Now I feed myself with most delicious poison. - William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (I,v)
It’s fascinating how different themes which appear in various columns will pop back up later in combination with other themes. I especially notice it when I’m doing an update column; though each story usually hearkens back to one column most clearly, some items give me several options and this one in particular gave me four. Like “A Tale That Grew in the Telling” (April 2nd) it demonstrates how myths grow by distortion and exaggeration of statistics; like “The Eye of the Beholder” (May 11th) it provides an example of behaviors which, even if they disgust us, are none of our business; like “Because We Say So” (June 8th) it provides an example of cultural imperialism on the Indian subcontinent, and like “New Reviews for June” (June 18th) it looks at the difficult lives of Bangladeshi prostitutes. These four major threads weave together with several minor ones to produce something new, yet familiar; the story actually appeared last summer, but I discovered it only recently and haven’t seen the issue discussed elsewhere:
The use of…Oradexon, a steroid commonly used to make cows fatter, is so widespread amongst prostitutes in Bangladesh that the UK charity, ActionAid reports approximately 90% of the country’s commercial sex workers are addicted to the drug. Why is a steroid meant for cows so popular amongst prostitutes in Bangladesh? Hundreds of thousands of girls, some as young as 9-14 years of age, are sold into the commercial sex trade business every year. Oradexon is favored by many brothel madams as a way to mask the real age of their younger child prostitutes while making their figures more voluptuous. But the drug also conveniently serves as a cheaper substitute for food. In a country as impoverished and with as high malnutrition rates as Bangladesh, one can get 100 Oradexon pills for less than a $1.
Despite the popularity of the drug, the majority of the country’s estimated 200,000 sex workers remain unaware of the dangerous side-effects of the drug which include heart disease, kidney failure, osteoporosis and heart failure. The drug is also highly addictive and has intense withdrawal symptoms such as skin rashes and chronic migraines. According to AFP sex workers in Bangladesh are owned by brothel madams and have to repay their “purchase cost.” Sex workers themselves want to use Oradexon because the plumper they are, the more clients they get, and the closer they become to buying their freedom. “The drug is a sex worker’s only ticket to early freedom as it makes her attractive and helps her to get as many clients as possible,” Rokeya, a former sex worker told AFP.
So how can we get the drug off the market and out of the reach of these madams and their prostitutes? Not easily. AFP reports that despite legally needing a prescription for the drug, it is readily available in the teashops that populate Bangladeshi cities, and is often even cheaper than a cup of tea. In demand with madams, prostitutes and clients? Looks like the presence of Oradexon in the commercial sex scene of Bangladesh will not be wiped out anytime soon.
OK, let’s get this part out of the way so we can get on to my main point: this story literally made me feel weak. Drug addiction disgusts me and governments which allow parents to sell their children into slavery disgust me even more. But anyone who thinks that life isn’t cheap, dirty and dangerous for the vast majority of people in Bangladesh is living in a fantasy world. Instead of putting pressure on the government to outlaw slavery, clean up its licensing procedure and carry out periodic inspections for underage girls, Western “rescuers” blame prostitution for this evil system, which is rather like trying to dig up a huge tree by its roots instead of just sawing off the diseased branches. The cultures of the Indian subcontinent do not view prostitution in the same way as moralistic Westerners do, and the trade is as reasonable a choice for the poverty-stricken women there as it is for many women anywhere else.
Which brings us to the issue of agency; rational adult humans must be free to make their own choices, even if others don’t like what they choose. The problem here isn’t that people are using a dangerous drug; people do that all over the world, every day, for far less pressing reasons than survival and the possibility of freedom. The problem here is that some people, many of them minors, are being compelled to take the drug by others. It’s the compulsion that’s the issue, not the drug itself, yet paternalistic Westerners want to compel them in a different way; the author asks, “how can we get the drug off the market and out of the reach of these madams and their prostitutes?” as though “we” have the right to make the decision for them, like a parent taking a dangerous object away from a small child. Obviously, we oh-so-evolved Westerners know so much more about how to handle drug abuse than these poor, stupid brown folks; perhaps the author would advocate widespread no-knock raids, shooting old people and dogs and locking up a large percentage of the Bangladeshi population? Rational adults, even impoverished ones in the Third World, have the right to make their own decisions, even if others (myself included) think those decisions are unwise.
But it’s the rare opportunity to see a tall tale in the process of growth which is the most interesting aspect of the story. The author writes that “Hundreds of thousands of girls…are sold into the commercial sex trade business every year,” even though she also states that the total prostitute population of Bangladesh is only 200,000 (0.24% of the female population, which seems much too low an estimate for an impoverished country). Furthermore, one of the articles she links says that there are only 17 licensed brothels in Bangladesh, and the other says that the largest of these has 900 workers. Even if they were all nearly that large, the total number of brothel girls comes to about 15,000, which is to say 7.5% of the estimated total; presumably the rest are streetwalkers, workers in unlicensed brothels and independent prostitutes working from home, but neither this story nor those to which it links tells us anything about them except for the claim made by one of the sources that 90% of them are addicted to this horrible steroid. The other source, however, says that it’s 90% of brothel workers who are addicted to it, which seems much more believable than 90% of all prostitutes, especially considering that ActionAid, the charity quoted in the story, can’t tell us anything else about them. In other words, none of these numbers seem trustworthy; there is no correlation between them and they more closely resemble wild guesses than demographic estimates. How, then, are we to know that this “90%” figure is any more reliable than the claim that “hundreds of thousands of girls each year” enter an industry whose total size is supposedly only 200,000?
It’s tragic that so many people in this world live in poverty, that human beings have to make desperate choices that those more fortunate than they cannot even comprehend, and that those who hold power in some countries cannot be bothered to enforce laws designed to protect the vulnerable, while governments of other countries spend billions enforcing laws designed to subjugate the innocent. But none of these problems can be solved by lying, exaggerating and distorting the truth, nor by outsiders infantilizing adults and reducing them to chattel with no more control over their own lives than the adolescent brothel-slaves of Bangladesh.