Saturday, May 21, 2011

"Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt?"

While the tagline of Ken Silverstein's recent article in Slate is quite inflammatory and some of his comments thoughtless, the overall gist is that, given two awful alternatives, sex work in Cambodian seems to many young women the lesser of two evils. The reasons lie with both the horrible conditions that textile workers endure, and although Ken mentions a bilateral agreement between the US and Cambodia that was supposed to improve the conditions of workers in exchange for privileged access to American markets, he spills more ink arguing that conditions of the women working as prostitutes, bar girls, masseuses, and in other branches of the sex trade aren't that bad.

He takes to task Nicholas Kristof in a 2008 New York Times article for describing textile work as an "escalator out of poverty." Unfortunately, he doesn't seem concerned to scrutinize his own assumptions about sex work catering to sex tourists, once predominantly middle aged Western men but increasingly drawing from the booming corners of Asia, or reflect more deeply on the continuing colonial economic exploitation that creates this diabolic binary.

He dismisses as overblown the numbers of women trafficked for sex as the "hyperbolic, fundraising claims of anti-trafficking" groups and puts the number of trafficked women at 10 percent. From what orifice did he extract that estimate? Also, telling, he comments on the percentage of women trafficked for sex work but not for the also inhumane textile industry.

He plays a game all too familiar to audiences familiar with the debate with the arguments about porn in the United States. One of the oft-sung refrains against Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon's criticism of porn is that the women who perform in porn (or are prostitutes, strippers, escorts, and such) are not the hapless, abused victims of the radical feminist perspective. Rather, most are happy, healthy women with high sex drives who enjoy making money doing something they really enjoy. Unfortunately hard numbers are hard to come by. Both sides marshall a handful of examples (see Linda Boreman aka Linda Lovelace contra Nina Hartley) but do no statistical analysis.

Silverstein falls prey to the same fallacy, detailing prolifically his various encounters with sex work throughout the brief article. But rather than serving as a confession (see Foucault contra Albert Camus, _The Fall_), he recounts a self-serving trope narrative of white men saving brown women from brown men (and other white men) a la Spivak's _Can the Subaltern Speak?_ He asks to be dropped off at a corner but the driver takes him to the front door of an infamous sex club on the same block. Or how he went into a bar not looking for sex but was offered it proactively by the club owner. That she was attractive but not interested deflated his desire whereas less sensitive men might not have acted the same. Or how he bought off a young woman's bar fine so that she could go home early to rest. And he, being the noble white protector, declined her half-hearted invitation to company.

His few interactions with a limited number of women, none of who openly admits to being trafficked but shows more candor in answering "is this a good job?" (their answer? no), isn't enough to speak to the problem of human trafficking for sex work or otherwise in Cambodia. It also lacks any sound basis to discuss the problem of sex trafficking in other countries. While few women are probably trafficked into the Philippines, a substantial number are trafficked out of that island nation to stock the military brothels of Okinawa and the anything's a go-go sex district of Thailand. Or the problem of human trafficking out of former Soviet states like the Ukraine. Amsterdam decided not to continue to "let the good times roll" in it's internationally infamous Red Light district in part because of the problem of trafficking to fill the wild and woolly streets with young flesh.

Silverstein also makes much of the fact that, when asked, many girls say they aren't forced or pressured to have sex with clients, at least by anything more than poverty, desperation, and premium exchange rates. But the point isn't that all young women who work in the sex industry are trafficked or that all of them are beaten or abused to perform sex acts. It's not that there are no women in the sex industry who enjoy their work. Silverstein saves the harder question for last, quoting labor-rights activist Tola Moeun of Community Legal Education Center.
A lot of women no longer want apparel jobs... When prostitution offers a better life, our factory owners need to think about more than their profit margins.
The fight, really, is about changing the changing consumption patterns in the Western world. Nike, Aeropostale, JC Penney and others treat Cambodian garment workers the way they do to keep prices low and maximize profits by providing cheap goods to eager markets. He points out that the typical garment worker makes .3% of the total value of her labor to Western companies ($750 yearly in wages including overtime on already long, difficult hours in unsafe conditions to the estimated $195,000 in profit off the garments made by her).

But the pattern of consuming sex also has to be changed and there are many factors at work here. Economic and racial theories filtered through colonial views and a global sense of entitlement. The nearly universal disparity in men and women's wages and value of their work. Family planning, family responsibilities, child care... the list goes on.

Faced with unpleasant situations with no easy solutions, it's not uncommon to find people downplaying the seriousness of the harm to cope. Others try to spin the negative into a positive with selective use of facts (see the aforementioned Kristof article). But retreat and ignorance don't make the problems go away. They just make go away out of sight.

No, buying sex is not a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a t-shirt. The solution can't be easily compacted into clever phrases. It requires real work; the kind of work that can't be outsourced overseas to increase profit margins and keep product costs low. It requires sacrifice and restraint, putting what's right above what feels good, whether that by affordable jeans that fit or a comely young Cambodian woman draping herself around your neck and offering you a massage and boom boom for less than the cost of a fast food meal. Cheaper is not always better and that's true of jeans and human life & dignity.

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