Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sex or a T-shirt?

Is buying sex a better way to help Cambodian women than buying a T-shirt?

That's the question posed in the article comparing Cambodia's sex industry with the garment industry and its subsequent influence from tourism.
For young women, work in the sex industry—which includes hostess bars, karaoke bars, massage parlors, and freelance prostitution—is one of the few alternatives to work in the apparel industry, which produces 90 percent of the country's export earnings. Many women find it a preferable, if distasteful, alternative.
There's more money and freedom in being a bar girl or a prostitute in Cambodia. According to the article's author, the hours and work load are about the same, but factory work is like a prison sentence, whereas a bar offers TV, other girls to talk to, and often free food and drinks.
"A lot of women no longer want apparel jobs," Tola Moeun, a labor-rights activist with a group called the Community Legal Education Center, told me. "When prostitution offers a better life, our factory owners need to think about more than their profit margins."
What will happen to the garment industry if fewer women enter it because it's more lucrative to work in the sex industry?

More than that, however, is what will happen to the supporters of brothel raids and rehabilitation centers? How can you re-train a sex worker with a new skill if it pays considerably less than selling her body? Not only that, but there's a whole host of cultural issues involved once a girl is involved in prostitution, one being the shunning by her family and/or home village because she is now impure.

When I mentioned this article to a mixed group of ex-patriots in Siem Reap, most were in agreement that it's a difficult issue. However, I was slightly taken aback when an older man commented, "Of course I would pay more for a prostitute than a T-shirt!" I think my stomach slightly turned at that.

That's part of the problem. Economics. We want T-shirts to be so cheap that we encourage prostitution by how we choose to spend, or in this case, our unwillingness to spend. This translates into undervaluing women.

I wish there were a better solution, but it's rather complicated, and there is more than one issue at stake.