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Lithium Decolonizing feminism: redefining sex work in non-Western terms

Aug. 6, 2020
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Last year, an organization at the University of the Philippines organized a talk on why sex work is work, causing a stir of discourse on Twitter. “The exploitation and objectification of women is never empowering,” said one user. The organization was criticized for its lack of intersectionality, failing to ground mainstream (largely Western) feminism in the local context.

I study sociology, psychology, and anthropology at the same university, and at the time my coursemates and I were all unsure of where to stand. We entered college already feminists; although, admittedly, only having learned about it on the internet. Online feminism taught us that it is work, and that many individuals enter sex work out of their own volition, for reasons that don’t even come close to exploitation. We agreed that it’s wrong to view sex workers as victims in need of rescuing, because their knowledge of their own experience and circumstance means they’re able decide for themselves. Besides, the sex workers we knew—those with platforms, like the talk’s guest speaker—were all advocating for sex positivity, something we all believed in.

But at the same time, we were learning about kinds of sex work that didn’t comfortably fit our initial perception of it. One of our professors recently published a paper on the rampant online sexual exploitation and abuse of children in the Philippines—our country being one of the top global sources for this kind of “service.” This usually involves sexual grooming or “online sexual enticement of children,” on-demand child sexual abuse in which perpetrators get children to perform sexual activities via webcam, and non-consensual sharing of sexually explicit photos. For a history class we learned about the Filipino comfort women, victims of sexual coercion and slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. 

We began to wonder: can the position of online, heavily Western feminism that we subscribed to be wholly applicable in the Philippines, where 60,000 to 100,000 of the half a million men and women involved in “sex work” are children? Where the history of prostitution has always been rooted in exploitation—from comfort women to the growing cyber sex and sex tourism industries that serve mostly Western clients?

“Sex work” is a very loaded phrase, and the problem begins with its use as an umbrella term. It can include activities that require no penetration or even physical contact, and every locality in every country has a unique sex industry—shaped by its own history, social and economic factors, and legal framework and enforcement. 

In some ancient traditions, women can be “born into prostitution” because it’s expected for the social caste in which they belong. While this is already mainly obsolete, echoes of it can still be seen in India and Nepal, where Devadasis (temple dancers) and Nautch girls (female court musicians) still follow the calling they “inherited.” In some rural communities in modern-day India, prostitution can be intergenerational, and daughters of prostituted women are expected to enter the industry as well.

Many Asian countries are perceived to be more patriarchal and morally conservative, so perhaps misogynistic social mores explain why sex industries are booming in the region. But aside from the demand being mostly Western, it was colonialism that caused the entrenchment of prostitution in these nations in the first place. Thailand became a recreation destination for American military men during the Vietnam War; its sex industry was exacerbated by the poverty that came with armed conflict. Now sex work is largely tolerated, partly because of the country’s strict adherence to Buddhist doctrine that places women below men, but mostly because the industry—sex tourism in particular—generates money. 

In 19th-century India, growing cases of syphilis among British soldiers caused colonial administrators to set up regulated areas for commercialized sex for British men, solely with Indian women. These women weren’t allowed to marry or change professions. Over time the country has built powerful sex-work collectives, and many Indian feminists are averse to rescue narratives. In 2003, when President Bush pushed for funding the global fight against AIDS with the condition that the beneficiaries sign an anti-prostitution pledge, Sangram, an organization distributing condoms in one of India’s rural red-light districts, returned the money. “Do you actually work with people, or do you give them morals? That was the choice,” said Meena Seshu, the organization’s director. 

In a study done in 2011 of more than 5,000 female sex workers in India, only 3% said they were forced into the industry, and only 10% said they freely chose it. The rest found themselves in between, citing reasons like poverty and debt or issues like domestic violence or desertion. While the most common motive for sex workers worldwide is money, this can still vary from survival to desire for wealth, and it’s these motives that affect the degree of autonomy a sex worker can afford. Similar to India, Chinese sex workers based in Cameroon find themselves in the same gray area. Many of them are rural women who moved abroad with jobs as waitresses or secretaries in tow, only to be trafficked into the sex trade as a payment for their plane tickets and visas. But when they found out they could earn more in sex work, they stayed. 

It does more harm than good to declare sex work as work on a global scale because the side of “sex work” that’s exploitative is bigger and more common. Empowered sex workers do exist, but they aren’t representative of everyone in the trade. Globally, sex workers who choose freely are in the minority; if they did have a choice, it’s between survival and starvation.

The language of choice is a fairly Western concept. When the feminism of the West—the same feminism that dominates online conversations—deems sex work a product of agency, it disregards the intersecting politics of gender, class, and race. In her book The Industrial Vagina, Sheila Jeffreys writes that the research backing this position was mainly confined to forms of sex work in the West, where some of the workers could be seen by “choice theorists” as having access to alternative streams of income. “Now, however, the use of liberal individualist language, and even rational choice theory, has been extended to describe the most impressively unlikely situations in the non-West.”

Choice is a privilege, and emphasizing autonomy as a major reason behind the proliferation of sex industries discounts the role that (largely male) demand and imbalanced power relations—in terms of gender, class, and race—play. Although it appears we’re free to make our own choices, the forces of oppressive systems are ultimately very limiting, and in an individualistic culture, we bear the weight of these constraints. “Agency and oppression are not in contradiction,” Jeffreys writes. Women are able to exercise the little agency they have under unjust social structures as a survival tactic, but this in no way equates to having a choice. The language of choice falters as soon as we realize that it is an illusion.

Sex work has always existed, but it only became socially acceptable in the late 20th century, when the rise of sexual freedom merged with free-market ideology—after all, anything is tolerated as long as it sits comfortably with capitalism. It entered the new millennium as a leading industry worldwide, and the trafficking of women has become crucial to many national economies. In countries like the Philippines and Thailand, sex tourism generates generous profit for hotels and airlines. Scotch-whiskey companies benefit so much from brothels and child prostitution in Thailand that they now help fuel it. Because profits go to those controlling the business rather than sex workers, the success of the sex industry in these countries only further disadvantages the women in the grassroots.

It can be so easy to misconstrue going against the “sex work is work” position as seeing sex workers as immoral, their work demoralizing. It’s important to be critical of the system, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of workers themselves. In many countries like the Philippines and Nepal, women are criminalized for soliciting sex for money, and globally the stigma has made it more difficult for sex workers to gain access to their needs. While it’s true that many people enter the sex industry because it’s the most accessible way for them to gain economic mobility, there are also those who simply prefer it over other types of work, for reasons as arbitrary as its flexible working hours. 

Similar to how the universal application of the term “sex work” should be questioned, our tendency to impose Western ideology on non-Western phenomena is something to rethink and unlearn. The internet’s ability to “bridge borders” as a global platform is often just the erasure of non-Western context; its universality actually just neocolonialism. Western ideas are useful as a framework, but the skeleton they provide quickly falters if placed inside somewhere it does not fit. 

That said, it’s undeniable that the sex industry is rapidly growing; once made aware of its history and how it exists in other, less spotlit countries, it becomes all the more important to protect its workers. We must advocate for safer environments for sex workers, including access to birth control and STD testing, as well as giving them a platform to voice their needs. But ultimately, it cannot be considered work unless everyone who works in the industry in any capacity is warranted the same safety, security, and ability to make informed choices. The liberation of the privileged few is as good as no liberation at all.