government of Thailand to:

  • Review the practices of the Anti-Trafficking Act in relation to the protection of human rights and the rule of law.
  • Stop using sex workers as scapegoats in foreign policy and other political games.
  • Stop police entrapment which contravenes police policy.
  • Stop raids on entertainment places which are violent actions usually reserved for apprehending dangerous criminals.
  • Stop arbitrary detention of sex workers.
  • Protect the human rights of women arrested or assisted under the Anti trafficking Act and ensure they receive the full entitlements according to the Act – e.g. translation, legal representation, compensation.
  • Work together to promote accurate information about the modern context of sex work in Thailand to all agencies involved in anti-trafficking.

The letter has been endorsed by:
Sex workers of Krabi, Sex workers of Phuket, Sex workers of Samut Sakon, Sex workers of Nontaburi, Sex workers of Chiang Mai, Sex workers of Mae Sai, Chiang Rai, Sex workers of Mae Sot, Tak, Sex workers of Mukdahan, Sex workers of Ubon Rachatani, Sex workers of Udon Thani, Sex workers of Pattaya, Chonburi, Sex workers of Soi Cowboy, Bangkok, Sex workers of Soi Nana,  Bangkok, Sex workers of Patpong, Bangkok.

Copies to:
National Human Rights Commission, Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, Department of Special Investigations (AHTD), Office of the Attorney General – Public Prosecutor, Ministry of Justice, United Nations Interagency Project on Human Trafficking (UNIAP)

On green harvest in brief: After World War II the military (with US support) expanded into rural areas. Some corrupt military personnel began offering to take young girls and women to work in the cities, and families in desperate need accepted money in exchange. These debts carried to the workplace; if that was a brothel it would take about three years to pay back the loan at grossly inflated interest rates in conditions of forced labour (no pay and no freedom of movement.) This practice was the norm until about 1999, affecting especially mountain villages of ethnic minorities and later neighbouring Burma and Lao. The point Empower makes is green harvest is no longer the norm.

I would add that the non-recognition of change – cultural, social, economic – in countries the USA pretends to help constitutes imperialism. Keep the natives down by keeping them ‘primitive’.

A report from 2003 entitled Cultural, Economic and Legal factors Underlying Trafficking in Thailand and their impact on women and girls from Burma, by Christa Crawford, was republished in 2009 in Thailand Law Journal.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Two videos from Don’t Talk to Me About Sewing Machines at the AWID conference in Istanbul recently. The slogan comes from a couple of centuries of social work focused on Rescue and Rehabilitation: First remove the woman from prostitution, then give her alternative employment. Historically, sewing – with or without machines – has been the default alternative, despite the fact that many women have gone into sex work having rejected sewing work. As for sewing lessons, a lot of girls on the planet are still taught to sew as part of their traditional gender upbringing, so the idea that Rescue ladies are required to teach this skill is often ridiculous.

First here is Wi, from Empower, with voiceover in English (at the event she spoke Thai and Liz, also from Empower, translated). I’m putting them here in case they are useful for didactic purposes – like in a classroom. Thank you to Dale from APNSW for these.

Then me at the same session, trying to link my ideas with Kthi Win’s plenary speech an hour earlier and with Wi’s presentation, including the showing of the funny film Last Rescue in Siam (sometimes I feel the Rescue Industry’s proper genre is tragi-comedy). I didn’t speak for 23 hours and 40 minutes, don’t worry.

There are now three videos on the Naked Anthropologist’s youtube channel.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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beach boys sex touristsBeach boys and women sex tourists: every journalist’s dream topic. A Swiss television reporter interviewed me about a documentary he was making, incorporating footage from Cowboys in Paradise, a film about Kuta Beach in Bali. I happened to be in Basel, nearly missing Catherine MacKinnon when the reporter contacted me, so he came into the room where I was giving a talk and interviewed me afterwards. Some bits of those are cut into this 11-minute television clip, and although most of the English and Indonesian are overlaid with German, the pictures are good and you can follow the narrative easily. Note especially the testimonies of two women: one is the young wife of a beach boy who feels okay about how he makes his money and the other is a young Swede who asks why she shouldn’t have whatever sex she wants.

