Activist, writer, sex-positive feminist, single mother, sandgroper, grumpy old woman.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Exposing the Flesh Trade (aka Sensationalist Journalism 101)

There is no story in journalism that gets more clicks, fans and accolades than a sex slavery exposé. 

The readers lap it up. It tugs at the heart strings, gives us an 'insight' into a seedy underbelly that we've never experienced and will never understand, and plays on our xenophobia and inherent fear of anything sex-related. It gives us a damsel in distress to care about and a hero to worship - makes our stupid white selves feel proud that we have heroic white cops to protect naive Asian prostitutes from their scary Asian bosses.

For the 'investigative journalist', it's an easy story to write. Few people know the realities of sex work, so you can just write whatever stereotypical crap springs to mind. Few people know who the major players are, so you don't have to interview them if you think they won't toe the party line. Many people have preconceived ideas about Asian women (ie RACISM), so readers will believe you when you suggest they have no agency, or that every Asian woman lives in desperate poverty, or that Asian women make great sex toys, or that Asian women are too stupid to know when they're being scammed or exploited. (Let's just ignore the fact that most migrant sex workers in Australia come from the US, the UK and New Zealand. They're obviously big enough and white enough to look after themselves).

Not enough evidence of trafficked sex workers? No worries - that's because it's such a well-hidden activity. They're definitely out there. Honest. We just can't find them. Sure, that means we can't corroborate the excessive numbers we're quoting, but you can't refute them, either. So there. Checkmate. If all else fails, find any old case involving an Asian brothel and question why nobody has been convicted. If possible, make it look like a cover-up. That shit must happen all the time, because police are corrupt and Asian gangs are powerful, right? Yeah, why not. The readers will buy that.

Why are my knickers in a twist (again) about this topic? Well, The Age and Four Corners have partnered up to do an 'exposé on the flesh trade', which will screen on Four Corners on Monday night. The Age has posted a bit of pre-screening self-promotion here:

The article's language and imagery, and obvious bias, is appalling. Not to mention the graphic depiction of the discovery of the murdered man. Vile tragedy porn. What the hell is this story even about?

Let's look at the facts, without all the decorative detail. The dead man visited sex workers, used meth, and one night he stormed a brothel. The Age/Four Corners don't know exactly what happened that night, but they're convinced he was there with good intentions. Mind you, the police didn't press charges because they thought there might be a case for self-defence, which would suggest that after an extensive murder investigation, they believed the man was NOT there with good intentions. (Interestingly, the detective involved chose not to comment). 

But we all know there must be more to this story than meets the eye, because OMG THERE WAS BROTHELS AND ASIANS AND STUFF.

"...there were whispers of broken hearts - Papo had fallen for a Korean student before his death..."

So he was in love with a brothel girl, who obviously didn't feel the same way, or there wouldn't be any broken hearts.

"[Papo] told an officer he was gravely concerned for the welfare of a 20-something Korean woman he had dated named Kathy...who was being threatened and had had her passport taken from her."

Ok, so he actually dated the woman. In the past tense. This seems to confirm they had already broken up.

"Then there was the discovery that the quiet Asian girl who had lived with Abraham in the Papo house for a few months, often studying English books on his bedroom floor, worked in a brothel".

WAIT....WHAT? She lived with him??? Ok, now I'm all kinds of confused. Was she trafficked from Korea by a controlling evil syndicate, who then let her go off and live with her boyfriend for a few months? How long ago was this? Why did she move out?

"[Papo] told [David] he had called Kathy on her mobile ... Kathy had been taken to Sydney and forced to work against her will. ''He said she was being raped and beaten and [told me] that he had to help her,'' David's police statement says. 

It took me three times reading through this article before I noticed this bit... "she had been taken to Sydney". Maybe I just had a comprehension fail, or maybe it was all the flowery language and waffling about Papo wanting to 'help Kathy' that had me picturing him trying to storm the place and drag her out of there. She wasn't there. She was in Sydney. So maybe Papo stormed the brothel demanding to know Kathy's whereabouts?

''[Abraham] said that a male had then got on [Kathy's] phone and threatened him. The guy had said that he would chop him up if he came near her. He told me he then rang an Asian guy that runs a brothel in South Melbourne and had an argument on the phone about Kathy.''

Ok, maybe not. He had just spoken to Kathy on the phone. Did she not know where she was? If his aim was to rescue Kathy, would it not have made more sense to call the Sydney police? Or jump on a plane? He had the money his brother gave him (if that's true) to do it. Why did he (supposedly) borrow this money, if not to get to Sydney? At this point, it's starting to seem highly likely that he stormed the brothel with violent intentions.

The whole phone call thing is also interesting. Apparently this sex slave - the one who was allowed to go off and live with her boyfriend for a few months - also has a mobile phone. A man gets on her phone (the same man who was raping and beating her?) and threatens to chop Papo into little pieces if he comes near her. And then....

