New Internationalist

Home Truths

Issue 252

new internationalist
issue 252 - February 1994

Home truths
Child prostitution, especially in the Third World, is an emotive issue.
But is the information we get being distorted or exaggerated?
Maggie Black looks behind the sensationalism.

Ofelia is a tall, pretty 15-year-old waitress in a club in Metro Manila. (All accounts of child prostitution begin with a gut-wrenching personal story, so here it is.) She and a friend ran away to Manila from her village in southern Luzon because home life was miserable and her father said he could not afford to keep her in school.

The two girls soon ran out of money and began to look for a job. They spotted a notice, ‘Waitresses Wanted’, and 10 minutes in the manager’s office was all it took. They reported the following evening at 6pm, worked until 4am and were given lodgings nearby. For the first few days Ofelia’s job was to take orders and serve drinks. Then the manager told her to sit with customers and entertain them. Her pay was based on the number of beers or ‘ladies’ drinks’ she consumed. She soon found she was getting drunk every night. Some customers in the club became violent as the night wore on. Ofelia depended on the floor manager and security guards to protect her. But she also learned something else. If she agreed, a customer could pay a ‘bar fine’ and leave with Ofelia on his arm. These customers were all Filipinos – seldom was a foreigner seen in the club.

The pay she receives for these late-night dates is better than the commissions on drinks – and she doesn’t have to get drunk or endure the rowdiness and abuse. She feels shame about her work at the club – it’s not a nice place to be in. She is saving; she wants to build up her capital so that she can have a business of her own. And marriage? Of course she aspires to marriage. Maybe one of her dates...

There’s something wrong here, surely? Child prostitute stories are about innocence brutally deflowered, eight-year-olds chained to beds, sickening victimization. The manager is supposed to be a villain, not a protector. Sure, he doesn’t pay her proper wages, he encourages her to get drunk and chat up men – that’s pretty bad, and against the law, even if he does pay for lodging and monthly health check-ups.

And what about the customers? They’re supposed to be villains too, preferably Westerners on the sex circuit with vibrators in their pockets and deviant carnal lusts. Not dates seen as a profitable escape route from an unpleasant environment; certainly not potential marriage partners.

And 15? You can hardly call Ofelia a child. In lots of Muslim societies a high proportion of girls are married by 15. It’s hardly unusual in any society for a tall, pretty girl to have had her first sexual fling by then. Anyway, she’s not working in a brothel, she’s been hired as a waitress.

No, this isn’t real child prostitution. Or is it? There can be no more emotive coupling of words than ‘child’ with ‘prostitution’. The image of a small girl or boy forced to deploy humanity’s ultimate natural resource – the body – for the commercial purpose of sexual gratification is profoundly disturbing. And in the past few years this image has been increasingly paraded before us. It is widely accepted that the trade in youthful flesh is growing, the numbers of children involved are large, and a considerable proportion endure conditions close to slavery. A Special UN Rapporteur on The Sale of Children has been appointed. The Norwegian Government has informed the Council of Europe that: ‘Every year, one million children are either kidnapped, bought, or in other ways forced to enter the sex market.’

The explosion in worldwide child sexual exploitation is frequently linked to ‘sex tourism’ – the promotion of recreational sex as a purpose of travel to certain Asian, and a few African, holiday destinations. Speciality tours for male paedophiles to the Philippines and Sri Lanka and the booming massage parlour and night-club life in Thai resorts, have attracted notoriety. Headlines about children rescued from brothels, occasional arrests of paedophiles, and activism to ‘End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism’ – ECPAT is the main international campaigning organization – have become routine. Together, they conjure a picture in which commercialized abuse of young girls and boys by international visitors are the dominant motif.

No-one can deny that such abuses do take place and rightly arouse horrified concern on behalf of the children involved. ECPAT and others have deservedly won praise for exposing them. But as a characterization of the vast majority of ‘child prostitution’ in Thailand, Philippines, Sri Lanka, or virtually anywhere else, this picture is highly distorted. Solid information is seriously lacking. Despite all the noise around the subject, there are no research studies which provide reliable information about the extent of child prostitution, let alone the age and gender breakdown or the dynamics of supply and demand, either globally or within a specific country. In Bangkok, estimates of child prostitutes range absurdly from 2,500 to 800,000. No-one can produce a source for Norway’s ‘one million a year’: it does not exist.

This is not to suggest there is no information; there is some. There is also intelligent deduction. And among the few things that can be stated with confidence is that the overwhelming majority of ‘children’ in prostitution are well past puberty, mostly in their mid-teens, and many are beyond both the legal age of marriage and of sexual consent. Another is that the majority of ‘child prostitutes’ are not employed as prostitutes, nor do they work in brothels. In Manila and Bangkok they work as waitresses, receptionists, bar girls, ‘go-go’ dancers, and the degree to which they engage in sex-for-cash varies with occupation and personal predilection. In Sri Lanka and Mombasa they sell curios or act as tour guides on the beach. Neither their work, nor their self-image, nor their aspirations are confined to sex work. The ‘prostitute’ label has been stuck on them by the beholder.

Thus, in the phrase ‘child prostitution’, both words are questionably accurate – as far as the majority are concerned. And as for ‘forced’ into sexual work, in many cases the ‘force’ is metaphorical. There is often a strong element of volition, if not to enter, certainly to stay.

As with all child labour, it is extremely difficult to challenge the conventional wisdom without being accused of condoning what cannot, and must not, be condoned. But in order to address a problem effectively, it is vital to understand exactly what is going on. Many efforts to save or rehabilitate ‘fallen girls’ are conspicuously unsuccessful. Bangladeshi girls brought back from Pakistan, to where they have been illegally trafficked, often reappear in Karachi only months later. Girls rescued from Thai sex parlours similarly return. Some organizations working with Brazilian street girls make no effort to stop even very young girls from selling sex: some would say that this defence of a child’s right to work is taken to lamentable excess. But the question is: what other choices do they have? They are poor. Most come from broken homes. There is no social safety-net. And they can earn, relatively, a lot of money.