Reporters want to know if the boys are ‘really’ prostitutes and why the girls are paying; they have trouble figuring out who is exploiting whom. It’s a bias, of course, to insist someone has to be exploiting since money and sex are involved, rather than seeing these as ordinary relationships, the kind that travelling people have been having since human life began. Some want to believe that women are morally better than men and therefore won’t pay for sex just because they have the money and freedom to allow them to fly to places like Bali and do it. I don’t think women have any moral traits as a class, and the fact that some like these breezy holiday situations the same way men do doesn’t surprise me. (That’s why I end up laughing during interviews like this – because to me what I am saying is just common sense not requiring any professorial analysis.) There’s a theory that women are more keen to be romanced than men, which I consider pretty silly since plenty of male tourists have stars in their eyes and are wound around the little fingers of those poorer women they are said to be exploiting.

Then some want to see these largely white-skinned women as racist, an interpretation I also don’t share, for the same reason: travellers like to meet others who seem interesting and different; they like to talk, drink, eat, dance, tour and have sex with them. That’s banal. In such situations, travellers often can and are willing to pay for their fun, and since I don’t see having sex as different from those other activities I’d have to condemn travel itself if I am going to condemn the sex. Unless people are wanting a condemnation of global economic inequalities that mean the beach boys don’t have lots of other great ways to make money: well, fine, I condemn that. But please note that the boys interviewed here find pleasuring tourists a lot easier and more fun than other jobs. And that they don’t see themselves as sex workers or as prostitutes; no professional identity need attach to ambiguous relationships. Is this all the erotic side of imperialism? I guess so. But we are all caught up in it; there is no perfectly clean place to stand; telling people to stay home is no solution, whether they are tourists or migrants.

Other stories about sex tourism here.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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kthi win plenary awid istanbul 2012I am Kthi Win from Myanmar and I am a sex worker. I manage a national organisation for female, male and transgender sex workers in Burma and I am also the chairperson of the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers. Until now, organising anything in Myanmar has been very difficult. People ask, How did you set up a national programme for sex workers? And my answer to them is Our work is illegal. Every night we manage to earn money without getting arrested by the police. We used to work and organise together, so we use this knowledge in order to work out how we can set up the National Network without making the government angry.

This is the opening of Kthi’s plenary speech last Saturday at the AWID conference in Istanbul; at the end Kthi asked those in the hall – 1500-2000 – to stand and repeat with her Sex work is work! Most people did what she asked; no one protested. I presume hard-core abolitionists chose to stay away from this session. You can listen to Kthi’s speech, too.

laura agustin awid 2012

Photo by Debolina Dutta

I was at this event most of last week, part of a group promoting a vision of sex work, migration and feminism that emphasises agency, the state of being in action, taking power, making decisions even when presented with few options. We overtly challenged the reductionist, infantilising ideology that has come to dominate mainstream policy and faux journalism (like The New York Times’s) by attending many sessions and commenting.

I spoke at Don’t Talk to Us About Sewing Machines, moderated by Meena Seshu from SANGRAM in Sangli, India. Wi from Empower spoke first about her research into the state of sex work in Thailand; then she showed the film Last Rescue in Siam, which makes fun of police raids on bars where people are harmlessly singing and drinking. Dale from APNSW then showed a clip from a raid in India that shows sex workers physically resisting police ‘rescue’.

Rebekah Curtis of TrustLaw reported the session in The Word on Women – Anthropologist slams raids “rescuing” sex workers, and I am glad she reproduced these words of mine:

Large amounts of money go into these programmes to rescue people who in many, many, many cases do not want to be rescued, she said, adding that many women choose sex work as a preference to jobs such as domestic work.

We’re talking about the ability to recognise that someone else can make a different decision from your own about her economic or mental or emotional empowerment, she added. That if you want to rescue someone you need to know very well first what it is that they want before you rush in to help them.

I hope our interventions in this very large international women’s event have been worthwhile: one never knows.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

 

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