This is our truth, tell us yours
The strikes of garment workers in Cambodia have been making the headlines, as workers demand better wages and the police respond with violence and gunshots. Looking at other parts of the world and decrying their laws is of course fraught with danger, any criticism of the Cambodians must be done with the knowledge that we are putting a man on our banknotes who was prepared to fire on striking miners.
For some of us though this is not news, we are all to aware of the police brutality towards workers in Cambodia, and the fact the west, and particularly America not only turns a blind eye, but actually pushed for a model to be made law which gave the police the power to abuse. Cambodia is the forgotten victim of the rescue industry. American NGOs, churches and anti sex work groups actively pushed for it to introduce the 2008 act as they were motivated by the desire to rescue brown bodies from the evils of sex work.
The whole idea was predicated on some of the most shocking racism that has ever crossed my path. The film Nefarious, which was screened in Scotland to show god fearing Christians how wonderful the Swedish Model is, says Cambodian parents celebrate when a girl is born because they know they can sell her to a brothel.
Think about the othering involved in being able to believe that? Of course when it comes to sex work racism, othering and the belief that white dames* are needed to save brown women from themselves is standard. Hollywood A listers queued up to be seen with Somaly Mam and Long Pros because they too were willing to believe anything of those they believed other; Sold by her parents into sex slavery and blinded by a pimp? Perfectly normal behaviour for those evil Cambodians. The true facts, according to the Cambodia daily, that she was trained by Somaly Mam, treated for a tumour by a verifiable, and shocked doctor, that the only abusers are the rescuers who made a young child tell horrific stories of sexual abuse in return for a roof over her head, they have never been reported by CNN or the other supporters of Somaly Mam.
This goes deeper than one corrupt organization though. When the Swedish Model was introduced in Cambodia it was because outsiders were determined to rescue women they decided could not make the choice to sell sex. It gave the police power over those already vulnerable women and Human Rights watch has chronicled the abuses they endure.
Police abuse sex workers with impunity. Sex workers told Human Rights Watch that police officers beat them with their fists, sticks, wooden handles, and electric shock batons. In several instances, police officers raped sex workers while they were in police detention. Every sex worker that Human Rights Watch spoke to had to pay bribes or had money stolen from them by police officers.
A 2008 Cambodian law on trafficking and sexual exploitation criminalized all forms of trafficking, including forced labor. Human Rights Watch found that police officers at times can use those sections of the law that criminalize “solicitation” and “procurement” of commercial sex to justify harassment of sex workers. The provisions are also broad enough that they can be used to criminalize advocacy and outreach activities by sex worker groups and those who support them.
Remember these are laws that the antis pushed for, laws the people of Scotland were told *rescued* Cambodians from their lives of sexual slavery. These are also consequences that everyone ever associated with the campaign for sex workers rights has predicted over and over again. It is one of the reasons “rights not rescue” is the slogan of so many sex worker led organisations in the global south, from India to the Philipines, they know what rescue means, and reject it.
Which of course is how we get from the people protesting for better pay in Cambodia (what was that about teaching rescues sex workers to sew again) to the #notyourrescueproject hashtag in twitter. The antis, radfems, swerfs, call them what you will, are trying to frame it as privileged elite sex workers versus those who really suffer, those white dames need someone to save, and are determined who is worthy. All whilst tapping on their Ipad, sipping their starbucks latte and hunting for bargains in the primark sale. Cambodia shows, it is the most vulnerable who suffer the most when people determined to tell them how to live their lives ride in fixated on rescue. No one wants to rescue a white cis middle class “escort” even when they define all sex work as rape. A lot can be seen from their attitude to people they believe to be survivors of multiple rapes. Look at the radfems trolling the tag, or those who set up #listentosurvivours. By their logic all sex workers are victims of rape but they hardly treat us that way do they?
The desire to rescue is a neo colonialist and racist one, that demands women fit into a certain model of victimhood in order to be worth saving. This is simply the fallen women myth rewritten for the twenty-first century. The rescue industry likes women of colour because they can infantalise them, taking away their choices for their own good. (A good piece of research here on Indian sex workers and their economic choice of sex work)
When they cannot other via race the rescuers focus on those whose stories are ones of suffering and redemption only through rejection of their sale of sex. Like all fallen women the redemption is only possible if they have suffered, and reject that they ever have any agency in their choices. (which is not to victim blame the survivors of trafficking, theirs is a very different story). The rescuers do not want a fully formed complex person, with bad choices as well as abuse, one who needs to reclaim their power by saying yes, this happened, I can survive it. They need a cypher, a willing sacrifice on the altar of their theories about how good women behave and how lesser women should be treated. They want a project to show that they are good people, after all who else would care about dirty whores?
From Cambodia to Camden, from Kerala to Kentucky millions of people of all genders sell sex. Each one has a story, each one has different needs, wants, desires and dreams. Not a single one of them will ever be helped by reducing them to the happy hooker versus agenciless victim dichotomy. None of them are anyones rescue project, they are people, human beings who deserve to be treated as such.
*white dames was the wonderful term suggested by laurlai as the female equivalent of white knights.
Edited one time as I was slightly confused about the exact framing of the Cambodian law