Asia's Dirty Secret.
Prostitution (Southeast Asia)
Sex oriented businesses (Supply and demand)
Travel industry (Advertising)
Child abuse (International aspects)
Pub Date:
Name: Harvard International Review Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Economics; Law; Political science Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2000 Harvard International Relations Council, Inc. ISSN: 0739-1854
Date: Summer, 2000 Source Volume: 22 Source Issue: 2
Product Code: 7752000 Prostitution SIC Code: 7299 Miscellaneous personal services, not elsewhere classified
Geographic Scope: Southeast Asia; United States Geographic Name: Southeast Asia Geographic Code: 1USA United States; 90SOU Southeast Asia; 00WOR World

Accession Number:
Full Text:
Prostitution and Sex Trafficking in Southeast Asia

While prostitution has an ancient history, the globalization of the sex trade is an unprecedented phenomenon. Despite recent exposure of the brutalities of prostitution and sex trafficking and the accompanying flurry of international and domestic resolutions, the sex industry in Southeast Asia remains a hugely profitable and deeply entrenched enterprise that thrives on the exploitation of women and children.

For Asian countries intent on reaching the developed world's level of prosperity, the sex industry has provided a disturbingly steady flow of capital. Approximately 60 percent of Thailand's tourists visit solely for sexual purposes, for example. The transnationalization of the sex trade can be seen easily in the countless travel brochures and websites devoted to prostitution and sex trafficking; these advertisements, urging a global clientele to explore Asia, boast of the submissiveness of Asian prostitutes, perpetuating stereotypes that enhance the trade.

Female prostitutes, many of them children, often begin in rural communities in Malaysia and are coerced into urbanized industries in the United States or Japan. Child prostitution in Southeast Asia continues to increase at 20 percent a year. One fifth of prostitutes in Thailand begin their work between the age of 13 and 15. The increases in prostitution and trafficking also partially explain the dramatic rise in sexually transmitted diseases, particularly HJV infections. In Thailand, approximately over 1.5 million women are afflicted with HIV. The UNAIDS Programme, warning that half of the HIV infections in Asia occur in people under the age of 25, argues that the AIDS epidemic in Southeast Asia will soon rival the situation in sub-Saharan Africa.

The United States has played a crucial role in the growth of the Southeast Asian sex sector. Although prostitution in the region certainly existed before, US presence in Korea and Vietnam propelled the explosion of large-scale, formalized businesses oriented specifically toward sex. The sex industry created during the Vietnam War grossed US$16 million for the Thai economy. Between 1957 and 1964, when the US established seven bases in the country; the number of prostitutes rose from 20,000 to an astonishing 400,000. At the time, one South Vietnamese explained, "The Americans need girls; we need dollars. Why should we refrain from the exchange? It's an inexhaustible source of US dollars for the state."

Following the war, the Thai government, like other Asian governments, was left with the challenge of replacing the capital garnered from the brothels surrounding the military bases. Part of the development strategy became a race among governments to utilize the most profitable resources they had to offer: young rural women desperate to raise money for their families. Women who escape sexual slavery or coercion may still choose prostitution because jobs for women are scarce and low-paying. This scarcity of other high-paying alternatives forces many of these women into a cycle of exploitation and susceptibility to sexually transmitted diseases.

Southeast Asian government policies concerning the sex sector are often characterized by ambiguity. They officially prohibit prostitution, yet acknowledge and legitimize its existence. In many cases, the police and local officials' corruption, bribery, and active participation as customers guarantee the abuse of prostitutes will go unpunished, hence eliminating any hope for the enforcement of legislation. The refusal of Asian governments to declare the sex industry an economic institution has pushed the sector underground. While prostitutes are vulnerable to battery as well as criminal arrest, an unstated code of immunity protects the brothel owners, abusive clientele, and pimps from government reproof.

Supply and Demand

The growth of the sex industry in Southeast Asia is not an accidental by-product of poverty. Rather, the increase in prostitution and trafficking is a result of a systematic strategy of economic development. Asian governments, conscious of the influential role the sex sector plays within the larger economy, neglect to enact specific policies to halt its growth. Often policemen and government officials are themselves customers wanting sexual favors; thus protecting and upholding the economic bases of prostitution and trafficking.

