Review of "Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia" by Louise Brown

First in a hopefully occasional series of brief reviews of things I read or watch.

Sex Slaves is one of those English language books that it’s surprisingly easy to get hold of in Thailand, like memoirs of minor drug traffickers who’ve spent time in Thai prisons. You find them next to Lonely Planet. I actually bought it in 2004 and read it then, and was reminded of it by seeing it in Bangkok airport, so I’ve returned for another reading.

Brown’s book is a discussion of the different types of people involved in sex work, mainly sexual slavery or debt bondage work, in Asia: the prostitutes, the clients, the traffickers, the criminals, the lawmakers and the police. It’s mostly focused on what she believes is the major market for paid sex in Asia: Asian men (both residents of the country and sex tourists from rich Asian countries). She’s interviewed those who she can: largely the workers and to some extent the brothel keepers.

It’s something of a shock to the system for anyone who is used to reading careful anthropological standing-back-from trying-to-read atrocities (I read a lot of Inga Clendinnen). Brown is more immediately angry. Angry at the clients who largely don’t care whether the girl on the bed is allowed to say no to them, or whether she’ll see any of her earnings this decade. Angry at talk about ‘family values’ in countries where 70% or more of men visit prostitutes and where their family is not in an economic position to enforce make any objections. Angry at ads suggesting that men might want to protect themselves from the dirty dirty prostitutes, rather than protecting the women from their diseases. Angry at clients who do so by demanding virgins for unprotected sex.

Brown is, I think, more or less totally opposed to sex work in most conditions and certainly in Asian domestic ones: she thinks it is more or less always chosen only due to severe economic pressure or coercion. The money’s not bad, for the three or four years a lucky prostitute in Asia might be able to work safely after she gets out of debt bondage and before she’s too old for the clients and either dies of AIDS, has to prostitute a daughter or starts selling unprotected sex in order to compete for work. (It’s unclear what she thinks of prostitution in societies where a sex worker isn’t then an irredeemably fallen woman, I think she thinks the numbers of such women are too small and takes up too much space: women who can refuse clients are, to her, the lucky few.)

On this re-read, one of the more interesting points for me was her description of the women’s own perception of their human rights: essentially they (correctly) believe they don’t have any. This is particularly vivid in the case of debt bondage, in which the prostitutes must work either unpaid or on very low pay for around about five years (conveniently, their highest earning period and for some the only period where they are not visibly ill with AIDS-related sicknesses) because they must re-pay the brothel owner for the full cost of their purchase from the trafficker plus any money the brothel owner has spent on them. The debt seems to be usually real (as in, each sex act does pay off some part of it) but is openly manipulated with interest rates as high as 100% and when the debt is nearly done with the girl can be re-sold into a new debt bondage or a convenient raid from the police can be arranged, with the bribe or bail price being added to the debt. Brown says their reaction is never along the lines of I cannot be bought and sold, especially without my consent, this is invalid but rather they accept the notion and see repaying the debt, on whatever unfair and coercive terms, as an important matter of honour.

I recommend this, even if you don’t agree with her position on prostitution in all circumstances, although if you don’t she’ll repeatedly hit you with it. It’s possible to do more than quibble with the methodology, but it always will be: how does one do comprehensive longitudinal studies of a despised slave class being illegally held and usually doing illegal work? One can’t. It is, though, one of those books that left me a bit depressed about the possibility of change from activism; probably because Brown is. She thinks the sex industry is more than capable of changing in ways to beat any legal, international or NGO opposition either to it, or to its abuses of human rights.