Is Sex Trafficking in Asia Ancient or New?: Challenge to the Churches

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2003 »Volume 40 2003 Number 2 »Is Sex Trafficking In Asia Ancient Or New Challenge To The Churches

Kathleen Nadeau

Kathleen Nadeau is assistant professor of Anthropology and the Applied Anthropology Coordinator at California State University. She holds a PhD in Anthropology from Arizona State University. Her most recent publication is Liberation Theology in the Philippines: Faith in a Revolution (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers). A frequent visitor to Asia for research on social and feminist issues, her study in progress is on transnational migration and prostitution issues.


This paper argues for the importance of contextualizing and distinguishing post/modern forms of sex work in Asia, from pre/colonial forms. After comparing and contrasting the different forms of prostitution, past and present, in Thailand, China, and the Philippines, the conclusion is drawn that sex tourism today corresponds to Euro-American colonial forms of slavery that dealt in humans as non-human commodities. In other words, prostitution practices today are not coterminous with a pre-colonial Asian past. Rather, ancient Asian communities in all of their diversity and difference, preponderantly, treated their slaves as part of their living and related societal body. Modern policy-makers of international lending bodies and local governments, among others, are only rationalizing, and thereby perpetuating the sex tourism industry by saying that it has always existed and is an innate aspect of select Asian cultures. But, in actuality, the kind of sexuality that can be bought and sold as a commodity on the market, for example, wherein "a man can turn his desire into a thing" is not the same kind of sexuality that was integral to the social reproduction of Asian social formations. This paper’s conclusion is twofold: in the first place, a brand new type of sexual slavery has emerged in postmodern times, with a more complicated way of exploiting women. Second, local governments and international financial organizations are not going to deal with this problem because of the revenues that they earn from sex business ventures, so only the world churches and human rights organizations are left to pick up the mantle.

It is the argument of this paper that the new forms of slavery and bondage associated with the sex trade industry today are substantially different from, and must be distinguished from earlier precolonial forms. Why is this distinction so important? It is because the sex tourism industry today is grounded on the simplistic and false notion that prostitution, as we know it, has always been around and will always be here. This false notion can be shown to be neither more nor less than a rationalization that is being used by those who profit most from the sex industry to exonerate themselves from any responsibility for the perpetuation of this industry. This paper aims to sort out, in a preliminary way, some of the distinct differences between the various precolonial Asian definitions of slavery and concubinage, and the contemporary capitalist market-oriented definitions of prostitution and mail order brides. While my future goal is to write a sequel paper dealing, more exclusively, with contemporary prostitution issues, I think that, first, it is critical to look at these issues in terms of their interrelationship with past modes of production that have been dominated, and largely subsumed, by the ever globalizing capitalist world system. Any of the various forms of prostitution and slavery today—be they associated with the mail order bride industry or the sex entertainment industry—must be set on a correct theoretical basis. With a focus on China, Thailand, and the Philippines, this paper argues for the importance of distinguishing postmodern conceptions of the sex industry from precolonial forms of sex trade in Asia. It will raise a hypothesis that sex tourism corresponds to Euro-American colonial forms of slavery that dealt with humans as non-human commodities. In contrast, precolonial Asians in all their diversity and differences, largely, albeit not in all instances, treated their slaves as part of their living and related social body.

This essay embarks from a mode of production perspective, examines earlier definitions of sex slavery in a pre/colonial sense to investigate the question of the capitalist importation of today’s sex industry in Asia. The mode of production perspective used here refers to the social reproduction of a society in all of it’s integral social, economic, political, cultural/ideological, and environmental/ ecological aspects. After laying the historical groundwork, the paper suggests that contemporary forms of sex trafficking and prostitution in Asia, largely correspond to Euro-American colonial forms of slavery, not indigenous Asian forms. It is stipulated here that the contemporary issue of prostitution and slavery is a big topic that cannot be adequately covered within the narrow confines of this paper. This paper focuses on the debate over the etymological origins of prostitution only in China, Thailand, and the Philippines, but it is understood that the outcome of this debate has wider ramifications. It aims, first, to contextualize early forms of slavery in relation to concubinage and arranged marriages in ancient China, Thailand, and the Philippines, and second, to compare in a preliminary sort of way the relationship between early forms of sexual prostitution and/or slavery and postmodern forms of prostitution. My argument is that conceptualizations of prostitution with reference to any of the many countries of Asia, must be set on an historically correct and accurate theoretical basis. The goal of this paper is not to provide a satisfactory and complete overview and analysis of the contemporary prostitution problem in the various countries of Asia, which is a subject for another paper, but rather, more modestly, to lay some of the groundwork to demonstrate that the term prostitution, as we know it today, is largely based on a Western frame of reference. First, a word on the prostitution /sex work debate.

