The Age of Women Who Sell Sex: Does Kristof lie? What about the children?

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

36 thoughts on “The Age of Women Who Sell Sex: Does Kristof lie? What about the children?

  1. Sexworker Marc

    The legal age of sex and of sex workers is in my view a typical border problem similar to moral borders (“where to draw the line?”) and condensed matter borders like zoneing borders of sex work areas (space AND timing), migration borders … not fundamentally different to immaterial borders as social class distinctions or invisible career ceilings for women or other marginalized people.

    I wish with your thoughtful arguments the discourse can be rationalized, but fear that the problem always will stay emotionalized and being a hot field of activity for activists, propagandists and want-be saviours. Because it is related to sex, emotion, identity, political power and propaganda (as business, money, existence;).

    As you already mentioned in sex biz there are to opposing tendencies: one to instrument youth following some sexual-biological instincts and market laws (biologism of youth, business with pedophiles/lolitas, intergenerational sex, Pygmalion effect) and in society the prevailing antagonistic force is to protect minors, construct childhood as stage of learning, conditioning and preparation for the following industrialized corporate work process (classist capitalism/imperialism).

    Let’s see if we can bring the debate to a higher level based on evidence. There we hope to dialectically solve the antagonism, when we are able to proof that in a (sexual) mature or relaxed society the social phenomenon of child abuse is not so much existing but was vastly exaggerated.

    Anyway, my fear is that crusaders will always be around, independent from the cause and we should look into the psychology of crusaders as well as paedophiles, why does our society create these “archetypes” in higher numbers. How to heal society and people by dis-traumatizing, emancipation, helping with coming-out and consensual sexuality. I believe that exactly is the domain of us sex workers and is the second professionally issue next to research and enlightenment.

    The emotional base of the anti-sex/prostitution crusaders often are their own “dirty” thoughts or unsatisfied sexual urgings, being projected onto our communities or profession. That is why no heart-to-heart human dialogue is possible up to now. As in prostitution itself, it’s about power/money and sexual release.

  2. yume

    I wonder if the author would like to see her onw kids in prostitution and if she would prostitute herself.This article is insane,instead of helping children to have a real future in third world countries,she is justifies the abuses,that´s typical of a white women from the first world,who has zero emphaty for other women and never try to learn about the cruel sexist culture we have in Asia countries.

    “As in prostitution itself, it’s about power/money and sexual release.”

    If that is true,so tell me whay so many of us,women,fight for better jobs and spend so many time in universities? we all could be prostitutes,right?Tyypical sexist speech defending male privileges for abuse women and children,totally out of reality.

      1. Ingrid Nevin

        Laura, I would deeply appreciate your thoughts on how to respond to such questions in general! (would welcome others’ comments too)
        I used to work as an escort for a number years but I am staying in the closet about that. In public, under my real name, I can only be an ally.

        And as I am turning my life towards increased activism and sex work related research, I expect such questions to start coming up. I think your response here is wonderful, but if someone then follows through with a “well, have you?” I would not dare to say the truth that I have… This likely has been a huge emotional obstacle for me in becoming more active.

        1. laura agustin Post author

          If you mean is there a way to ‘win’ an argument framed like that – there isn’t. In talks I give sometimes I decide to tell because I don’t mind and then it was on my initiative. Questions put like yume’s don’t deserve answering as anything I said would just cause another thoughtless attack. If I say yes I was a prostitute she’d say I was elite. If I say yes I was a street prostitute she’d say but you are ‘white’ so it doesn’t count. If I say my daughter is a sex worker she’d say I am a pimp. This is all argumentation, tactics to keep distracting the conversation from where I want it to be. At her event and blog she can have it her way; at mine I answer only the relevant questions.

          1. Maxine Doogan

            The issue of who speaks and how our words are extrapolated or exploited to generalize everybodys experience or in the case of the haters justify the continue to oppression of our speech but those they say they ‘serve’ or ‘advocate’ for.
            I believe the common ground is to pass anti discrimination legislation to provide protection in housing, employment, education, child custody, financial and harassment to remove the opportunity to be retaliated against for speaking out.

            That said, I wish that current and former workers would stop with promoting false and misleading information as well about things we don’t know about. Every time I hear those who speak out say things like, ‘yeah trafficking is a problem but’, without providing any first hand definition to what ‘a problem’ too is as irresponsible. Statements like, of ‘we all know its going on’, really? Who has first hand experience with witnessing ‘it’? Or being directly involved in ‘it’? I bring this up because everybody who restates the anti’s position of ‘its a problem’, has yet say they’ve ever seen ‘it’. So they never really know what they’re talking about. I mean here we are, the actual workers, trying to get our foot in the door to talk about whats important to us a nobody really wants to listen to that but we’re always quoted with sentences that start out…” yeah that trafficking is a problem…”

          1. Laura Agustín

            I never heard this metaphor before but I like it. Do I look like a multi-coloured clown-animal with streamers flowing from my ears or as if I’m about to explode??