More disturbing is the growth of demand for younger women and child prostitutes. A 1996 UN report estimated that over one million children in Asia are victims of the sex trade. Many tourists and local visitors of brothels, mistakenly believing that younger prostitutes are less likely to be infected with HTV have increasingly sought child prostitutes. Ironically, because of this large demand, child prostitutes are actually more likely to be infected with HJV than adult prostitutes. The World Health Organization warns that child prostitution threatens public health because children possess an "increased biological vulnerability to STDs," and lack the "power in negotiating safe sexual behavior."

The notion that poverty alone causes prostitution ignores the ways in which globalization and economic development have shaped the growth of the sex sector. If widespread poverty were truly the cause of prostitution and trafficking, then the expansion of the sex sector should not occur in countries that are experiencing rapid economic growth. Rapid urban development and reduced agricultural employment, results of industrialization, have left rural dwellers with diminished local opportunities for subsistence. Women from destitute agricultural families are often coerced or sold by their families into sexual slavery, establishing a migratory pattern from the impoverished rural communities to the urban centers of the sex sector, often located in Japan or in the United States.

Yet, this "planned strategy" of development extends far beyond Asia's borders. The transnationalization of the sex trade is a unique phenomenon that highlights the sustained power of this enterprise and the extent to which women have been commodified. Moreover, the globalization of the sex trade is legitimized by the developed world's encouragement of Asia's so-called "tourism centers." In the 1970s the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the UN Development Program began approving substantial loans to Asian countries, urging them to raise capital by expanding their tourism and entertainment industries. Tourism became the most significant strategy of development. In Manila, for instance, the number of "hospitality women" issued with health certificates rose from 1,700 in 1981 to over 7,000 in 1986. Unfortunately, part of the development of Asia's tourist industry has been the growth of prostitution.

Permanent Industry

The demand for prostitution in Asia originated largely in the US military establishment. Until 1955, prostitution was mostly concentrated in rural areas. However, with the onset of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the United States helped establish the infamously brutal "Rest and Recreation" facilities to sustain the morale of American soldiers. Sexual exploitation of women from rural areas became rampant in "R and R." Extraordinary numbers of brothels and sex-entertainment centers originated from the demands of the military bases. Yet the end of military conflict in Asia failed to end sexual exploitation. Rather, the profits the sex industry reaped during the wars couple with the ease of luring or sometimes coercing women into the business solidified the sector's position.

The "rest and recreation" previously provided solely for American soldiers has been taken to a global scale. The clientele base reaches far beyond soldiers seeking refuge from the military aggression of the war. Economic progress cannot eradicate the existence of trafficking and prostitution. It merely increases the standards of "service" to accommodate higher living standards. For instance, Malaysia and Thailand, both of which are experiencing rapid economic growth, are moving away from brothels and massage parlors and instead are developing private clubs with more luxurious environments better suited to the growing middle class.

Asian governments perpetuate the cycle of prostitution by refusing to clarify their stance. Though prostitution is illegal in all Southeast Asian countries, local governments often license establishments such as massage parlors that are widely known to be fronts for prostitution. This pattern of declaring prostitution illegal while implicitly acknowledging its existence is pervasive throughout Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, for example, the government provides colored cards for women choosing to travel abroad to work as entertainers as proof that they are not infected with STDs. Such inconsistent policies magnify the difficulty in monitoring the underground sector. While criminalizing the prostitutes, the government absolves the traffickers, clients, and establishment owners of guilt. Such policies devalue the status of women and implicitly permit officials and police to harass the prostitutes. By lumping women into one conglomerate group of criminals, the governments perpetuate the stigmatization of wo men while failing to address the more likely suspects: the men who create the burgeoning demand for this multimillion dollar industry.

Lenses on Prostitution

Controversy over the highly publicized attempts of lobbyists to legalize prostitution continues to paralyze government policy. Rather than risk dealing with highly polarized views, governments instead have generally maintained ambivalent policies.

The lines between prostitution and trafficking and voluntary and involuntary prostitution often become blurred during the debate over legalization and decriminalization. Most policy suggestions simply refuse to draw distinctions. The "liberatory" approach, though, views sex work as a form of liberation for women and a contract between two consenting individuals. This framework neglects to acknowledge that "consent" is a foreign term for women and children first deceived and then enslaved into prostitution and trafficking. By glorifying the women's "choice" to work in the sex sector, this framework fails to see the ways in which poverty and sexism condition their roles and in which abuse and exploitation can characterize their experience.

