Sunday, November 23, 2008

Trading Truth For Sex

I hadn't bothered to read the SexMoneyPower issue of the Griffith REVIEW. When I first got involved with the publication, in 2006, I wanted to believe it was a brave, intelligent journal that explored ideas fearlessly. After a ridiculous confrontation with the editor forced me to withdraw the use of my artwork for the SexMoneyPower cover, I began to doubt it.
This doubt increased, last week, after I came across an excerpt from SexMoneyPower serialised in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. Sensationally re- titled Love Thy Neighbour: Australia's Shameful Fetish, it was an unoriginal, over-simplistic, prudish, deceptive piece about Australians touring Thailand for sex, written by an Australian male writer who once had an Asian ex-girlfriend (he asked her opinions for the piece – which might be vaguely relevant if she were Thai instead of being raised in England by Chinese parents from Hong Kong).
The writer describes those men who are attracted to Asian woman (at lease one of whom is a good friend, his 'mate') as having yellow fever. Yet he doesn't consider the implication of his own past attraction to Asian women – and with it, the notion that people are often drawn to what is exotic or different to them. For some, it's a fetish for red hair or even hairlessness. Many Asian men fantasize openly about big-breasted, blonde, round-eyed, American women – they consider them sexually 'easy' – and such women are a common fixture in anime. Similarly, some Western men tour Eastern European countries for sex with women who epitomise Caucasian beauty – or lust after mocha-skinned latinas or black women with full lips and even fuller derrieres.
All of these so-called fetishes are based on stereotypes. But do stereotypes have a place in what is supposed to be a critical discussion of the sex trade?
The writer shows his ignorance of Thai culture in suggesting that Thai women are brought up to know their place and be courteous without suffering complaint (now there's a stereotype). I've spent a considerable amount of time in Thailand – and elsewhere in Asia – and with Thai women. Most, especially the prostitutes, are outspoken, sassy, hip and street-smart. A lack of education shouldn't be interpreted as a lack of intelligence. Visiting sex tourists might like to think of themselves as playboys but they are always the ones being played.
Seven-year-old statistics are used in the article to suggest that the majority of sex workers are children. Sadly, children are sexually exploited in every poor country as well as in the poor areas of rich countries but during my several months in one of the sex trade centres of Thailand I only came across women aged 19 to 40 (well, not counting the gay men and transexuals of a similar age). Many of them already had children with a Thai man. Prostitution is a practical way to support themselves and their families. Apart from using statistics to suggest an inaccurate reality, it's insulting to the country to imply that children work the streets unnoticed, uncared for, or unprotected by their own people – the one thing Thais don't lack is a Buddhist sense of compassion.
The writer despairs that women have joined the ranks of men in "exploiting the sons and daughters of neighbouring nations". Here's something to consider: men and women have always exploited themselves and each other, no matter what their background. They fuck over the disadvantaged, naive, and innocent in their own societies. Of course, they also attempt to do so in societies that are weakened by poverty.
It's easy to pretend all women in those societies are exploited. It suits the egotistical, chauvinistic view that all women – and all poor people – are ignorant, weak victims. It suits a simplistic, conservative, puritanical view that sex can't be a recreational or mutually beneficial activity between consenting adults. It also suits the pre-feminist idea that women are never in control of their own bodies, even when they choose to make a living from them.
It's obvious that the writer has no experience with sex workers. He didn't think to interview any. I doubt he's even been to Thailand. Over the years, I've read similar articles in low-end gossip magazines and Reader's Digest, usually sitting in doctors' waiting rooms. That the essay is included in a journal that describes itself as "iconoclastic and non-partisan, with a sceptical eye and a pragmatically reforming heart and a commitment to public discussion" should be a matter of embarrassment to its editor – especially in these times of increasing Australian conservatism, censorship, and a mainstream reluctance to discuss more than one oversimplified, patriarchal viewpoint about women and sex.


Mona said...

Excellent post Hazel.
my feminine and my masculine sides agree with you totally!

Queen Vee said...

Right on. Good stuff, Hazel.