It was over a month ago when we first noted that South Korean sex workers are becoming increasingly desperate to defend their right to work. Today, they are still stocking their places of work with gasoline and signs warning the police that they’re prepared to light their buildings and themselves on fire if they continue to experience harassment. All of this is the result of a particularly vicious police crackdown.
Meanwhile, the recently released US Trafficking in Persons Report accuses South Korea of being lax on trafficking. According to the US, South Korea needs more laws and more enforcement because right now there is a dearth of “stern punishments.” South Korean officials find this confusing because they’ve been relentlessly exterminating brothels since 2004 and, clearly, they’re still hard at it.
Bookmark all that for a minute. I want to show you something else.
A little backstory: In 2001, after the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was formed. Every year, this office releases its Trafficking in Persons report, which assigns other countries tiers, 1 being the best, as a way to rank their efforts to prevent and respond to trafficking. If a country ranks at three or below, they can lose US aid. It was only at the suggestion of Secretary of State Clinton that this year, for the first time, the US was also ranked. (Tier Number One, baby! Woot Woot. In your face, other countries.)
Many politicos and non-profit folks seem to think this ranking system is a pretty great idea. (After all, it’s remained in place for 10 years despite measured international criticism, so someone important is a fan.) The VP of International Justice Mission, for one, has lauded its impact in Nigeria and Indonesia. But what’s life in these countries actually like for sex workers?
Sex work in Nigeria is currently illegal. Education and “rehabilitation” programs are sanctioned by the government but they charge sex workers for participation and many prefer to stay in sex work. (Unsurprisingly, it’s a “let us ‘help’ you or we hate you” situation: “When the police get information about a prostitution brothel, they arrest and try to rehabilitate them. The officer says that anyone who refuses to comply will be charged in court with prostitution.”) Just this week, a local NGO helpfully shamed working women for their clothing choices and then pressed them to submit to rehabilitation. They also—I am not making this up—told beggars to have some dignity and get a real job.
Some universities use prayer sessions as a deterrent to precocious female undergrads. Meanwhile, some states are using Sharia law to round up and “supervise” sex workers. Nevertheless, the domestic industry is often described as “thriving,” though sometimes terrorist attacks targeting sex workers put a dent in business.
Sex workers march for their rights and to draw attention to how they have been “brutalized and violated” by police.
Some clients especially the uniformed men/policemen take us for granted by gang-raping and sometimes having sex and refusing to fulfill their financial obligations. (source)
They also attempted to speak with their local United Nations branch, but “authorities at UNIC refused to have anything with the group.”
Last year, a two-year study of 400 different police stations found that “[The police] rely on torture as a principal means of investigation; commit rape of both sexes, with a particular focus on sex workers; and engage in extortion at nearly every opportunity.” One policeman described the opportunity to rape prostitutes as a “fringe benefit” of his job.
I’ll keep it brief this time since you can probably guess what’s coming. Police abuse is rampant. Sharia law is also at play here, and women can be harassed or punished for not dressing in a way that’s deemed appropriate. Crackdowns drive sex workers underground, making them more vulnerable and less likely to access resources designed to improve their quality of life. Not so long ago, sex workers feared carrying condoms because police could, as they sometimes do here at home, use condoms as evidence of prostitution. Sex worker activists, including this fascinating guy, organize, and, to no avail, ask the United Nations to look at the importance of decriminalizing sex work in order to prevent HIV infections. Female students enter the industry in spite of its illegality. Indonesian authorities enact raids, of course, because it’s the go-toaq anti-trafficking tool, and in those raids they sometimes turn up what may be an American Marine.
That brings us back to South Korea, a place where sex work has profited largely because of the US military presence. In fact, South Korean sex workers have explicitly accused their government of being a “pimp” for the US military. Coincidentally (or not,) another country the US has pressured with regards to sex trafficking is the Philippines, which is, like South Korea, an island with a considerable US armed forced presence.
So what’s it all mean? Are the lives of sex trafficked and sex working people—an intimately connected group thanks to the muddled anti-trafficking approaches that dominate—improved by US pressure abroad? I would argue that the lives of sex workers are obviously damaged by these efforts, and the effect on trafficked people is much harder (if not impossible) to ascertain, particularly since the TIP report ranks effort rather than quantifiable successes. That means if a country puts on a big show, with lots of raids and crackdowns and round-ups, the United States takes their commitment to ending trafficking seriously and will probably reward them with a high (or at least higher than previous years) ranking. Oh yeah, and with financial assistance, i.e. monetary reward. On top of all this, there’s the US’s own guilt and involvement in the sex trade of the countries it’s criticizing. A little harder to see the good intentions underneath all the self-serving and destructive posturing, isn’t it?
Police are the key instrument of many states when it comes to “combatting” sex trafficking but across the globe, police have a terrible track record of respecting the rights of sex workers (trafficked or voluntary) or indeed even recognizing that sex workers have rights since, legally, they usually don’t. Furthermore, most states laws and law enforcement personnel seem incapable of making the distinction between voluntary sex workers and trafficking victims, perhaps because that distinction is not often cut and dried. Arrest first, ask questions later (if at all) is the policy. Raids are assumed to be appropriate methods of locating trafficking victims, though they really aren’t. Therefore, the United States’s internationally encouraged response to trafficking results in serious harm to sex workers including those who have been coerced.
Here’s hoping South Korea’s fierce sex working men and women continue to show their defiance and assert their rights, without resorting to self-harm. We need their voices and their courage here with us because these “good intentions” aren’t going away any time soon.