Another perspective that is gaining ground in international diplomatic circles condemns all prostitution as sexual exploitation of women. This "radical feminist" framework identifies sexual objectification as the basis of patriarchy, and hence prostitution and trafficking are seen in the same light as domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, or pornography. Kathleen Barry, the founder of the Coalition Against Trafficking of Women, argues that the supposed free will exercised by the prostitute illustrates "decadence that elevates individual choice above the common good." Hence, advocates of this approach do not see voluntary prostitution as a form of work. Rather, their overriding goal, the immediate abolition of all forms of prostitution, is consistent with their interpretation of other forms of sexual objectification such as rape or domestic violence.

A third point of view, often called the "human-rights approach" or liberal feminist view, posits that prostitution should be recognized as work. However, this framework distinguishes voluntary prostitution from other sectors within the sex industry such as trafficking and coercion. Outlawing coercive forms of prostitution, eliminating establishments that promote trafficking, and cleansing the government of corruption can ensure that women's rights as voluntary workers are guaranteed. This approach decriminalizes prostitutes and shifts the blame onto the violators of human rights who have exploited the women's work. By recognizing voluntary prostitution as work, the human-rights framework calls for an improvement of workers' conditions and governmental guarantees of labor rights.

The radical feminist view criticizes the idea of "sex as work" as a legitimization of sexual exploitation. By banning only coercive forms of prostitution, the government is essentially normalizing a less explicit but equally brutal form of sexual exploitation. Yet, this perspective fails to understand the sex sector in the context of globalization. Many rural families, stripped of economic sustenance as a result of urbanization, depend on their daughters' work for their livelihood. Moreover, the radical feminist view denies women the ability to exercise their freedom. Many voluntary prostitutes perceive themselves not as victims, but as workers seeking to improve their economic conditions. Adopting a human-rights framework toward the sex trade is not an encouragement of "sex as work," rather, it merely hopes to protect women's rights in the short-term while the government encourages more high-paying jobs and offers better education to women. Eventually, the necessity of prostitution can be eradicated. The se x sector remains well-entrenched in the economic bases of Asia. While the complete abolition of prostitution may be an admirable long-term goal, its practicality in the short-term is questionable.

A Human-Rights View

The profitability of sexual abuse and the controversy over legalization explain the lack of coherence within a government's policy. It is crucial that policymakers address the different tiers of the sex industry separately. First, progressive policies should make the distinction between child and adult prostitution. The issue of child prostitution is more clear-cut because few would claim that "voluntary child prostitution" exists. The World Congress against the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children declared in 1996 that child prostitution "constitutes a form of coercion and violence against children, and amounts to forced labor and a contemporary form of slavery."

Second, policies should also distinguish prostitutes who work voluntarily from those who are coerced or deceived into working. For the prostitutes who freely choose their occupation, guaranteeing them the right to organize collectively and safeguarding their labor rights represent the beginnings of political change. For those coerced into prostitution or deceived into trafficking, policies should focus on criminalizing the abusers rather than the women and on reintegrating these victims into society. Of course, a clear line between volunteerism and coercion is difficult to draw. An adult can choose to be a prostitute because of desperate impoverishment or familial obligation, or because few economic opportunities exist. Hence, government attention to impoverished communities and increased education within rural areas concerning the deceptive tactics of the sex industry are necessary.

Within the legal realm, the decriminalization of prostitution is the most crucial route to ending sexual abuse and dismantling the underground structures. The decriminalization of prostitution should not be confused with the decriminalization of the institutions that perpetuate it. Rather, the decriminalization of prostitution would end the targeting of women as the offenders of the law and shift the blame to the exploitative traffickers and establishments. The fear of criminal arrest needlessly pushes many abused women to the underground sector, where the cycle of abuse is even more unaccountable and hence even more brutal. Studies have found a direct correlation between the extent of violence against the prostitutes and the level of illegality of the work. Prostitutes in nations with less restrictive policies such as Sweden and the Netherlands are more likely to report battery and violence. Conversely, the more prohibitory and stigmatizing policies of the United States or Southeast Asia intensify women's f ears of arrest, compelling them to silence and invisibility. Prohibition also poses a public health threat because prostitutes, fearing arrest, often choose not to access sexual education and health services. Government policies should eliminate the focus on prostitutes as the disseminators of disease. The human-rights framework allows for a realistic solution that decriminalizes the prostitutes while providing a mechanism for monitoring the activities of clients, owners, and partners of establishments.

MICHELLE KUO, Staff Writer, Harvard International Review
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Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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