Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why aren't we talking about it?

by Shannon Togawa Mercer

I grew up on an island notorious for its red light districts and Russian prostitutes. Sex slavery is not a foreign concept to me. The real issue is this: despite my exposure to prostitution, I’ve never had a real conversation about it. Why is no one talking about prostitution? Why am I not talking about prostitution?

These questions came up this past week during my stint of community service in Trenton. Our university’s service program over prepared me for poverty and hunger but no one said a word about the sex trade. No one wanted to talk about the big “it”. As “it” turned out, across the street from our food pantry there were three suspected houses of prostitution with women soliciting at all hours of the day and I had no idea that we worked, ate and showered so close to this brand of injustice. I was keenly aware of the drug deals on the street corner and even more aware of the people receiving financial aid through our agency but no one had talked about the women on the other side of the road. Prostitutes are marginalized and blamed for the unsavory nature of their profession. Is that fair?

Conversations need to happen. I was happy to hear that this past July the first “South East Asia Court of Women on HIV and Human Trafficking in South East Asia” was held in Indonesia as a “symbolic trial” for women victimized by sex trafficking and prostitution. Organized by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Asian Women’s Human Rights Council (AWHRC) and Yakeba (Balinese NGO) this court was a forum for trafficked women and their advocates. In an effort to change legislation and culture in one fell swoop, this hearing addressed universal cultural and legal problems. “The vulnerabilities of women to trafficking and HIV are rooted in the disproportionate human insecurity, poverty, illiteracy and disempowerment that they face in their daily lives,” the Jury stated at the conclusion of the hearing.

This conference is a fascinating example of how these conversations should be had, but there have been other approaches. I’ve been (recently) inundated with stories about other countries and their prostitution solutions. A friend of mine worked in Panama this summer where prostitution is legal and closely monitored by the public health system. According to Wikipedia (the ultimate source of all accurate knowledge) Panamanian prostitutes carry identifications cards and are required to undergo weekly sexual health checkups. But, as most of you suspected, the system is not perfect. Ileana Golcher wrote an interesting article on the unique situation of Panamanian prostitutes including interviews with the prostitutes themselves. The women admitted to “accepting the conditions of their clients” including unprotected sex. At night these women are beaten and harassed by police men and shunned by the rest of society. The prostitutes Golcher spoke with said that “No one stops to think about the sacrifices required to tolerate bad-smelling, drunk, violent and depraved men…it is money earned with too much sacrifice” even with government regulation.

Another example: A little over a year ago I was in Barcelona where, according to a tour guide of mine, prostitution had been legalized (with a few modifications). Prostitutes in Barcelona were required to have a day job because (as my tactful tour guide put it) “Prostitution should be a life choice, not a life style”. Pimping was allegedly illegal and other forms of organized prostitution, forbidden. Barcelona’s prostitutes were self employed free agents. Recent news has Barcelona’s mayor opening up debate about legal and licensed vs. illegal prostitution. Check out this entry in

We need to talk and most of the people reading this blog are willing to talk. Problems don’t get solved when people pretend that they don’t exist. If you’d like more information on any of these issues (or any of the stories above) visit the following websites: Hearing and Panama.


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