The roles played by children in economic life in many countries are often derided because they do not fit with the modern idea of childhood as a long period of dependency and preparation for activities – work and procreation – labelled ‘adults only’. In families still operating by pre-industrial norms, this division is unreal. By age 12 or 14, or by the end of primary school, millions of children in Africa, Asia and Latin America have no alternative but to assume adult roles. In rural areas boys shoulder more farming tasks, and girls assume more domestic responsibilities in preparation for marriage. But in town – and most developing countries are urbanizing at a fantastic rate – things are different. In town, they must earn. Youngsters’ household contribution must be garnered in a job, or ‘on the street’.

Normally, boys are sent out to earn; girls stay at home where they provide a domestic back-up to working mothers and their virtue can be protected. But this is not the case everywhere. In Thailand, for example, women have historically played a prominent role in trading and small business enterprise. The girls from the poverty-stricken North-East who today are recruited by employment agents into Bangkok’s massage parlours are performing the expected filial duty of providing support to their families. The pattern of development has changed the circumstances in which they fulfill this role. Their mothers were vendors; the daughters sell sex. They send money home, and their parents are grateful. Many return eventually and marry on their savings.

Elsewhere, economic stress and mounting unemployment are increasingly pushing women and children into marginal and servile occupations. In the cities’ expanding slums, domestic violence is rising and marital unions are increasingly volatile. Some girls are forced out of the home by violent or abusive step-parents; others simply have to go out to earn. What can they do? The only occupations open to them are commercialized versions of the domestic life they were raised for: housework, cleaning, baby-minding, cooking, and sex – the work of a married woman.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child places the outer limit of childhood at 18, and the word ‘child’ is now often used to denote the under-18 age-group. This creates anomalies. In most countries, the age of marriage is lower than this. But pregnancy is risky in the under-18s, and recent research suggests that until 20 a woman’s genital area is immature and she is more susceptible to sexually-transmitted infections including HIV. So some commentators are now pushing ‘child’ up to age 20. At the same time, both the age of menstruation and of first sexual encounter are everywhere declining. A lengthening gap is opening between the onset of sexual activity and the official end of childhood.

This period in which the adolescent is both adult and child interacts with the growth of the sex industry and its commercialization. The sex market – like the marriage market – is one in which youth and ‘freshness’ have always commanded a high premium. Thus the majority of ‘child prostitutes’ are young adult entrants into a workplace which remunerates youthful good looks – especially feminine good looks.

The supply and demand factors related to child work, together with different cultural views of prostitution in different settings, are the most important influences at work. The role played by international tourism – especially paedophile tourism – in promoting child prostitution has been much overstated. The world’s oldest profession has always been plied around men-away-from-home: soldiers, sailors, traders, pilgrims. The international businessman and the tourist are just today’s most numerous, and usually most free-spending, customers. They contribute to an expansion in the sex industry generally, and to that extent they play an important role. But the majority of customers for teenage prostitutes are neither foreigners nor tourists. Except in a few special resort locations, tourists are not the demons of commercialized child sexual abuse that they have been painted.

In Olongapo in the Philippines, whose leisure industry grew up around the presence of the US naval fleet at Subic Bay, a study of 1,000 under-age hospitality workers found that half their customers were locals. In Thailand, commercial sex is a regular form of male entertainment. Over three-quarters of Thai men have visited a prostitute by the age of 19. The age of the girl depends largely on the depth of the client’s pocket and his social status. Younger girls start in the cheaper establishments; many try to graduate to smarter places once they’ve learned their trade. International travellers typically patronize the fancier clubs. According to one analyst, most Westerners prefer girls older than 18; but expansion in the top end of the market does tend to draw girls in at the bottom, and the age of entry does appear to be declining.

The onus of guilt carried by tourists is partly explained by their visibility. Then there is the fact that no society wants to admit that it practises ‘child prostitution’. And where the evidence is undeniable, it is more bearable to blame the ‘unclean other’ – decadent foreigners with their incomprehensible tastes and misbehaviours. Where there is an overlay of North-South exploitation – the Western tourist ruining innocent paradise with his credit card and unleashed libido – this version plays easily in certain, well-meaning ears.

There is no need to look further than the rigid systems of girl protection which used to – sometimes still do – operate in most societies to recognize that the notion of innocence perverted by the evil outsider is far-fetched. ‘Simple’ societies were by no means so simple that they did not perceive the risk to girls of lascivious male intent. The circumstances in which they can continue these protections – customs such as early marriage and purdah which women activists anyway deplore – are vanishing, and nothing has been put in their place. Girls venture out into the world, obliged for one reason or another to enter the workplace. They are young, sexually mature, under-educated, ill-prepared for adult life, their options are limited, and like Ofelia in Metro Manila, the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

What is the solution? Even if an Ofelia is above the age of sexual consent, her absorption into the sex industry is still unjustifiable. She and millions of today’s young people have inadequate physical, psychological and emotional resources to negotiate the path through the minefield of potential adult sexual – or other – exploitation. For girls in particular, these inadequacies need to be repaired, mainly through education. The campaigns to end ‘child prostitution’ should indeed continue; those who live off, or co-operate in the sexual exploitation of minors are reprehensible and should be brought to book. But little is served by distorting the analytical framework and obscuring the main dynamics at work. The child victim and the paedophile tourist are only a small part of the picture. The Ofelias are the rest.

Maggie Black is a writer and editor. She is preparing a report for The International Labour Organization (ILO) on working children.

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