Sunday, May 31, 2009

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

The boyfriend's mum bought this book for me when she was travelling round part of Asia on a 3 week holiday. It's been sat on my bookshelf for a while and I suddenly had the urge to read it. There wasn't much going on this weekend and I wasn't looking froward to re-writing yet more CVs (job hunting sure is dull), so I figured I'd get through it now.

And guess what? Comics get brought into it, hurrah!

First we have the cover of the book:

Rather tabloidy, no? I was willing overlook the choice of image, reasoning that the publisher does want to sell books and what really matters is the content.

Brown is writing from a feminist (possibly Marxist) perspective. She is very very clear that she hates prostitution and thinks it should be eradicated. Whether this is a valid position is not what I want to discuss. Brown talks both about the life experiences of the sex workers and puts forwards explanations for why the sex trade exists. I have issues with the presentation of the information and also some of her conclusions and explanations for the existence of the sex trade.

There are 9 chapters in the book, as follows:
The Market (where the women/children come from)
The Commodity (the women/children themselves)
The Agents (those who find and traffic the women/children)
Seasoning (how the women/children are broken into accepting sex work)
The Customers (those who purchase sex)
The Management (those at the top of the sex industry)
The Law (national and international law and how it is(n't) enforced)
Life and Death (disease and daily life of a sex worker)
The Shame (how the sex workers feel about their jobs, also a conclusion for the book)

Initially this seems like a pretty good way to arrange the information. It appears to encompass all levels of the sex industry. However as you go through the book the details of each chapter become muddled and confusing.

I have few doubts that her report of life as a sex worker in Asia is fairly accurate. But you'll note I said 'Asia'. Asia is a pretty big area, each country is distinct and has it's own cultural norms, societal values, standard of living etc. Brown doesn't even examine every country in Asia - she focuses on Japan, China, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

She provides examples of sex work in each country and while noting that there are differences, and being explicit about these differences, she then uses these examples to make generalisations about Asia as a whole. This comes across as rather contradictory.

She jumps between country profiles rather erratically. For example, there is one sentence about Thailand, one about Burma, then one about Japan. In my eyes, it would have been more logical to treat each country as a sub section within each chapter, and then done a mini conclusion at the end drawing together all the information. This would also have made it easier to drop back into and reference the book at a later date. But maybe that's just my personal reference for accessing information.

The work itself
She also seems to jump wildly between writing about the experiences of trafficked women, those forced into sex work and those who chose (or were coerced) to enter sex work. It makes it rather difficult to follow and it then becomes unclear what she is trying to prove. The method of entry into sex work does seem to have a big influence on the lives of the women and children, but I don't think this was drawn out enough. Similarly, the hierarchy of sex workers is not examined enough. She does talk about the differences between poor street prostitutes and high end call girls, but when it's all thrown in with other topics that also affect their lives and work, the distinction becomes blurred.

References and arrangement of the material
Although there is an extensive list of references at the back of the book, I get the impression that a lot of the content is her own opinion. This damages the book's credibility as a serious academic resource. As I said above, I don't doubt that what she's saying about sex worker's lives is true, but I don't think she's argued her case as to why the sex trade exists well.

There's a lot of repetition throughout each chapter. Part of this is an effective method for building up a full picture of the industry, part of it comes across as though she needs a good editor.

Why men buy sex - biological imperative and manga
Having said I agree with most of the information presented there was one chapter which really raised my hackles. This was the one titled The Customers.

My main problem with this section is Brown believes that men have a biological imperative to shag as much as possible. She believes they are genetically programmed to. constantly. have. sex. Because of this, (and because of patriarchy), prostitution, concubinage and polygamy have developed.

Ugh. It should come as no surprise that I have no time for biological justifications of human behaviour. As a species, we are not a bunch of hormones and instincts. We have brains, we have thoughts and we have more complex ways of deciding on a course of action. If we didn't we'd still be shitting in our pants and I wouldn't be here on the Internet writing this to all of you.

To argue that men sleep around because of a biological imperative is insulting and demeaning to both men and women. It also conveniently absolves men of any responsibility for their actions.

It's bollocks and I have no time for anyone who believes in it. To top it all off, Brown doesn't even present evidence as to why she is picking this theory. This leads me to believe she chose it because it's convenient and fits in with her world view, which incidentally, comes across as all men are evil.

The other thing which had me spitting feathers was her reference to manga. I quote:
'An element of sadism runs as an unpleasant undercurrent through Japanese society. Manga are like giant comics principally produced for Japanese men and boys. Torture, mutilation and rape of young women and girls are a regular feature of the storylines*.'

*this line is footnoted, the referenced material is Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires.

Oh god, where do I start? Manga is not 'like' giant comics, they are comics. And not necessarily giant. There are many many different types of manga. A small proportion focuses on torture, mutilation and rape. You may as well dismiss all written books as being misogynist and encouraging sadism because Brett Easton Ellis' Psycho exists.

This reinforces my personal view that Brown didn't really research the topic as well as she could have. It makes me wonder if she was only looking for stuff to back up her preconceived ideas about why the sex trade is so big in Asia.

She didn't look at the issue of women buying women's bodies, yet we know it is a possibility because at one point she states that while talking with a sex worker she had to establish that Brown herself wasn't interested in buying sex. She also displays a shocking amount of Islamophobia - her writings on Sharia law were backed up with no evidence whatsoever and no view from Muslim women. I would also have liked to know more about the women who became successful and were at the top end of the sex market.

This book would have been vastly better with more evidence and research. Useful for finding out basic info about the reality of sex work in some Asian countries, but the explanations as to why it exists are deeply flawed. If you read it keep an open and questioning mind.

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