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