Myopia and The Sex Sector: Looking deeper into the Root Causes of Prostitution

by Susan Ozawa, Manila, Philippines, August 1998

In light of the current economic crisis in Asia, a sector of the labor population that will indefinitely be affected is the female sector. Due to social and cultural norms, oppressive systematic structures, and aggravated desperate economic conditions, women, who make up two thirds of the labor force world-wide, will face even greater discrimination and will be vulnerable to exploitative conditions in the struggle to support their families. Historically, women have carried much of the brunt of the world’s labor, yet have reaped very little owning less than 10 percent of the world’s resources. Capitalism uses sexism as well as racism to legitimize the exploitation of a large sector of the world for the maximum profit of those very few that own the means.

Prostitution is one of the most obvious and manifest ways in which women are exploited by men due to the unequal relations created by differences in race, class, gender and nationality. In analyzing the sex industry, therefore, one must begin by analyzing all of the factors that create a market for women’s bodies to be sold. Theorists and activists alike strive for answers to the issue of prostitution as an exploitative system where women’s rights go unprotected, yet the discourse often only takes into consideration economic factors, not the social, political, or systematic forces creating this market.

Methodological limitations exposed

In a recent publication of the International Labor Organization edited by Lin Lean Lim entitled The Sex Sector, the same oversight is made in analyzing prostitution, exclusively as an economic system. For many women’s non-governmental organizations, The Sex Sector was a disappointing piece and failed in its attempts to unmask the true face of prostitution and to pose solutions to this world wide issue. This report was problematic and misrepresentative due to the lack of considerations made by researchers who collected non-comprehensive data, gathered without sensitivity to considerations in interviewing, and used this small, select pool of interviews to represent the face of prostitution internationally.

The sectors they chose to use as sample pools to represent the whole picture of prostitution in Thailand were women from what they call the “rural brothels” and the “Bangkok massage parlours”. In the one paragraph explaining how the data was gathered it seemed to boast their figures stating, “All 48 women working in the sex establishments during this five-day gathering period were interviewed” (page 143), without considering the affects of this rapid fire interviewing. Later in the chapter conclusions were made on the women’s demographic characteristics, the work experience of the women, as well as their entry and job mobility, their incomes and expenditures, the role of the industry gatekeepers, the health and medical attention, all posed as representative of the sex industry in Thailand. No attempt was made to qualify their information or include a disclaimer that should have noted (a) the subjectivity of interviews, (b) the role of the interviewer, including the gender of the interviewer, and the circumstances under which the interviewing was conducted and, (c) the limitations of serial interviewing.

Let us consider an instance where a woman in prostitution is requested by her pimp or madam to be interviewed by a person she has never met, who, for the sake of discussion, is cold academic type whose questions seem probing and insensitive to the situation the woman is in. He or she asks to speak to the woman in prostitution for fifteen minutes in which time he/she asks the woman to explain why she is a prostitute, immediately forcing her to defend her situation as a personal choice. What form will her answers take? Are they probably the most accurate they could have been under different circumstances? Should 48 interviews just like this be used to represent all women in prostitution, worldwide?

Although this is the worst-case-scenario for interviews with women who have absolutely no reason to disclose information about their lives to a complete stranger, The Sex Sector makes no attempt to reassure the reader that the information presented is qualified, representative, a considerate and sensitive to these conditions before plunging into theoretical analysis of the findings. The reader is left to trust that these rapid fire interviews were conducted with utmost sensitivity to the interviewee, recognizing, still that only two sectors of the industry were explored. These two forms of prostitution were selected out of a spectrum of sectors listed as, “traditional brothels, hotels and motels, tea houses, massage parlors, call-girl and escort-girl services, bars, cocktail lounges, restaurants, public places (street walkers) and . . . gold clubs, discos, pubs and members’ clubs” (page128). Without giving voice to the most exploitative sectors in Thailand like street walkers or women who had been trafficked, their data is lacking and cannot attempt to be used to make conclusions on all persons in prostitution.

Consequently, the conclusions based on this data were also inconsistent and made no attempt to consider their findings as perhaps biased. The report is filled with inconsistencies in assertions and disparities in the findings and conclusions. For example, the lack of reported violence and reported high wages may have been skewed due to accountability to employers or because the woman was downplaying the conditions to justify why she remains in the prostitution industry.

