I remember the cool, calm evenings in Vietnam like I never left – many times, I wish I hadn’t.
Long dusty roads, the landscape broken up occasionally by a scattering of bright blue plastic chairs that furnish the informal bars, the side of the road dotted with chickens, a few kids playing and the occasional wandering nu xe om – or, quite literally, “motorbike girl.”
Equally memorable is that sense of helplessness as I watched young women and girls being harassed, exploited by older men and solicited by Westerners in whom they had no interest, but equally had no choice other than to “entertain” for the sake of their jobs.
These experiences are burnt into my memory, visceral and raw, I can still smell the smokey barbecue restaurants where groups of older men would yell and laugh at the young beer girls as they scurried to serve them for what was likely an $80 monthly salary.
Returning to Australia brought to life just how close to home these experiences really are. Re-enacted across Australia were the same scenarios in various forms. From the many migrant women who are sexually exploited in equal measure both at home and abroad, to the sexual assaults, rates of abuse and murder of women in Australia that continues to break hearts and hope on a daily basis.
What shocked me most, however, was the realisation that on issues related to poverty and sexual exploitation, there is no solidarity from Australian feminists.
In my naive optimism, I imaged that our many feminist writers would point out how exploitation flowed seamlessly across our borders. I had wrongly assumed that those leading the charge against sexism would examine how ethnocentrism and economic disparity have created and maintained conditions, policies and norms under which exploitation of women is inevitable.
What I found in the mainstream discourse – that is, liberal feminism – was quite the opposite: rather than any solidarity, I found outright denial that sexual exploitation or trafficking is a major issue at all. Indeed, the status quo among liberal feminists is to argue that trafficking is overstated or that it just simply doesn’t happen in Australia. Apparently migrant and poor women enter the sex industry on the basis of free choice rather than the lack of it. Testimonies and reports that refute such theory are all but ignored.
According to the recent feminist conference organised by Anne Summers, pointing out exploitation surrounding the sex industry is apparently now the problem. The two day event featured many survivors of male violence, yet notably did not invite any survivors of sexual exploitation or trafficking, arguing instead that it is somehow racist to assume that exploitation occurs.
My surprise over the state of affairs was echoed by Nimko Ali, a British-Somalian Female Genital Mutilation activist, who reflected on how Australia is stuck in the dark ages when it comes to women’s rights. On ABC News24, Ali said the fact that “the sex industry is seen as a form of empowerment is quite shocking.” Ironically, women like Ali who criticise the industry are tainted as racist, Puritan or somehow looking to create anti-sex“poverty porn.”
Every time I hear such arguments, I find myself face-to-face with the young girls who I know will never have any other choice than to live with the inevitable exploitation that is going to greet them every day of their lives. The dire consequences of such a situation cannot be overstated. I think back to Manila where the hunger of street kids was palpable. When around 40% of the Asian industry is estimated to be children and 80% of the red light zone is owned or managed by Australians, and frequented by Western sex tourists and paedophiles who pay a premium for children and indulge in dangerous unprotected sex acts. These men leave behind in their wakes hundreds of Filipino-Australian children who will grow up in poverty in the backstreet brothels.
Liberal feminists and leading human rights advocates alike claim that women in poverty can somehow better themselves in the sex trade. Yet an expanding sex trade only results in more women trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence. Rather than opening up new opportunities, women in the sex trade are far less likely to live to see 40 years of age due to the violence, illness and disease to which the johns expose them. Yet, according to first-world armchair philosophers, this situation constitutes “better off.”