Currently, there is a heated and contentious controversy raging over the question of whether, or not, prostitution may best be defined as sex work. On the one side, sex work advocates argue that the label prostitution, itself, unjustly stigmatizes those so engaged who might, more benignly, be referred to as sex workers. They, also, contend that the legitimation of sex work as an occupation that can be applied for, and freely chosen as a socially recognized form of employment will ensure better legislation and working conditions to protect sex workers’ rights. On the other side, however, women’s rights advocates and human rights proponents find that the use of the term sex work is an attempt by sex ‘businessmen’ and the governments and international organizations who are profiting from their earnings, to further rationalize the exploitation involved in prostitution. As they see it, prostitution is a better term to use because it has political implications. That is, human rights advocates, including children’s rights proponents and male and female feminists, argue that although legalizing prostitution portends to provide a safe haven for prostituted women by legalizing brothels to offer them "protection from the rapes, beatings and murders which are the hazards of street prostitution," in actuality, the making of prostitution into a legitimate form of work will not solve the prostitution problem.

In other words, legalizing prostitution and calling it sex work is no solution because prostitution is violence in and of itself. In the everyday practices of the sex industry, women must engage in acts that are sexually and physically degrading and are forced to disassociate emotionally by using drugs or alcohol to survive. The acts that men buy the right to perform on prostituted women include all the forms of sexual violence that feminists are seeking to eliminate from women’s beds, homes, work places, and streets, argue Sullivan and Jeffreys (p. 8). Furthermore, in countries like Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, to take a few well-known examples, where sex ‘businessmen’ can operate above ground "entertainment" enter-prises that are offered the full protection of the state, the standard act of prostitution, coitus, is experienced as so violating by prostituted women in legal brothels that they have to dissociate emotionally and engage in complex diversionary tactics to restrict the degree of harm they suffer (p. 10). Additionally, as the [Sex] industry expands, so does the variety of ways in which women are offered to men for sexual abuse, such as tabletop dancing, and further adjustments are required. No legislators are able to foresee the diverse forms of sexual exploitation from which sex "businessmen" discover that they can make money (ibid, p. 14). These sex businesses, more generally, are known to be connected with the lucrative international sex trade, including that which is run in collusion with crime syndicates coming out of Thailand and the Philippines, among other countries. There are numerous examples of women being brought by syndicate recruiters from Thailand and the Philippines, among other countries in the Third World2 into legal brothels, not to mention illegal brothels, in the developed countries as contract workers who are forced to service hundreds of men first before receiving any money, because they must pay back their debts incurred from recruitment fees, passport fees, the cost of airfare, and so forth (p.13). Sometimes, these women are locked up by brothel owners. This is a form of slavery or debt bondage. But the form of slavery or bondage that these examples connote is of a Western sort. That is, they correspond to a concept of slavery as defined in accordance with a Western framework, wherein a human being can be treated like chattel for sale on a market. This conception of slavery has no reference to, nor linkages with, indigenous notions of slavery in a precolonial sense, especially in relation to precolonial Asian social formations.

Looking back, it is important to realize from the outset that no cross-cultural definition of slavery in any form, exists at some universal level that is applicable to understanding pre-colonial slavery in diverse Asian milieus. However, Watson (1980) has defined an open system of slavery in contradistinction to a closed system. An open system is one in which a person of slave status has some opportunity for advancement either out of slavery in terms of freedom or out of slavery in terms of being absorbed into the controlling kinship group. An ideal-typical model of this system, to be illustrated later in this essay, is that which is found in yesterday’s Thailand. This system is commonly thought to be the result of an abundance of land, combined with a shortage of people. This creates a need for laborers to work the land, in addition to an increased demand for a broader selection of marriage sexual partners. This limited supply of people and abundance of land usually results in a system of slavery that would be termed "open" since the slaves may eventually be incorporated into the dominant group and the division of the available land resulting from this inclusion is not an issue of concern.