          2. Vicky deStephano

            Laura, I’ve gotten run out of a feminist group for advocating for women who choose sex as their work. The discussion always goes to the ones who are victimized. As if, arguing for a persons right to decide their lifestyle or how they will put food on the table is the same as arguing for enslavement and exploitation.

            When I continued, my race became an issue and I was spoken to as though I didn’t have tough experiences growing up. I did. Then, it is the tough experiences that annul my thoughts and opinions. Now who is the exploiter and the exploited?

            I believe that it is only possible to give 1st person thinking on these topics. Winning the argument isn’t the goal. Discussion is the goal.

  3. Sexworker Marc

    Well done yume,

    you seem to deliberately wanted to misunderstand the texts. Or do you just wanted to say hello with you short note, we anti prostitution folks do monitor this site?

    1.) “Do you want to see your kids in sex work?”

    Yes and no! All parents want of course the best of their children. (With children I do not mean little kids, who should be with her mother… but minors who may drive motor bikes, have work contracts, shoot with weapons or go on holiday travel their own…) If you ask parents do you want your child be a solder in Irak, parents will usually say: no, if you think of war. I do not want them in a deadly battle, but if they can make a career serving the army and state in a safe position (theory of deterrence), than it may be a good choice for a better life or our next family generation and the army may pay for your university. Same with prostitution. If you conceptualise it as unsafe and violence (or even rape which it is not, since per definition it is a contract and hence not exploitation or slavery per se, although that may happen as in domestic work or even marriage;), then certainly you want them not to become sex workers. But if you see the great chances for money, independence and flexibility and when safer-sex-worker places in women led fair brothels are available in countries where sex work is not criminalized or sex workers are not hunted like in the US or in the streets, then it can become a valid choice to finance college or single motherhood or migration. Life is always about choice. Exploitation in prostitution -exaggerated in the corporate media for commercial reason- is only widespread possible, because people stigmatize and society criminalise.

    2.) anti-prostitution fight is anti freedom of sexual expression and therefore patriarchal

    If you conceptualize anti-prostitution crusade as emancipatory for women liberation, than you are right. But that is a very idealistic, moralistic or fundamentalist stance and the experience of many sex workers and in this prostitution research blog here, information is given that prohibition of prostitution is more about something else e.g. a power game between classes, inter-women competition (the virgin or lover vs. the whore or slut) or between cultures (e.g. the raw natural sexual expression vs. the cultivated society which generates sublimated arts and capitalistic production including helper and rescue industry. Since the fight against prostitution is often executed by males with near pimp attitude, who may have high standing with women of society, in their performance already an sublime heroic/erotic aspect is present which render them favourable patriarchs.

    Many of us do sex work just for that what you mentioned, to get a college degree. Sure, sex work is not a recommended choice for all women, boys and transsexual. Explore yourself before you indulge in a risky profession. However it is our sex worker’s individual fight against the patriarchal limitations of (women) carers and women in sex work wish to have supporters in other women and not enemies and anti-prostitution fighters.

    Sorry a blog post usually has to few words to line out all nuances for a real waterproof argument, especially if it finds a reader with opposing world views. We work on it.

  4. jane whatsername

    Thanks Laura, another great article. Kristof gives me the chills.

    To the person asking if the author would like their own kids to be prostitutes…. let me say this: Us prostitutes ARE someones kids. There is no ifs or buts about it. Your question is so selfish and short sited… just because you oppose prostitution you think your kids wont be sex workers? Or it only matters if the kids are yours or someone you knows? Cos here is the thing:

    I have parents and people who love me. Its not a rhetorical question, I can tell you what they think. Whether or not my family and loved ones love my job or not, none of them want me to be exploited, hurt or in jail. Therefore my parents and those who love me, support mine and sex workers rights.

    If my parents supported criminalising sex work they would be campaigning to put their own child in jail. If they supported the closing down of craigs list and other sites where I can independently and anonymously advertise my own services in my own ways, then they are reducing my choices and my ability to work for myself in this industry rather for a boss… (or pimp might be the word you understand better). If my parents saw me as a victim and encouraged others to see me in the same way, they would be increasing the stigma and discrimination I face every day.

    So you see, if your kids were actually prostitutes (and you were lucky/open enough that they told you about it), maybe you’d be saying different things.

