Peak hour traffic. An endless array of coloured helmets litter the streets, smoke coughing out of the exhaust of an old bus filled with tired faces, a frowning man with his forehead pasted against the dirty window stares out aimlessly at the hundreds of scooters honking their way through the busy street. Two young girls play on the footpath mimicking the others’ moves completely oblivious to the chaos surrounding them. It is easy to zone out, to shut the overwhelming unease that the thousands upon thousands can make you feel, like a person rescued by their imagination as they drift off into a day dream. Like me. I look out at the various clothing stores we crawl past on my way to the airport, thinking about what I need in my wardrobe for work to look a little more professional. Maybe a vintage midi-skirt, that pair of black jeans I have at home that would go well with the white shirt worn by the mannequin, perhaps add some blue earrings and red shoes? Zone out from the fact that just before I caught this taxi I saw an elderly Australian man at the hotel lobby, his spotted, plump hands tickling the waist of a young Vietnamese girl as he commented about the bad service from staff, reminding me that underneath the millions in this Vietnamese megacity lies a disturbing reality of sex tourism that is causally linked to sexual exploitation. His yellow stained teeth and hardened belly impregnated by the constant consumption of alcohol that protrudes out and over the belt of his pants sends shivers down my spine and a desire to whisk her away from him.
The global sex industry is a multi-billion dollar economy and despite being predominantly illegal and socially objectionable, the incredibly large numbers expose the darker side to this black market crime and to human behaviour. In China alone, $73B dollars was spent on prostitution in one year, in Israel over 10,000 men per month visit a prostitute and 41% of men who visit a prostitute in France are married. There are generalisations that prostitutes are willing and content selling their bodies for financial reward and such ideas enable continuity of this ancient industry, however the reality is quite the reverse where up to 89% or more desire to leave the industry. Studies of women who escaped prostitution show significantly higher tension and stress responses from the psychological trauma that include PTSD, somatization and sleeping problems caused by the high risk of exposure to violence and mistreatment. The horrible reality is that many are unable to leave because of this fear and the fact that 40% of prostitutes were formerly trafficked and exploited into the industry as children that increases the difficulty to identify with anything else. The link between prostitution and sex trafficking is what needs to be remembered.
Women and girls are disproportionately affected by forced labour, accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors
In addition to this, is there a link between pornography and the commercialisation of trafficking? Sex offenders communicate using technologies that now give them access to encounter children online or through tourism hidden under the guise of education (such as international teaching or volunteering in the not-for-profit sectors). This is further perpetuated by stereotypes of Asian women being sexually available and willing that has dehumanised them into a sexual fetish, countries like China and Japan view very young virgins as sexually appealing where young girls in school uniforms giggling has become a widespread stereotype and aligns itself with the fact that such countries are responsible for the majority of sexual exploitation and trafficking of girls and women. According to Licadho president, “many Asian men, especially those over 50, believe sex with virgins gives them magical powers to stay young and ward off illness.” This leaves poor families vulnerable and being uneducated view children as property and answers the reason why there is a strong prevalence of sexual slavery, violence and exploitation within Asia. It doesn’t end there. Women from an Asian background in the Australian sex industry also explains the correlation of the high percentage of trafficked women particularly through ‘Asian-women only brothels’ that function as venues to trick women into the country for exploitation over a short period of time before returning them back to their country, therefore making it difficult for police to report the incident.
The situation becomes even darker where livestreaming of child pornography in Australia has increased despite laws to prevent registered sex offenders from travelling overseas and with the availability of telecommunications technology and the internet exposes the surge of paedophilia particularly in South East Asia. Paying as little as $40 enables these sex predators to livestream children being raped and therefore eliciting the eventual trafficking of poor young girls from the region. South East Asia is one of the poorest regions in the developing world, the GDP per capita in Vietnam and other ASEAN countries confirms that hundreds of millions live far below the poverty line that increases the vulnerability particularly of children, especially since $40 could feed an entire family for a month in most regions. UNICEF reports that almost 385 million children live in extreme poverty and are too poor to go to school that disproportionately increases their risk of exploitation as it is access to proper food and shelter, school and the provision of other stable determinants that protect young children. Sexual exploitation of children in travel and tourism (SECTT) and the predatory behaviour of sex offenders is a huge problem in the region where offenders approach young children living on the streets or at the beach. “In many cases, these children are working day and night on the streets, on beaches, and around bar and restaurant areas. These children are highly vulnerable to SECTT.”
My recent visit to the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam gave me first-hand experience of the poverty and vulnerability of these families and children. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has indicated that almost 4.8 million people are exploited for sexual purposes globally. UNODC’ Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, 20% of those trafficked are children but in the upper Mekong region the percentage of children trafficked are much higher and the larger majority of those trafficked are for sexual exploitation. The greatest impediment to tackling the problem of trafficking and sexual exploitation is the denial by governments and the lack of data, however international law and the instruments have become a powerful conduit to tackle and eliminate trafficking by creating measures that countries can sign, ratify and enforce for national compliance. Australian sex offenders committing crimes overseas are still liable to tough Australian penalties through Div 272 and 273 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 and the Australian Federal Police have provided a report Child Sex Tourism Form for people to report suspicious behaviour, in addition to preventing or monitoring any registered sex offender who wants to travel overseas to prevent any potential offenses overseas and to protect children particularly from the Philippines, China and South East Asia from such predators. This follows the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children supplements the Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and while Australia has adopted numerous measure to reduce potential risks by ratifying UNTOC and the protocol including the prohibition of other forms of exploitation through trafficking including slavery, debt bondage and forced marriage, we should also approach the international justice system particularly due to our proximity to Asia through continued monitoring of the Asian region as well as the provision of assistance to these countries that will improve their abysmal investigative and judicial record. While Australia has formed Asia Regional Trafficking in Persons Project (ARTIP) to combat trafficking in Asia, more pressure and focus on transnational crime and cooperation should be made to effect any real change in the Asian region that starts with our domestic attitude to Asian stereotypes.
I hear it, the idea that it is legal because there is consent and payment – and therefore a transaction – but it is clear that a majority of those in the industry have been exploited and in particular from childhood that cannot in any way, shape or form be justified by remuneration particularly since a human being is not an object. It is heinous to forget their humanity, their story behind the act and all the causal links that chain them to the industry. Ignorance is no excuse and it is our responsibility to protect all children and women who are vulnerable to exploitation due to extreme poverty and a lack of education, but also the widespread view that objectifies women in general and to see their purpose solely for the gratification of men rather than as human beings with decision-making capacity.
I believe that many people turn a blind-eye away from these facts because most men believe they are vulnerable to becoming predators themselves. Indeed, men have urges and may sometimes feel the fear that they are capable of committing gross offenses that it is easier to simply look away – out of sight, out of mind – in order to prevent the potential of committing gross indecency themselves, but all this does is perpetuate the horrible reality that women, children and teenagers are nothing more then commodities. You cannot blind yourself to prevent yourself from going to hell and love your neighbour at the same time, but a truly moral person would use the law and social awareness to educate the public and reduce women being seen as human beings and not as objects. It is also to remember that the market exists because men are paying for it and therefore the problem is within men. Objectifying women is a form of violence and what differentiates between our humanity and what is heinous is our ability to reason, to feel empathy and to humanise rather than dehumanise people into objects or things. To see a living person is to love our neighbour as ourselves, including women.