In contrast, a closed system of slavery is one in which there is practically no opportunity for a change in status. Where land is considered a highly valuable resource such as in China at the dawn of the age of colonial commerce, discussed below, it is controlled by the most dominant group that represents the masters. Since access to landed inheritance is restricted, the status of slaves is more inclined to remain stationary; they are not accepted into the controlling kinship lines under any but unusual circumstances (e.g., adopting a male heir). It is this stationary position of status that most definitively marks a closed system (Watson 1980:10-11).

Ancient Asian Religions and Slavery

The various Asian religious and philosophical traditions exerted some influence on the form taken by indigenous systems of slavery. While the institutionalization of slavery may have nothing to do with Buddhism and Confucianism as envisioned by the founders (Buddha and Confucius), Confucianism and Buddhism did advocate a specific social order of hierarchy (serving the king). For example, Buddhism diverged from, and was informed by Hinduism. The Buddhist occupation with merit-making and harmonious co-existence with all life forms coupled with Hindu notions of caste and hierarchy converged nicely with the open system of slavery as practiced in early Thailand. In comparison, the Confucian interest in following lines of authority through kinship that ranked people according to age level, and placed ancestors over the living, seniors over juniors, males over females, and male scholars over the commonweal, was most compatible with a closed system of slavery in ancient China. A basic understanding of Buddhism and Confucianism, and the differences between them in terms of the specific social and historical formations to which they refer, is important to understand the disruptive appearance of the post/modern sex tourism industry in the region. Hence, a discussion of some of the differences between Chinese Confucian slavery and Thai Buddhist slavery in terms of their historical articulations with, and disjunctures from, post/modern forms of prostitution in Asia, is pertinent to the subject under review.

Ancient Thai Situation

Thai history has long been informed by Buddhist and Hindu social teachings. Unlike in India or China, where genealogical links, largely, are traced through male lines, in Thailand, genealogies are traced bi-laterally through both the male and female sides of the family. It is Thai daughters, not sons, who are expected to take care of their parents in old age. This horizontal status accorded to both sexes is offset in so far as Thai females always were considered the property either of their fathers’ household or husband’s household. Female slaves were definitively valued for their contribution to sexual reproduction and as second wives and concubines. Although a father or husband who sold his daughter or wife into bondage in times of starvation or financial crisis in former times, could keep her at home as long as he paid the interest on the loan. Moreover, a freeman, formerly, had to prove himself heavily indebted before he could legally sell any member of his household, or himself, into slavery or he would be severely punished according to law. Buddhism, as well, mitigated some of the harsher effects of slavery as it was viewed as meritorious, and slaves had some rights against owners who transgressed the boundaries of their sexual rights. Slaves, also, could possess private property and some of them were entrusted in positions of authority over other slaves and free clients.

Historically, Thais practiced an open-ended form of slavery that was theologically-oriented around Buddhist ideas of a galactic order, and even the King of Siam was said to be a slave of Buddha. Much like India, Thailand has a philosophy of a coming of a just and righteous king. In times of judicious and benevolent kingship, social life is said to be replete with a bountiful harvest and harmonious relationships that produce a popular feeling of well-being. Selfish and duplicitous kingships, obversely, mark times of bad harvest and social disruption. The ancient system of slavery in Thailand, not unlike that in pre-colonial Philippines, albeit in different guise, was really a form of debt slavery; men and women could ‘buy’ their freedom. There were laws in place that guaranteed basic rights (Turton 1980, passim). Free clients and slaves often were perceived to be living on the same level in terms of status, and sometimes, slaves (e.g., temple slaves) held substantially higher stations than those who were free of bondage. The king held the most slaves, and divided them between princes (and leading monks) in exchange for their loyal service in governing the kingdom. Slaves were a symbol of luxury and wealth, but Thai society was not oriented around slavery as a mode of production because slaves worked along-side free clients. Typically, freemen and their families were self-sufficient subsistence farmers who worked the king’s land, and who could be called, within reasonable guidelines, by royal administrators to provide food and to labor on construction projects for the kingdom.

