Monday, November 8, 2010

NGOs Gagging for Sex

Spiked Online has an interesting article on NGOs in Asian countries who feel they are 'saving' people in the sex trade from exploitation. The problem is, those NGOs don't seem to want to know why so many adults would choose to do work that some consider to be inherently exploitative. The article points out that some workers came from far more exploitative industries, although the exploitation may have involved slave wages, a far lesser form of exploitation, it would appear.

There seems to be a lot of money available for NGOs who do this kind of work. On the other hand, there is not quite as much of the sort of headline-grabbing sexual exploitation going on as some would have us believe. Credible data is not one of the results of the large amounts of money being ploughed into the work these NGOs are doing.

The article finds that a lot of sex workers in Cambodia are former garment workers, people who choose to work in the sex industry rather than try to get by on impossibly low wages. So the NGOs are right, there is exploitation; it just doesn't involve sex. Perhaps the NGOs could redirect their efforts towards the garment factories, their rich owners, adequate legislation and enforcement or even the consumers in the rich countries that many NGO workers come from.

Here in East Africa, many people in the sex industry either tried working in highly exploitative export processing zones (EPZ) or various industries that pay so badly, there is little alternative but to find something to supplement incomes. In other words, sexual exploitation is not the only kind of exploitation they suffer. These EPZs are set up so that foreign industrialists can set up in developing countries and keep their costs as low as possible and thus provide Western countries with the cheap goods they crave.

Another exploitative industry is hospitality, where profits are generally unthreatened by high labor costs. Several sex workers I have met told me they tried to get work in hotels and it was made clear that they had to pay a bribe, using money or sex, to be considered for a job. Others had to pay, somehow, to keep their job, to get enough work to survive or to get promotion.

The Spiked article makes the point that people, adults, anyhow, can make up their own minds. They are not the mere victims they are often made out to be by some 'concerned' NGOs. This is quite true. But there also seems to be plenty of work that these NGOs could do if they are truly concerned about exploitation. Or does exploitation have to be sexual in order to be really worrying? The suggestion is that, no, it doesn't have to be sexual, but that's what the funders like.

A similar love for anything sexual also seems to dog HIV programing, with almost all prevention efforts being aimed at sexual transmission. Aside from this doing little or nothing to reduce non-sexual transmission, it doesn't appear to have had much impact on sexual transmission either. Billions of dollars have gone into programs that appear to target sex, rather than health. As a result, millions of people, particularly women and children, continue to be infected needlessly.

Objection to commercial sex work may be legitimate enough, but do those who object have an alternative in mind? Everyone can think of alternatives, but they are not viable in countries with very high levels of unemployment and underemployment, where the vast majority of people just get by and a lot don't even do that.

Every new, unemployed person, squeezing a few dollars out of some form of subsistance, results in less money for all those already struggling. Ironically, the effect of persuading a good many sex workers to give up their work and do something more 'conventional' would be to reduce the living that subsistence workers can make. And it will increase the amount of money that those still in sex work can make (unless sex work is supply drive, which seems unlikely).

If these NGOs don't address the real problems of lack of employment opportunities, exploitation in the work place, extreme poverty and the like, they will just be shuffling the problem from one group of people on to another. And addressing the real problems is no easy task. But things won't get any easier by wasting time with moral crusades and media titillation.

The Economist covers a similar theme and wonders why money is not spent on 'harm reduction', protecting sex workers from the risks they face, which are by no means limited to sexual risks. One of the main sources of stigma they face comes from the NGOs who claim to represent their interests. In addition to health services and condoms, sex workers need the protection of the law, especially from the police, who are among the many who stand to gain from the criminalization of sex work.

Again, this phenomenon is clear enough in East Africa, where people who think of themselves as 'clean living' fail to see that there are multitudes of people 'living on immoral earnings'. It's not just sex workers who do so. To evade exploitation by police, sex workers have to pay or otherwise bribe security people, bar, club and hotel administrations, 'minders' and anyone else happy to rely on the fact that sex workers are considered to be beneath contempt.

According to The Economist article, sex work tends to be conflated with human trafficking. This merely results in further exploitation of those involved in sex work, carried out in the name of 'zero tolerance', 'fighting crime', etc. NGOs operating like this are exploiting the very vulnerability of sex workers that they claim to be alleviating.

Much of the vulnerability of sex workers stems from the fact that the work is considered to be illegal, even where it is not outrightly prohibited by the law. NGOs would be far better advised to support sex workers than to oppose them, to help them gain the decriminalization they need. Without the protection of the law as a minimum, social problems relating to sex work will only get worse.

NGOs who wish to 'help' sex workers need to deal with the economic and social realities in developing countries. If they are opposed to exploitation, there is plenty of that, though it may not be sexual. And if these NGOs are motivated by some kind of moral repugnance towards sexual exploitation, they could direct it at those in the media and those in the donor community who appear to need sexual titillation in return for their support.


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