Voluntary or not: a contradictory discourse

The book makes another sweeping conclusion, claiming, “The majority of respondents voluntarily became prostitutes mainly to support family members” (page 151) attaching the word “voluntarily” to circumstances the women may not have labeled “voluntary” themselves. Then, the text goes on to state, “In summary, women working in brothels or massage parlours generally entered the sex industry at a young age” (page151). According to the latter part of the book that goes to great lengths to establish that all children entering prostitution are violated, exploited and do not have the capacity to make this kind of sexual choice for themselves, the term “voluntary” prostitution would not apply to the majority of these women. Another subjective conclusion was that the women in prostitution had not considered other professions, “either because they were happy in their work or because they had no wish to do anything else” (page 156). In this context it would be important to put the “happy” in quotation marks if those were the chosen words of the respondents or to use less biased wording if the conclusion on the women’s emotional states was made by the interviewer.

The reported “high” wages of the women in the massage parlours and the brothels were averaged wages and the conclusion was, “Remittances from the women working in the sex industry therefore provided families with a relatively high standard of living” (page 157). This is an irresponsible statement, assessing prostitution as a lucrative profession on the basis of self professed wages compiled and averaged from only two sectors of the sex industry, one of which is one of the most lucrative and best paid sectors of women prostitution. Even if these wages were not exaggerated due to the woman defending and justifying of her situation, these figures are still non-representative of all of the sectors. Furthermore, the conclusion that these women have a high standard of living without once discussing the conditions of their work or if they were subject to violence or demeaning and harmful conditions defines the standard of living within a purely economic dimension. Again, the subjective definitions of what constitutes low or high standard of living, national let alone international context of standards. In other words, Lim Lean’s “high” is questionable.

Still, more conclusions based on the data do not take power dynamics into consideration. In the reported use of condoms, the authors correlated the education of the women and their awareness of STDs and sex in general to the lack of use in different sectors. They didn’t consider the women’s lack of choice in this matter in the two different types of establishments or the right demand this of a customer.

In the chapter following the chapter on Thailand, Lin Lean Lim goes to great lengths to illustrate the differences between child vs. adult prostitution stating, “child prostitution differs from – and should be considered a much more serious problem than – adult prostitution” (page 170). She highlights the exploitative and horrendous conditions of child prostitutes who are streetwalkers or have been trafficked, comparing these findings with the interview findings of massage parlor and brothel workers. Because no women who were streetwalkers or women who had been trafficked were given a voice in the data, her conclusions and disparities drawn were false, or at the very least inconclusive.

On a more practical level, this model of creating hierarchies of oppression only normalizes the injustices done to one exploited group as acceptable in comparison to other similarly exploited groups. This kind of comparison is anti-progressive, especially if the root cause of the sexual exploitation is the same in both cases, as she states herself, “Child prostitution is very much part and parcel of the commercial sex sector . . .Most child prostitutes are also part of these organizational structures and arrangements” (page 178).

Child vs. adult: disjointed dichotomy

The disparities that she draws between what she deems “child ” and “adult” prostitution are not as cut and dry and binary as she presents them. One example is her opening definition of the prostitution of children differentiating from adult prostitution because, “The basis of the exploitation is the unequal power and economic relationships between the child and the adult” (page 171). This statement infers that powered dynamics do not exist between men and women and that there is complete equality in formal and informal relations between men and women. This is one of the many ways that Lim negates the larger systematic structure in which prostitution plays a role, thus never considering sexism, gender inequality, discrimination and misogyny.

Lim also dichotomizes the rights of women versus the rights of children, drawing lines through the ambiguity of childhood and adulthood. She presents the horrifying aspects of the sex industry and its effects on children, but turns a blind eye to the effects of prostitution on women. The human rights violations inherent in prostitution are deemed a “choice” after childhood. She sites, “A study of street children drawn into prostitution found that many had been raped, initially when they were working in restaurants or factories, or as domestic maids” (page 176). And that “child victims suffer extreme physical, psychological, and emotional abuse which have life-threatening consequences . . .Case-studies and testimonies of child victims speak of a trauma so deep that many are unable to enter or return to a normal way of life” (page 177).

But according to a study presented at an American Psychological Association meeting in August 1998, interviewing “475 prostitutes in five countries -the United States, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey and Zambia . . . 62 percent reported being raped, 73 percent said they had been assaulted and 68 percent said they had been threatened with a weapon. . .67 percent met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 8/20/98). Since these conditions reflect the whole system of prostitution, why is the abuse acceptable for women and appalling only for children? Why would a system that has the potential of traumatizing one so deeply that they are scarred for life, be a lucrative profession once one reaches the age of 18?

