Addressing the myths of the prostituted Asian woman
On July 3 the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article titled ‘Low prices fuel exotic sex trade’ . Accompanied by an alluring photo and informing us that prostitutes from Asian backgrounds offer more exotic services than their Caucasian counterparts and for less money, it read almost like an advertisement for buying sex from Asian women. ‘Cut price Asian women, will do anything you want – get yours now!’ I thought it warranted a response so asked Caroline Norma, a lecturer in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University, and a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia, to respond.
University of NSW researcher Christine Harcourt is a long-time campaigner for the legalisation of prostitution. She recently appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald to announce the fact that Asian women are ‘very much in demand’ for prostitution in Australia because they are ‘very attractive’ and are ‘very good at their work’.
Harcourt’s comments were reported in explanation of the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission’s finding that 20 per cent of that state’s legal brothels were staffed exclusively by Asian-born women.
Harcourt expressed a view that appears to be commonly held in Australia: that the overrepresentation of Asian women in the sex industry here is simply a product of the innate nature of Asian women: they love to serve men submissively and sexually, and are cunning in their ability to out-gun Aussie women in the sex industry and bring down prices and standards.
In Harcourt’s view of the world, no-one should be alarmed at the fact that Asian women are filling up Australian brothels at a rapid rate. The inherent suitability of Asian women for prostitution is a belief that underlies this view, and short-circuits any discussion of the possibility that Asian women here might be victims of trafficking, sexual slavery, or even just extreme levels of hardship and adversity.
The Minister for the Status of Women, the Hon Kate Ellis MP, recently gave $50,000 to the Australian Immigrant and Refugee Women’s Alliance to run a campaign to highlight the adversity that migrant women face in Australia. This is a wonderful project that will make a difference to the lives of newly arriving women. I wonder, though, with academics like Harcourt producing research in the area, whether the government is really able to perceive of the true extent of the adversity that migrant women face in Australia, given its continuing denial of the reality of trafficking of women from overseas into the sex industry here.
When public servants fund good initiatives like this, don’t they feel any sense of incongruity about the number of Asian women they allow to languish in Australia’s sex industry? Don’t they feel any pangs of conscience about how openly pimps sell Asian women on the back pages of local newspapers in Victoria, NSW, the ACT and Queensland?
Bureaucrats need only check out brothel websites to see the extent of the trade in Asian women. In Brisbane, there’s a legal brothel called Miso Honey that advertises
all Asian flavours including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai and more. If you’re looking for a submissive Japanese girls [sic], or a totally dominant Taiwanese terror, look no further.
Miso Honey is not the only brothel running a profitable trade in Asian women. According to a 2010 CSIRO-published report, over 54 per cent of women in prostitution in Western Sydney were born overseas. A study done in Western Australia in the same year found 29 per cent of women in prostitution were from non-English speaking countries. In Sydney’s brothels, 53 per cent of women are from Asia.
A Victorian report from 2009 records the stories of adversity that lie behind the grim statistics. One wonders what the Office for the Status of Women would think about the adversity facing a Laotian woman, ‘Minh Ha’, who works in a legal brothel in Melbourne. According to researchers, she
works in the sex industry two days a week at a licensed brothel…She works four or five nights a week in the hospitality industry. She works days at the brothel, picks up her children and oversees homework, then works at the restaurant in the evening. Minh Ha… migrated to Australia after she married…She is 41 years old. Her marriage recently broke down because her husband was violent; she currently has an AVO against him…She is now responsible for supporting her five children. She approached a customer she knew at her hospitality job to ask for a loan…[he] said Minh Ha would need to commit to working in ‘massage’; but Minh Ha suspected that sex work was being proposed. She transitioned reasonably quickly to full service in a licensed brothel. While she says “some workers enjoy this job,” Minh Ha does not.
While Minh Ha might not technically have been trafficked into Melbourne’s sex industry, in terms of ‘adversity’ there is not much to distinguish her case from the descriptions of actual sex trafficking that are contained in the report. Another woman told researchers, for example, that there
are a lot of Korean-owned shops here…[and] a lot of Korean workers end up in them. The treatment there is not very good compared with the other shops…Girls are ignorant, they don’t know and they are concerned about the debts they have to pay off through the agent. These are legal brothels. They are very strict and a lot of people work there [to pay off debts]. You have to provide more of a service.
Governments in Asia are aware of the problem that Australia poses in the region in terms of sex trafficking. The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade hosts pre-departure training for its nationals participating in working holiday programs to Australia on their vulnerability to sex trafficking (US State Department, 2011, p. 218). In 2005, the Seoul Metropolitan Police arrested seven people on charges of arranging for 38 women to be trafficked abroad. One of the victims, a 28-year-old woman who had been trafficked to Australia, told police that brothel owners had exploited her throughout her stay, and she had been trafficked to pay a KRW70 million debt owing to her pimp in Seoul. She told police she was used by five customers a day in Australia (Sohn Hae-yong, ‘Prostitutes leave Korea to work,’ 23 February 2005, JOONAI).
The Australian government continues to close its eyes to the fact its domestic sex industry causes serious harm and adversity to women newly arriving in this country. It continues to allow pimps to legally sell women for prostitution in most Australian states under advertisements that use words like ‘oriental’, ‘Asian’, and ‘Far Eastern’. The only thing the Victorian government has done in response to research showing evidence of trafficking in Melbourne is to require brothels to display anti-sex slavery signs in their waiting rooms.
Compare this to action taken by the UK government in 2009 when a Home Affairs Committee report revealed that 80 per cent of women in off-street prostitution in the country were foreign nationals, and that there were approximately 5000 victims of trafficking in the UK at any one time. In response to this finding, the government passed a law that criminalised the buying of trafficked women for prostitution. This law requires defendants to prove they had no knowledge of a person having been trafficked.
We might wonder why the Australian government seems unable to see signs of adversity where Asian women are advertised for sexual sale. The answer to this question might be found in an observation made by Melba Marginson in 1996. Marginson is the national coordinator of the Centre for Philippine Concerns in Australia. She noted that Australian men viewed Asian women as ‘manipulative, sexually adventurous, whore, prostitute, gold-digger, materialistic and use foreign men as a ‘passport’ out of their destitute lives’ (Not the Same, 1996, p. 18).
By failing to see the adversity that the sex industry inflicts on women who newly arrive in Australia, the government institutionalises this inhuman view, and fails in its duty of care to women who come here from overseas in the most vulnerable of circumstances.
See also: Brothel safety a dangerous myth, Caroline Norma, The Age, July 15, 2011
The John Next Door, Leslie Bennetts, Newsweek, July 18, 2011