The Thai system of slavery might be called more "feudal" in nature. The slave has many of the same modes of entry into slavery that are found in early China, that of conquest, war, capture, and being "sold," but there is an added aspect of the debt slave who may or may not be redeemable. By redeemable, it is meant that one’s debts might eventually either be worked off or paid off and the condition of slavery diminished and the slave freed. In addition, there are other forms of slavery not commonly found in China, for example, that of judicial or temple slaves. The Temple slaves were on occasion those who placed themselves into service, since in some cases the life of the temple slave might be viewed as actually better than the life of the free person. They were exempt from mandatory labor requirements and those services they did provide were lighter than other forms of slavery. Regarding slaves of war and conquest, for example, many tens of thousands were taken by the Siamese in the wars against the Khmer empire in the 14th century (ibid, p. 255). These were by far the most common, however. This is understandable since there were any number of reasons that the numbers of people might become so low that only an outside infusion of bodies could maintain the population. "Frequent warfare was above all a means of competing not so much for territory as such but for increase in population and no doubt for the maintenance and replacement of a population constantly ravaged by malaria, small pox, famine, flood, and drought, and not least by depredations of other state’s wars and raids"(p. 254). These slaves were then distributed among nobles, according to their rank, while some were donated to Temple services. Sometimes, the latter slaves were commissioned by the king to build new temples in distant and remote regions, to win the local community’s support and loyalty. This is reminiscent of, albeit different from, the present United States government’s implicit support of some conservative missionary groups in China today, who are used to prepare the way for outside (e.g., multinational) investors and to weaken the Chinese government politically (Stranahan 2000:152). In addition, slaves served another function as a form of exchange and currency (Turton 1980:256). So that the use of slaves became more than the acquisition of a labor force and a replacement population, but also a political and economic exchange used to pay off debts and influence the political atmosphere. Thai slaves were either absorbed or absolved, rather than freed or made kin. While the entire subject is more complicated, there is enough groundwork here to definitively distinguish the Thai institution of sexual labor from the post/modern type, the latter of which derives from outside colonial processes and the globalization of the capitalist market economy as will be discussed, shortly. A word, first, on the Chinese, then, Philippine examples.

The Early Chinese Situation

China has been long influenced by Confucian social teachings. Unlike in Thailand, where the family tree is traced bilaterally through male and female lines, in China, genealogical links are recorded over the generations through male ties. Chinese females are perceived to be outsiders. They are never named in ancestor rites, and their primary role is to bear male heirs. A female could enter into domestic house-hold service as a maid or child servant, in the latter instance, she might be adopted as a younger sister and become part of the family.3 Or, she would be arranged into an exogamous marriage, sometimes, as a child bride. While the brideprice for the first wife was high, it was transformed into a dowry, and the marriage rite, itself, marked the transference of certain rights and privileges to her. In contrast, the primary role of second wives was to produce sons, while concubinage was for pleasure. Matchmakers arranged the sale of maids, brides, concubines, and prostitutes, in private and out of public view.

Slaves in China found themselves in a closed system. As a rule, slaves in China were born as slaves or purchased as children, in addition to the purchase of concubines by the wealthy. While the potential for slaves to alter and change their statuses was open in Thailand, that opportunity was extremely limited in China, yet not completely absent. China is a strictly partrilineal society, and as such, any inclusion of males into the lineage would constitute a threat to existing heirs, since this would cause further division of property at the death of the clan head. Therefore males who were not purchased as children for replacement heirs (meaning that there were no other heirs) were suspended in permanent slave status, although eunuchs were accorded high status because they were believed to be more loyal and powerful (e.g., they usually served the emperors royal court). According to Watson (1980a:224), "while girls are treated with a certain flexibility, a boy will enter his new life as a full heir or a chattel slave. There is no possibility of change in later life." Females actually had more opportunity for improving their situation through marriage. Chinese women are considered as belonging to, rather than being in the kinship line, even when they marry within it. Since they did not have any inheritance rights that would have been recognized or supported, they were not viewed as a threat and were therefore more socially mobile.

China created its own supply of slaves from within by creating stratification within its own social structure, taking its slaves from within that created "lower" class. The stigma attached to the status of slave was not only one which lasted the entire life of the individual slave, but for subsequent generations of slaves. This was in part due to the Chinese practice of ancestor worship. The Chinese viewed their lineage as being a requirement for being considered "civilized." Since the males were carriers of the lineage, even the poorest farmers would resist selling their male children until all the daughters and even the wife were sold and the situation became so dire that they were forced to sell them off, or watch them starve. This attitude resulted in fewer males on the market and thus males demanded higher prices. This practice repeatedly breaks the male slaves’ family line so that the slaves in essence, never develop one and their hereditary lines remain unknown. In some modern cases, an ancestral line might be invented in an effort to conceal lack of ancestry. Once a slave was purchased, there would be some expense on the part of the master. Feeding, clothing and housing a slave might become a considerable burden, especially if the master takes on a significant number of slaves. The slave market, with these financial concerns and with an abundance of slaves for sale, helps to create a buyers market. Within this "buyers market" the largest portion of the slaves represented the females, however, the females, through marriage, may loose the stigma of having a "slave background." In effect, the long lines of stigma that extends through generations affects the male line. This may be viewed as a second type of "escape" for women, since through marriage they might loose the title of slave and their offspring have the potential to escape the stigma of slave ancestry, neither of which are available to male slaves. Hence, Chinese male slaves, unless adopted as heirs, were locked into a closed system of slavery, while female slaves could marry their way out of bondage. But, this slave market system based on use value, not exchange value, was subsumed and transformed by the incipient capitalist market economy introduced to China by the Anglo-European colonizers who brought with them their habit of buying and selling slaves as if they were purely material objects.