The most glaring inconsistency in Lim’s chapter attempting to differentiate child from adult prostitution, is the concept of the age differential. She states herself, “A survey of prostitutes in brothels found that nearly one-fifth had started work between the ages of 13 and 15” (page 172). Case studies like Women’s Education, Development, Productivity and Research Organization’s (WEDPRO) find that most women in prostitution enter as minors. Survivors will attest to the conditions remaining the same before and after their eighteenth birthday and that it wasn’t a conscious decision to remain in prostitution; simply a continuation of what they had known their whole lives. Lim herself recognizes the cycle of prostitution as being passed down from woman to child, but again, fails to recognize this as a systematic problem that affects both women and children who eventually become adults when she states, “adults could choose sex work as an occupation” (page 211). With this arbitrary divide, she completely ignores the nature of sexual exploitation and minimizes the deep trauma that children carry into adulthood.

An unjust solution: legalization

Lin Lean Lim’s solution to prostitution is implicit and explicit legalization for “adults” and harsher laws against procurers of children, once again not recognizing the causes of this system. Lim’s proposed solutions rest on the tenet that women can “freely choose sex work.” Even while acknowledging that, “A significant proportion [of women in prostitution] claimed they wanted to leave sex work if they could” (page 213). Lim’s argument that this is an economic choice for women and therefore must be recognized as legitimate work misrepresents the voices of these women – and trivializes their dreams of living prostitution.

Indeed, one may venture to ask how “free” are women who feel they cannot leave their occupation? If there are absolutely no real economic alternatives being offered by societies and states for women to choose from, is this last resort a free choice? In the end, she fails to make the connection between prostitution and the larger picture of the systematic oppression and unequal treatment of women recognize it as problematic. Under these circumstances, “freely choose sex work” is an oxymoron. Does one “freely choose” exploitation because of lack of alternatives due to a combination of racial, class and gender discrimination or is this obviously a symptom of inequality? If this is an unequal, discriminatory and exploitative system, the legalization of prostitution would simply institute into law the status of women as second class citizens.

Lim proposes this legalization in order to apply labor codes and to protect the women in prostitution by law but she never explores how this would be instituted. For example, could laws against sexual harassment or gender discrimination be applied to prostitution? If these laws could not be applied, certain labor laws would go negated in order to perpetuate the industry. This being the case, by labor laws, this industry is exploitative and discriminatory, not lucrative or legitimate.

Although in her closing remarks Lim states, “Social programmes must address both the root causes and the consequences of prostitution” (page 222), her analysis failed to do so, as she completely avoids the systematic oppression of women. The cop-out, despite her claim to affinity with women, is unmasked when she states dismissing on the prospect of a real solution, “given that the economic and social foundation are not easy to change, the sex sector is not going to disappear in the foreseeable future” (page 213), insinuating that the problem is too large to tackle. The same “tolerant” sentiments have been expressed of almost every oppressive system since the beginning of time, up to and including slavery. But as we learn from history there was a long hard struggle to end slavery but the battle was fought and won despite the impossibility of odds and economic gain.

One of the reasons this problem seems overwhelming is because Lim failed to seriously grapple with the root causes of prostitution, limiting her analysis of the larger systematic picture to one sentence that casts off the possibility of change. Without comprehensive analysis, she is a nearsighted doctor attempting to cure the symptoms of a larger disease. She will continue to scratch her head as new symptoms arise out of an old problem, but those who have the courage to address the systematic oppression of women due to race, class, nationality and gender, despite its totality, will come closer to a true solution to the problem of prostitution.

Recognizing the root causes creating the market for the sale of women and children’s bodies for the consumption of men, is only the first step. The struggle against sexism and inequality is as multifaceted as the problem itself and requires both short and long term remedies. Direct assistance and support must be given to the women and children in prostitution. Counselling, health care, education and skills development training should be offered to women and children in prostitution. But the solutions to prostitution should not stop at the individual level of the woman or child herself, the issue must be exposed publicly as the injustice that it is. The women and children should not be stigmatized by laws that incriminate them; the customers, procurers, pimps and brothel owners should be criminalized for capitalizing off of women inequality and children’s vulnerability.

Some would go as far as to say that the world needs a face lift, to change the way that women are perceived, as sexual objects and as second class citizens. This would require, in the long term, education on gender inequality and gender sensitivity training for all those in positions of authority that mandate over women’s lives, as well and children and teenagers who are in their formative years of absorbing values.

The solutions require a leap in imagination, a creative re-ordering of what can be and will be. But without addressing the root cause of prostitution they do nothing but perpetuate patriarchy, limiting our scrutiny of the system of prostitution to justification of exploitation to a simple matter of economics.

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