Fantasy consists in a morbid fascination with unrealities, which secretly transforms itself into a desire to make them real. – Roger Scruton
One year ago today I published “Good Fantasy, Bad Reality”, about a Missouri case in which Ed and Marilyn Bagley were accused of torturing a young woman in extreme BDSM activities; the Bagleys say the activities were consensual, a view supported by several witnesses. Were these people twisted monsters, inexperienced dominants who overstepped their bounds, foolish kinksters who failed to recognize that their sub was mentally disturbed enough to betray them under the influence of her family, or some combination of the three? No matter what happens in court, the truth may never be known because it’s a sure bet every single person involved – defendants, alleged victim, witnesses, cops, prosecutors and even “expert witnesses” – is going to lie in an attempt to sell the jury his own version.
From the viewpoint of the American media, the truth isn’t even important; lurid fantasies of “trafficked sex slaves” are much more interesting to the hoi-polloi than Rashomon realities, so you can bet that any story involving prostitution or BDSM (or both, as this one does) is going to do its level best to make the “criminal” look malevolent and the “victim” look helpless. Nowadays this is generally accomplished by claiming she was either a “child” or “mentally handicapped”; it was both in this case, and the cops in the Maurice and Toni Johnson case invoked both by claiming the alleged victim “functions on the level of a 10-year-old”. But when neither claim is remotely credible, the yellow journalist can always fall back on “economically disadvantaged”, and if the so-called “victims” have brown skins and cross an international border to work, our reporter has hit the racist, paternalistic jackpot. Women from developing countries can be portrayed as childlike, unsophisticated and economically disadvantaged, thus denying them agency and setting the stage for benevolent Americans to “rescue” them. The truth, of course, is that most of them neither need nor want to be “saved”, and patronizing American demands that they be robbed of a livelihood “for their own good” show exactly how out of touch with reality politicians, moralists and neofeminists actually are. And that’s what makes this two part-article by USC sociology professor Rhacel Salazar Parrenas (which appeared in Business Week on October 12th and 13th) so very satisfying:
A decade ago, the U.S. government determined that apart from terrorism, the gravest threat to democracy in the world was human trafficking…congressional hearings focused attention on what was said to be the forced labor, debt bondage and coerced migration of 800,000 individuals, 80 percent of whom supposedly were women and children, throughout the world…[and especially] in the sex industry. The hearings culminated in…the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000…[which] requires the U.S. Department of State to submit to Congress an annual…Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report — describing the efforts of foreign governments to eliminate human trafficking. A country that fails to take significant actions receives a “Tier 3” assessment, which can trigger the withholding of…assistance from the U.S.
According to the 2004 report, Filipinas who work as hostesses in clubs in Japan constituted the world’s largest group of sex-trafficked persons, making up more than 10 percent of those 800,000 victims. They were identified as trafficked under the assumption of their “sexual exploitation”…After being placed on the Tier 2 Watch List, a deeply embarrassed Japan imposed new visa requirements and a more rigorous screening process for migrant entertainers from the Philippines…the number of Filipina hostesses…fell 90 percent, from 82,741 in 2004 to 8,607 in 2006. This…poses a setback to the emancipation of women. It has stripped thousands of migrant women of their livelihood, forcing them to stay at home, often in impoverished conditions…In a nine-month study in Tokyo in 2005 and 2006, I interviewed 56 Filipina hostesses and worked as a hostess myself. None of the hostesses I encountered wanted to be rescued from their employment. Most found that migration had made them breadwinners in their families, a position that granted them decision-making power and earned them the respect of their kin. In some instances, participating in commercial flirtation allowed them to challenge conservative norms that limited the acceptable sexual activities of women.
…Filipina hostesses…perform sex work in that they titillate customers via commercial flirtation, [but not all] “sex work” is…“prostitution.” It encompasses a wide array of services including flirtation and stripping — in addition to prostitution…For the most part, no one coerced my fellow hostesses to work in Japan. They were not drugged, taken on planes and trapped in clubs. No one lied to them or explicitly told them they would only be singing and dancing onstage. This is not to say that migrant Filipina hostesses do not face serious problems. First, middleman brokers who arrange for visas, transit and job placement charge high rates upfront, subjecting hostesses to what amounts to indentured servitude. Once in Japan, hostesses cannot legally change clubs. Because being undocumented is a crime, those who are fired and remain in Japan become dependent on their next employer and on other Filipinos who may exploit their vulnerability by withholding wages or overcharging them for housing. Still, migrant Filipina entertainers see servitude abroad as a much better option than their other choice of immobility in the Philippines…
Regular readers will recognize not only Laura Agustín’s point that migration for work is nearly always freely chosen even when the conditions of employment are less than ideal, but also my mantra (and that of other vocal whores) that being paid for sex is empowering and being denied the right to be paid is harmful. The second part of Parrenas’ article is longer and goes into detail about the clubs, so you may be interested in reading it in full. But I want to call attention to this part:
…[At] first…I…struggled to meet hostesses willing to participate in my study of their conditions. My visits to clubs as a customer had not provided any solid leads…Even hostesses whom I befriended had always declined my request for an interview. I had assumed that they had experienced emotional distress from the stigma associated with their occupation. I had come to Japan believing claims by other academics that “hostess work” was a euphemism for “prostitution”…[but] after I began working as a hostess, every person I approached agreed to talk to me…I had entered an unfamiliar sexual world…[which] has been condemned…for “crimes against humanity.” Japanese hostess clubs…have been labeled by the U.S. Department of State as hotbeds of sexual trafficking…women are not just endlessly harassed, but supposedly also held against their will, forced into prostitution and made victims of sexual violence by lecherous Japanese men. What I discovered, in fact, was that these women come to Japan voluntarily and gratefully, knowing what their jobs will be. Very few engage in prostitution, and if they do, they do so willingly…hostesses view themselves as modern-day geisha…
This is a very important passage because it demonstrates the critical problem with the “rescue industry”; as long as “rescuers” remain outsiders, forcing their own ignorant and patronizing judgments on sex workers, they remain dangerous nuisances to those they claim they want to “help”. Only by entering their world and sharing their experiences can feminists hope to understand sex workers…and once they do, the scales fall from their eyes.
…the “dohan” [paid date]…requires that a hostess spend some time with a customer outside the club…[and] guarantees at least one hour with the hostess inside the establishment…Most hostesses do not think a “dohan” harms them; they told me it was unlikely to mean coercive sex, though it might involve voluntary prostitution…hostesses on a “dohan” are sometimes envied, because they are often taken to a Filipino restaurant. Yet the U.S. State Department cites the “dohan” as an indication that Filipina hostesses are sexually trafficked in Japan…[which] prompted Japan…to reduce the number of visas for Filipina hostesses by 90 percent. Anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution crusaders counted this a triumph. But no trafficking and very little prostitution was stopped, and 81,000 Filipinas lost their livelihoods.
Unsubstantiated claims of the forced prostitution of Filipina hostesses are morally charged, and divert attention from the need for regulation and protection of sex workers. For Filipina hostesses, the goal should be job improvement, not job elimination. What’s needed are laws to prevent abusive behavior by middleman brokers…Hostesses don’t need to be rescued. They need the empowerment that comes from being independent labor migrants. Only then can they remain gainfully employed…and have full control of their own lives.
Parrenas arrived in Japan believing prohibitionist dogma, and left a wiser woman who is now in a position to do sex workers some real good by speaking out. She found that more than 10% of all women labeled as “trafficked” by prohibitionists are nothing of the kind; does anyone doubt the same can be said of most of the other 90%?