The skin trade by mattsteinglass
January 19, 2009, 10:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Abbas Raza, having just come back from a panel on the sex industry that included her idol, Gloria Steinem, asks:

Are all prostitutes coerced?

The answer is: no. I’ve never gone with a sex worker, but I have interviewed a couple of dozen in the course of researching articles on HIV, and most of those I’ve interviewed had entered the business voluntarily, out of economic necessity or a desire for greater earnings, and were not in coercive working arrangements at the time I interviewed them. My sample is skewed because I met many interviewees through sex workers’ empowerment organizations; I would imagine that many or most sex workers are involved in coercive relationships with pimps or madams. But even among sex workers I met by going into pickup bars or brothels and talking to them at random, most were in voluntary, non-coercive arrangements. I’ve been to one brothel, in Phnom Penh, where girls were clearly working under pressure; that was a horrible, sick place, and while I didn’t see anything violent, it fit the profile of the kinds of atrocious situations one hears about. I’m sure there are many, many, many such places all across Southeast Asia and the world.

But, the next night, I went into a pickup joint called “Martini Bar” and spent at least an hour speaking, in my lousy Vietnamese, with a 23-year-old Vietnamese woman named Huong who had come to Phnom Penh less than a year earlier, from her desperately poor village in Vietnam’s An Giang province, in order to work as a sex worker. In An Giang she hadn’t been tricking, she’d been working in rice fields and picking up seasonal jobs, and she’d been so poor you could see the legacy of childhood malnourishment in her face. For her, going to Phnom Penh was a decision she’d taken, a choice to make money the only realistic way she could. You can charge $20 a trick in Phnom Penh, she explained, where in An Giang you could only charge a dollar.

I talked to Huong at the bar, and after a minute a Vietnamese friend of hers came over, and the three of us sat down at a table while I bought them some dinner. It was a good, genuine conversation, the kind of interview that makes journalism feel rewarding, when someone who hasn’t had a chance to tell her story gets that chance, and starts laying it out excitedly. Huong had crossed over the Mekong, she told me, with a few dollars’ worth of Vietnamese dong in her pocket. She had to bribe the border guards to let her in, and hitch and walk her way up to Phnom Penh. She arrived in the city penniless, with nothing attractive to wear, she said. She knew nobody. And now here she was, a year later, with her own apartment, nice clothes, savings, money to send home to her parents every month. In her own eyes, she had taken an entrepreneurial gamble, and she’d made it work.

I am not comfortable writing about this. It’s a minefield. When I give credence to Huong’s own sense of pride in her achievements, it may look to the reader as though I am projecting onto her a sick male fantasy of the happy hooker. But I am confident that that’s not what happened in that conversation. I think Huong was genuinely proud, and I think that, at a minimum, I lack the expertise or standing to say that she shouldn’t be proud of it, or to hold out some other vision of how she might realistically have achieved something more worthy or less morally ambiguous. No, I don’t think Huong is representative of most sex workers; but I would be cautious about assuming anything about how “most” sex workers feel about themselves. And I don’t think it’s okay that the world is arranged in such a manner that Huong lacks any other realistic option for making a decent living. But here is what I would say: given that Huong does lack any other option, it would not do anybody any good to take that one option away from her by enforcing the laws against prostitution more stringently. And it might do Huong some good to let her practice that trade without legal harassment, since the kind of coercion she is most likely to experience would come from the police.

That said: what’s true in Cambodia is emphatically not true in the United States. The US has an economy in which girls and women have many realistic options for economic independence besides prostitution. The US has reliable, independent and non-corrupt legal systems and police forces. The US has a culture with, by world standards, highly egalitarian attitudes towards gender and towards individual rights. There are a certain number of women in the US who go into the various branches of the sex industry clear-eyed and freely, and they should be treated as adults. But there is no reason to let poor, poorly educated girls in the US be pressured into entering the sex industry — to let them get sucked into, in the immortal words of Tyra Collette on Friday Night Lights, “The Temple of Women with Low Self-Esteem”. We are a rich country with strong institutions, and we don’t need to treat our kids as if we were Cambodia.

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