    Or do you actually only care about the people who are not yet sex workers… and are encouraging others to sacrifice the tainted whores for the sake of yours and other non hookers moralities?

    Own your believes and please leave my parents out of this.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      Focusing on the parents is interesting. The question ‘would you want your children to be’ assumes that parents are supposed to control the whole development of their children. Any idea of autonomy and independence, complete with having to disappoint parents, is gone. It’s as though the children were objects possessed by parents.

      1. Aspasia

        Exactly. And just as people like yume deny the autonomy and independence of sex workers, they also deny it of children and adult children– which is why it is so easy for prohibitionists to infantilize children. In the dim-witted attempt to put us on the line and make us “reconsider” our position, prohibitionists reveal themselves as the authoritarians they are.

        1. Laura Agustín

          Authoritarianism is a good way to put it: the impulse to impose ideology and strict categories of people and activities. The zero-tolerance mindset. The anything-goes kind of attack, as though we were approaching armageddon.

      2. Wu Chen

        Two quick things:

        It is likely that Singapore raised the legal age of prostitution (a silly move, actually reducing protection for 16- and 17- year olds engaged in the industry; but to my mind, acknowledged as such by the Government with their rather tongue-in-cheek announcement as I recall it) in response to pressure from the West and a need to appear to be making the right political concessions to said West.

        The other point worth remembering is that here in at least some parts of SE Asia, there is a strong view of children as effectively the property of their parents until such time as they achieve adulthood. In some groups, this can be as late (or as early) as when they marry. Singapore is no exception to at least her neighbours Malaysia, Brunei and large parts of Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan (I can’t speak to the rest of Indonesia or the rest of SE Asia) in that while the rhetoric would have you believe this has changed, it takes a lot longer than a few fancy political speeches and couple of generations to change deeply ingrained traditions and attitudes.
        The law in Malaysia in fact does treat children as the property of their parents, ascribing them no real rights beyond that. The Women’s Centre for Change and their allies have done a tremendous job in moving towards rectifying that situation, but it’s an uphill battle. While pushing a spiky, oiled rock that’s on fire.

        Recent devastating court rulings in Malaysia on sexual assault and domestic abuse cases have revealed just how little has, in fact, changed.

        That is not to say that we all publicly and knowingly subscribe to this view, or that it’s even a majority view anymore, but deeply held cultural elements are precisely that – deep… and insidiously hard to recognize even when brought to light.

        The case could be made that it’s no different anywhere, just that we’re more… er… forthright? about it than in, say, the US?

        1. Laura Agustín

          I don’t see nations as discrete autonomous places or bodies, avoid essentialism about them and am not worried about their ‘sovereignty’. In fact I am glad everyone’s sovereignty has been compromised by globalisation, whatever that means. In the present context, with the US pressuring everyone to pass laws it likes on trafficking, it’s highly likely that countries comply, just to avoid difficulty and keep up lucrative alliances.

          About children as property you might call it forthrightness in Asia and hypocrisy in the west, but there isn’t a lot of difference in parents’ sense that they own/are responsible for their children.

  5. jane whatsername

    Also, just on the half the sky scenario and whether its real or kristof is lying or not… through my hooker lense i guess neither.

    I think Nicholas bought himself the ‘rescue fantasy’. For the sweet price of $2000 or however much it was, he got to have a pretty sex worker in a Kolkata brothel role play a wide eyed pretty victim and he got to enact his undying (i wish it would die) fantasy where is the knight in shining armour.

    I dont know about currency and conversation rates and the price of roleplays in brothels in India, but I hope that price included a fee for him to use his hard on stories in his wank fest books.

      1. jane whatsername

        page 38 of half the sky, first sentence of the chapter ‘rescuing girls is the easy part’ he writes this (direct quote):

        “we became slave owners in the 21st century the old fashioned way: we paid cash for two slave girls and couple of reciepts. The girls were then ours to do with what we liked”

        and he goes on to say that he bought one ‘girl’ for $150 and another for $203.

        sorry, but im not sure kristof even has any concept of the term ‘ethical’

    1. Sexworker Marc

      Jane, that what you describe can be the driving psycho energy pattern behind helper industry and anti-prostitution crusaders and I have similar feelings and analysis.

      But describing it as Kristof’s reality of activism and intervention to help victims in prostitution ghettos like Sonagashi is one step to far I think. Without further hint to evidence or proof, that is crossing the line towards an ad hominem attack and reinforcing the antagonistic war against us.

      It will undermine the ability that some benevolent and not fundamentalist helpers can be in solidarity with us sex workers and sex work activists and researchers, which they pretend to help. I still believe that in a public arena we can convince people to work jointly together for safer sex work and fighting abuse or enslavement… Let’s build argumentative bridges.