Precolonial Philippine Situation

The Philippines experienced a melange of religious and philo-sophical influences prior to the colonial period. Underlying Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic faiths were widespread and intermingled with indigenous beliefs and practices that were informed by animistic nature ‘worship.’ The local economy was engaged in a maritime trade economy that extended beyond Southeast Asia to the coasts of Northeast Asia, South and Southeast Asia, Arabia and Africa. It’s communities were dispersed along the estuaries of rivers and coastal shores, and each settlement was scattered to protect the residents from the possibility of offshore marauders. It’s history was made up of a complex local history wherein leaders were legitimated by their followers. Chiefdoms existed in that the office of chief was ordinarily inherited and there was a redistributive economic system wherein slavery was a key component. But the office of Chief was also achieved and the center redistribution shifted as new leaders emerged.

The system of slavery in the Philippines was a far reaching and complex system that has no parallels in Europe (Scott 1991). In contrast to the European system wherein slaves were supplied in the market place, slaves in the Philippines, shared the same ethnicity, language, and descent as their masters. Parents, frequently, arranged the marriage of their young children by turning over a number of slaves in good faith. Men, almost invariably, sold themselves into slavery to their father-in-laws as a form of bride price. Almost everyone was indebted to someone else to some degree, and slavery in this sense was endemic. Slaves, generally, took a good deal of satisfaction in being attached to their masters. The various types of slaves ranged from those captured for ransom in raids at one extreme to those who sold themselves into slavery to someone for whom they felt a debt of gratitude from the heart at the other extreme. While some slaves were sacrificed, for example, in times when a new boat was launched, or when a great seafarer had passed away, most slaves lived ordinary lives not much different from those who were debt free. Except for slaves living inside their master’s house, slaves were expected to support themselves, working part-time for their owners, while the owners, themselves, usually were enslaved to other masters.

Kinship played an important role in the development of authority and social hierarchy on the islands. Family networks and lineages were traced bilaterally through both the female and males lines. This diminished the importance of status based on lineage connections to a single female or male ancestor. Instead, important genealogical claims were based on achieving a founding line of descent and establishing family-like relations horizontally in the present. As Rafael (1988:14) expressed, "genealogy thus acted a provisional, revisable marker rather than an unassailable organizing principle of authority." There was greater interest in extending kin and kinlike networks horizontally in space rather than vertically back in time. This emphasis on the present had an impact on how the master to slave bond emerged in the precolonial context where social relations, not private property, were highly valued. Customarily, interactions between masters and slaves in this context were mutually respectful. This leads me to suggest that prostitution as a formal institution did not likely exist in this context.

The Contemporary Situation

I have used three examples of indigenous systems of slavery in Thailand, China, and the Philippines, respectively, because they partly inform contemporary institutions of prostitution as practiced today in predominantly Confucian-Christian Korea, Buddhist Thailand, and Christian Philippines. For one among many examples, they can help us understand the historical bases against which obviously poor Thai parents are thinking when they ‘sell’ their teenage daughters or young children to recruiters promising them jobs in Bangkok (Bishop and Robinson 1998:11).

But, in practice, there are no real actual historical and cultural continuities between the different and various ancient Asian systems of arranged marriages, concubinage, and prostitution and the various post/modern forms of sex work and slavery in the region. The theological and sociological bases around which old Asian civilizations were oriented have long been subverted and changed, albeit incompletely, first by the colonization processes, and second, by spread of the world capitalist system. This apparent and unprecedented change is the subject of the following discussion.

