Thursday, December 16, 2010

Where is the line between harm reduction and facilitation of commercial sexual exploitation?

I had this cheery post ready for you. It was funny, witty even, if I may say so myself. No dice though. In addition to (hopefully) entertaining you, this blog lets me empty my brain of things that echo in my mind, and if I don't give them a way out they stay there. I'll try to make the next one happy.

So I'm sitting in my hotel room in Bangkok right now (my last night in Thailand) doing data entry. Yes my life is thrilling. Be jealous. One of the sub-groups of children we interviewed are karaoke workers, as you've already heard. To be specific, these are girls (and one or two lady-boys (I swear that's the PC term here)) who work in karaoke bars, yes there is singing, yes there is drinking, but you have to pay the girls to talk to you. You pay them a lot more to leave with you. We pretty much only talk to girls who are underage, or sometimes if they started working while underage. So I'm sitting here on what should be a fabulous and celebratory last night of research and getting to go home, reading about 15, 16, and 17 years olds who have sex with old men for money. I don't care how you feel about prostitution or sex work or whatever you want to call it. Somewhere there is a line. Having sex with children isn't ok. Why? Because they're just that, children. They are not equipped with the knowledge and skills to make good decisions, they cannot fathom the repercussions of their actions (let's start with the social stigma and move on to HIV). The power dynamic involved is inconceivable, these children cannot broach it, especially if their customers happen to be law enforcement (cough cough different post once I'm not in Thailand). If you want to pay for sex, you settle that with your god and your own moral code, and whatever country you're in will force you to abide by theirs. But you don't get to have sex with kids.

But you can. I almost regret that I've posted where I've been because someone is going to see this and go find these karaoke bars. Not that they're a secret. So let's say you're a bit of a do-gooder. You know this is happening, there are 10, 15, 20 karaoke bars, all with 5 - 10 girls, at least half of whom are under 18 (I'm estimating, humor me). What do you do? Many members of the public health community argue for harm reduction strategies when approaching sex work. This means you reduce the possible danger to participants: sex ed, easy access to condoms, HIV and STI testing, recourse if they are abused during the course of a transaction. A classic example of harm reduction is needle exchanges so injection drug uses don't exchange diseases. This appalls some people, they say "prostitution is immoral! it abuses women! it wrecks families! it spreads disease!" Okay. I hear you. But it's just not going anywhere, you won't end it. Or rather it is, you get rid of it in place x, places y and z are ready and waiting to set up complementary operations.

But what about harm reduction strategies, like promoting safer sex and HIV testing, when the "sex workers" are actually defined as victims? The people making money from their activities are participating in the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Are you condoning it by offering them safe options for what they're doing (whether or not they believe they are choose to do it)? Oh you'd "rescue" them would you? How kind. What if I told you they didn't want to leave? What if I told you they feel proud of the money they send home. What if I told you that some of their parents not only know what they're doing, but encourage it because it's the only way they'll ever own land or a house or send one of their other children beyond the 3rd grade. What then?

Do you protect them to the extent you can? Give them "better options" with vocational training in sewing and beautician school, even though they make as much in 1-2 nights as most young people do in a month? Or do you see it as a pure violation of rights which you cannot support, even tacitly? I don't have an answer. Do you?

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