      1. jane whatsername

        like i said… when i read his book and that chapter in particular, its the scene i imagined to be happening… he went in to the brothels posing as a client… sooo i really dont think its a stretch too far to say that he was treated like one…. and when a clilent comes to my workplace asking for a schoolgirl… i put on my schooldress and call him sir and take his money, that doesnt mean i go to any school………

        anyways, i didnt say it ws true… i said it was my guess…. im probably wrong. but its completely possible.

        1. Laura Agustín

          He didn’t pose as a client but does this stuff as a journalist. No reason to respect that more but his trips to these places are carried out with informants and cameras and the like, not with him posing as a client.

  6. J.S.

    The idea that sex with young sex workers is so much more abhorrent than sex with older sex workers is bunk. An adult with the functioning I.Q. of a fifteen-year-old can consent to sex, but not an actual fifteen-year-old. It’s not a physical issue either; midgets can legally consent to sex (think Bridget the midget).

    The real issue here is that, in western culture there’s a strain of thought that identifies young people as private property:”You can’t do that thing to my thing [child], it belongs to me!” This notion is then subsequently projected onto children in foreign lands–whom they do not know– and in turn the young sex worker is stigmatized for not conforming to their narrow definition of what a child is.

    To not condemn something is not the same as condoning it; these kinds of things often lie in a gray area. People want to paint everything with a broad brush (like Kristof is wont to do), and sometimes that just not possible. In any case, good post Laura.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      Aha, you’re saying what I just answered to Jane: young people as private property. Also somehow that children ‘owe’ their parents fulfillment of the parents’ own fantasies – this is very well known of course and common. One of the great challenges of parenting is letting go of children.

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  8. Laura Agustín

    Maxine, I feel the same when people wanting to make a rights argument first throw out the sop to traditional morals: ‘Of course children are different, slavery is terrible, of course we want to stop trafficking.’ All the stereotypes and confusing categories are just reproduced that way.

  9. Stacey Swimme

    It’s so problematic that these crusaders wants to say “what about the 12 y.o. whose parents sold her…” as some justification to demonize sex work; but they don’t make the more logical and purposeful connection that we have a problem of family-based child abuse on this planet and it is fueled by poverty, ignorance and desperation. Where are the multi-million dollar campaigns to end incest and child religious maltreatment? There are so many real problems for children that I would like to work toward ending rater than debate over manufactured crises.

  10. Vicky deStephano

    “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.”

    This is the right point in this article. When we are talking about forcing something to do something against their will, or treating any person as though they are chattel it is about force. It is quite another for an action to be a choice. Or, that choice to be temporary remedy for a bigger problem.

    1. Laura Agustín

      vicky, about your story from above (which the program is not letting me reply to) about being run out of a group for wanting to be able to talk about different kinds of people: find a different group, the old one is only interested in their own ideology, refining to make it perfect. real experiences that are messy do not fit ideologies, so the only migrants or sex workers they will want to meet are those who tell sad stories. very limiting – you are well rid of them!

  11. Adel

    I’m just dumbfounded by this website and this article. I’m reading “Half the Sky” now, which is full of child-prostituiton stories but about so much more. I hear you all prattling on here, speculating in the validity of Kristof’s working, hoping for a keyhole to discredit him in order to protect your livelihoods–fine journalism, real fine journalism there. You have a valuable commodity you want to sell, fine, go for it. But championing freedom to sell sex, you completely avoid discussing the reality that there are men and women out there holding women and girls captive by physical, emotional, or chemical restraints, harvesting their sexuality for their own profit. Is it worth it? Suppose the numbers are grossly inflated, and even a fraction of sex workers are Young girls kidnapped, raped, and beaten into offering their bodies to strangers–is it worth it? Wonder why your purpose doesn’t get more mainstream? You want the freedom to sell sex without interference? Then get over yourselves and campaign for those who truly ARE victims. Maybe YOU could help define that better than anyone else, instead of fighting so hard against those who honestly do want to help victims.

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  13. Russian Skeptic

    That is exactly the point! I have always wondered how mainstream feminists are against objectification of women but do not realize that they objectify children. Once I came across a discussion in “The Guardian” whose subject was children’s bikinis. Many angry ladies found improper ‘to sexualize’ children and suggested that sweet little girlies should bathe naked.
    Nobody asked the children, however. Nobody would ask whether a nine-year-old girl would agree to bathe naked. (From my personal experience, I and many other girls wanted to grow up and to wear a two-piece bikini as soon as possible).
    And a 14- or 15-year-old girl with boobs and menstruations is NOT a child. 200 years ago, she could be legally married. Nobody doubted her ability to raise her own children.


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