Global processes, today, commodify sex and alienate labor as part of the economy and culture of global capitalism. Tourism and the sex industry are promoted in poorer countries like Thailand and the Philippines by their own governments, and with substantial loans being offered to them as incentives to do so by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as a strategy for economic development. And, while the prostitution industry organized by the Japanese during World War II (Soh 2001:603-8) has been disbanded and may not apply, there is some room for making a comparison in terms of the way prostitution has been developed as an extension of the United States military bases around Asia. For example, Sturdevant and Stoltzfus (1992) have argued in their ground breaking study that prostitution was promoted by the United States military in the Asia-Pacific region after World War II, to provide its soldiers with rest and recreational activities. This servicing of United States military soldiers was intensified and increased during the Vietnam War period. After the Vietnam War, when the military forces were pulled out of Thailand, for example, tourism and the sex industry became the linchpin around which Thailand’s economy was developed (Bishop and Robinson 1998; Seabrook 1996).

Young women and men, children too, are enticed to work in Bangkok’s (or, in Manila and Cebu’s) teeming array of brothels, massage parlors, and sex bars that service predominantly male tourists from the United States, Western Europe, Australia, Japan, the Gulf States, Malaysia, and Singapore. Despite Thailand’s international reputation as one of the modern day sex capitals of the world, public discussions of the subject inside Thailand are repressed and tabooed. However, as Bishop and Robinson (1998, vii) argue, breaking this silence that pervades the local people’s everyday lives can begin the process of liberating prostitutes from the oppressive and exploitative circumstances that afflict their lives. While there are some non-government organization workers, human rights activists and Buddhist and Christian social action workers partnering with prostitutes in Thailand, and the Philippines, and elsewhere, to assist them in their healing and recovery process, and to provide them with needed job training skills for potentially successful reintegration into the dominant host society, more needs to be done.

Seabrook (1996) interviewed a variety of actors involved in the sex industry from the tourist clients who exploit these women to the non-government organizations who promote their well being and viable reintegration into their home communities by providing them with alternative employment opportunities and training. Law (2000), too, gives voice but, in this situation, to the prostitutes, themselves, who speak about their own experiences, struggles, hopes, and dreams. Interestingly, she interjects her own voice as a questioning subject who interrogates her position in the debate over how best to define prostitution as being either (1) a legitimate form of sex work or (2) an exploitative setup that victimizes women (who, arguably, can be shown to have no other real choices left to select from once their individual circumstances are, fully and exhaustively, taken into account). A keen ethnographer and cultural geographer, Law conducts her fieldwork in the night clubs around Cebu City, Philippines. She frequents the night bar scene, and wins the trust of local prostitutes, one of whom she eventually moves in with. This allows her to delve more deeply into the lives and experiences of the local sex workers. In the process, she opens a window for sex workers to tell their own stories about their employment in the bars. Law (ibid, p. 63) finds that these women’s stories do not fit the stereotypical stories of sex workers as victims of colonialism, sex tourism or political economy. She argues that prostitution is only one component of these women’s multifarious and complex lives--it is a job that they often work for short periods of time – and that this cannot be equated with their individual personhood. Her analysis is particularly succinct and revealing of a story not often told, in that, it grapples with not only her own role but that of non-government organization workers and advocates of women’s liberation, in articulating the prostitute as victim or agent debate. A debate that Law (p. 119) contends, "denies the ambiguity of the identification" of non-government organization workers and feminists with women in the sex industry, as well as the possibility that this debate can provide a new theoretical basis upon which new identities can be constituted. But, her contention that prostitution can be a form of work that women freely choose is highly contentious in the Philippines, where impoverishment forces many to do what they otherwise would not dream of doing, and where increasing numbers of children are being caught up in this ‘profession.’

It is the open-ended and processual aspect of identity formation, that I find most compelling in Law’s work. She "calls" us to look coevally at prostitutes as being really one with ourselves. It is not really through spelling out the differences between women involved in the sex industry in terms of whether, or not, they freely chose their jobs or were coerced into it by an outside all-consuming and globalizing capitalist system, but by joining forces with them on equal footing in the recognition that their daily struggles are our common human struggles that result not so much from within, but from the very real outside force of a ‘totality.’

