What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
By Dr Helen Pringle
Ten years ago, Puangthong Simaplee died at the age of 27. She had been picked up in a police raid on a Surry Hills brothel on 23 September 2001, and was sent to Villawood Detention Centre. Three days later, she died in a pool of her own vomit. When she died, Puangthong weighed 31kg, about the weight of a 10-year-old girl. According to a coronial inquiry held in 2003, she had hepatitis C, an eye infection, possible pneumonia, and was addicted to heroin.
Immigration officials said that Puangthong told them that she had been sold into prostitution. On one account, she said that her parents had sold her into sexual slavery in Thailand when she was 12, and that she had been trafficked into Australia on a false Malaysian passport when she was 15. When Puangthong’s parents were interviewed by an Australian reporter, however, they said that their daughter had left their village in Thailand to find work, and that she had sent them money and smiling pictures of herself from Australia.
When these conflicting accounts came to light, people lined up to slime Puangthong, and to traduce other women who claim to be trafficked to Australia as sex slaves.
The journalist Piers Akerman for example asserted dismissively, ‘The story was a real tearjerker’. He dismissed the fuss around Puangthong’s death as just ‘sensationalistic journalism’. Akerman blamed ‘some zealots’ for inflating the number of ‘sex slaves’ [his scare quotes], and ‘quoted’ [my scare quotes] an unnamed spokesman for the Immigration Department as saying that ‘almost all so-called sex-slaves picked up from brothels reject the notion that they were enslaved, do not want to assist authorities and wish only to leave the country as soon as possible and ply their trade in other First World countries. If they have a complaint about working in Australia, it is that they have not made as much money as they expected’ (‘When Truth Spoils a Good Slavery Story’, The Daily Telegraph, 3 June 2003, p. 16).
In 2008, the president of the Scarlet Alliance, Elena Jeffreys, added her voice to Akerman’s pitiless tirade, asserting that Ms Simaplee was not trafficked, but was simply a ‘sex worker’. According to Jeffreys, the popular picture of women like Ms Simaplee as Asian sex slaves has ‘capture[d] the Australian imagination’, all part of a stereotype ‘of pre-pubescent Asian girls chained to beds in back rooms with barred windows’ (‘Truth and visas will set Asian sex workers free’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 April 2008). Jeffreys concurred that Ms Simaplee’s case was just ‘sensationalism’ and moral hysteria, which has created a ‘government-funded rescue industry’.
Strangely however, the Immigration Minister at that time and his Department were not well-known as compassionate rescue entrepreneurs. It should be a cause of shame for Australians that the former Minister is known rather for the trail of death and deportations left by his term in office than for his rescue efforts.
Puangthong did tell different stories about herself to different people before she died. Prostituted women do not get paid for being themselves, for being authentic. A prostituted woman is paid to ask, ‘What do you want me to be?’, and to act out the answer. But Puangthong was brutally honest with herself, and her body bore the marks of her honesty. After her death, her boyfriend told police, ‘She had two or three scars that were from one side of the wrist to the other. Some scars were a couple of months old and some scars were a couple of years old.’ When the boyfriend asked Puangthong why she harmed herself, she replied, ‘When I do something wrong I mark it with a scar so I remember what I did wrong’ (Elisabeth Wynhausen, ‘Parents deny selling daughter’, The Australian, 7 June 2003).
Like other prostituted women, Puangthong Simaplee had a lot of wrong done to her. Research done by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW and published in 2006, found that many of the street sex workers interviewed had higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder than combat veterans. A majority had been sexually abused as children, and most had been assaulted sexually or physically as adults. These findings are consistent with studies done in other countries of the victimisation of prostituted women, and form part of the basis of the Swedish model approach to prostitution and trafficking, which criminalises the purchase of sex, but does not criminalise those who are bought and sold.
Puangthong Simaplee’s story is one of vulnerability abused, and of autonomy lost. It is a story of exploitation. It is in so many ways a typical story of a life that was trafficked and prostituted, of a person whose intrinsic worth and dignity received no respect, even after she died.
If we could only listen to Puangthong’s story, in all its tellings, perhaps we would not tell so easily the old lies about the selling of women in our world as a form of pleasure and freedom. For now, let’s ring the passing bells and mourn the memory of a gentle and vulnerable woman.