Taking a different approach, Moon (1997:40-45) in her excellent analysis of the United States military’s role in promoting prostitution in the Republic of Korea, argues that the Korean government has a long history of using women and their sexuality for political ends. Ever since the Koryo dynasty (918-1392), females have been trained as entertainers, kisaeng, to serve the royal court of exclusively male scholar-officials. The Choson dynasty’s (1392-1910) adoption of Confu-cianism implemented strict legal and social measures to enforce women’s chastity in the rest of the female population. Early Korean monarchs sent thousands of women as tribute to emperors in China. In Korea, there are even legends of concubines (e.g., the story of Non’gae, the concubine of General Choe Kyonghoe, who seduced a Japanese commander during the invasion of Korea in 1592) who sacrificed their chastity and lives for national well-being. It is against this particular history, argues Moon, that the current South Korean government’s emphasis on state-building, national security, and economic development, and lack of concern for the social welfare of prostitutes (who service United States’ military personnel and tourists, and the Korean government’s policies on prostitution as a form of tribute) have to be understood (ibid, p. 41).

Moon, also, takes the reader behind the scenes to look at, and hear the voices of, Korean prostitutes at work in their everyday lives. Interestingly, she gives "voice" to female prostitutes who compare their situation in Korea, to that of prostitutes in Japan after WW II, the latter of whom they say "were given more power to deal with American G.I.s" (ibid, p. 157). Moon looks at how various, non-monolithic, United States military policies on prostitution effected national policies on tourism in Korea. Her work is excellent but I would have liked to have heard this story (of militaristic domination coming from above) not only from the perspectives of Korean anti-communist nationalists, the United States’ military, and contingent sex workers, but from that of the anti-establishment nationalists (Wells 1995) whose views are anchored in the history of Korea’s independence struggle coming from below. Yet, Moon’s detailed analysis and careful use of official documents to tell the story of the role played by the United States military forces and Korean policy-makers in institutionalizing the sex industry in Korea is impeccable.

What Can Churches Do?

In conclusion, policy makers of international lending agencies and local governments, among others, have ‘rationalized’ and perpetuated the Sex Industry in Asia, by saying that it always existed there. But, the kind of sexuality that can be bought and sold as a commodity on the market, for example, wherein "a man can turn his desire into a thing," is not the same kind of sexuality that was integral to the social reproduction of Asian social formations. Precolonial relations of bondage were integral to the underlying economy of Asia. In many instances, there was a whole theology governing their relations of power and dominance. While, no doubt, abusive and exploitative relations of power and dominance occurred in precolonial contexts, they were not the same sorts of abusive relationships that sex prostitutes were to endure with the rise of the market-oriented globalization processes be they socialist, capitalist, or part of the great East Asian prosperity sphere in it’s heyday, that were instigated by the spread of the Euro-American colonial processes.

Prostitution, therefore, really is a new form of sexual slavery that connotes a more complicated way of exploiting women (men, and children) than did earlier notions. Precolonial women in the various societies and cultures of Asia, were sold into bondage or concubinage, but they, also, were familiar with what was expected of them, there were rules to protect their basic rights, and they knew the places where they were prostituting themselves. By contrast, today, the situation in which prostitutes find themselves is much more complex and this disjuncture from the past needs to be acknowledged. There are numerous problems associated with transnational sex. The impact of economic recession on the overall health and well-being of local populations needs to be examined. The AIDs epidemic, for example, can no longer be treated as a local problem alone but calls for a commitment on the part of the international community for resolution. The spread of AIDs brings a host of new problems as sex recruiters are ever on the look out for younger and younger women to meet the demands of their more aged clients. Most of the prostitutes from Asia, also, have experienced extreme forms of poverty to such a degree that they are willing to sacrifice their own personal well-being for that of their families. The effects of economic recession on the rise of the prostitution industry cannot be short counted. Since local governments stand much to gain, financially and politically, by working with international lending bodies to promote sex tourism, it is unlikely that they are seriously going to address these concerns. Hopefully, the day will come when interreligious dialogue between Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and Confucianists will take up these issues which are not only economic but socio-economic problems with religio-cultural and historical dimensions.



1. This paper expands and goes beyond an earlier review by the author entitled "Prostitution and Slavery: Does the Market Set the Captives Free?" in Critical Asian Studies 34, no. 1 (2002).

2. I use the term Third World here to refer to countries undergoing economic crises in Africa, Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe, including the former Soviet Block countries

3. According to my Taiwanese colleague, Rueyling Chuang (personal communication, 2001), these female servants, typically, are perceived by the Chinese to be part of the family. They often are romanticized in Chinese literature. There is not much open discussion of the "slave market’s use of "servants" as a common praxis in ancient China.


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