David also told police he had called Kathy on her phone and, in broken English, she had confirmed that she was with ''bad people'', was being hurt and was unable to talk.

...the man hands the phone back to Kathy, so she can be called at a later date by her boyfriend's brother. But she's not allowed to talk. She just has the phone for...I dunno...Angry Birds, or something.

Maybe the TV program will provide more information and help this story make some kind of sense, but as it stands, it has more than a few plot-holes. I reckon I could write a slightly more believable version, based on the 'evidence' presented thus far...

A guy starts seeing a sex worker and falls in love with her. She moves in with him and after a few months, things start to head south. Maybe he demands she stop working and she doesn't want to, maybe he treats her badly (my own experience with a meth-using boyfriend wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs), or maybe she just doesn't feel the same way about him any more. For whatever reason, she ends the relationship and moves back into the brothel.

Loverboy doesn't accept this decision and starts stalking and harassing her. He calls her, she tells him she's gone to Sydney, he starts yelling at her. Some bloke (her boss, new boyfriend) grabs the phone and tells him to leave her alone. Loverboy goes ballistic. He doesn't believe she's in Sydney. He knows she's still in Melbourne and just trying to avoid him. He calls the Melbourne brothel and the owner takes Kathy's side, telling Loverboy to just back off and forget about her.

He goes to the police and makes a sex slavery claim - not because he fears his ex-girlfriend is 'in trouble', but to set the wheels in motion for a trafficking raid, which will cause havoc for the owners and hopefully get Kathy detained and/or deported. The police don't take it seriously, or maybe he just can't be bothered waiting for them to act, so he takes matters into his own hands. He storms the brothel, assaults a guy, maybe steals some stuff, then pulls out a metal bar to finish the job.

Now I'm not, for one second, excusing the man who beat another man severely enough to kill him, self-defence or not. I'm only looking at the events leading up to that incident, which - when you take away all the sex slavery, Asian crime gangs and seedy brothel neighbourhood crap - looks very much like your garden-variety ex-boyfriend who wouldn't take no for an answer. Would we see this differently if Kathy had been white? Or if she'd worked at a florist? Or if Zheng had been a nightclub bouncer, not a brothel driver?

Then, towards the end of the article, we get to the really dangerous part of these kinds of stories - the calls to change the laws and crack down on licensing/trafficking/sex work. Anyone who actually knows anything about sex work laws, brothel licensing and anti-trafficking laws, knows it's the 'cracking down' that actually facilitates this sort of crime. Cracking down on visas forces migrant sex workers to seek assistance from agents/traffickers. Cracking down on brothels forces owners to cut corners, rip off workers, or operate outside the legal framework in order to remain profitable. Cracking down on brothel licenses sees rich, powerful 'cleanskins' with no brothel experience buying their way into the sex industry. These crackdowns are invariably introduced in the name of "protecting vulnerable sex workers", but they are always the people that end up being hurt the most.

In the days since The Age article and Four Corners promotion hit, there has been an avalanche of trafficking and sex slavery media in NSW and Victoria... name but a few.

By the you notice anything missing from all of these articles? All these calls to change laws, crack down on owners and "protect the prostitutes"? Sex worker voices, that's what's missing. The very people these politicians and noisy advocates claim to want to protect. So noisy that they can't hear sex worker groups screaming FOR FUCKS SAKE, YOU WANNA TALK ABOUT EXPLOITATION? HOW ABOUT WE START WITH YOU EXPLOITING US IN THE NAME OF POLITICAL POINT-SCORING?!

The voices of sex worker rights organisations will not be heard in the Four Corners piece. The Australian sex workers association, for example - who runs a federally-funded migration project, in partnership with sex worker organisations in SE Asia and staffed by multilingual migrant sex workers  - was actively refused an interview during production. In their attempts to redress this obvious bias, sex worker groups are now being refused interviews with the newspapers. If you want to hear that side of the story, you will need to go to their websites, follow them on Twitter and Facebook, read the Indy press. Because you ain't gonna hear it in the mainstream media.

Trafficking is real. Sex slavery is a heinous crime and anyone committing it should be hunted down like a dog and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We need to be aware that these situations exist and to know what to do if we come across it. But writing racist, hysterical nonsense and actively excluding the experts from the discussion is not the way to go about it.


  1. I think the most amusing part of the entire TV program was when they spoke about the phone call. The man was apparently beating and raping her, and yet she had the opportunity to be on the phone. She was also "screaming in pain" whilst she was being beaten and raped....... but on the phone. And she chose not to call 000. She chose to call the guy. I've never heard of a kidnapped person, trafficked person or enslaved person having rights to a phone either.

    Of particular interest was when they tried to interview that Taiwanese woman and she refused an interview. They more or less flat-out asked her about her involvement in trafficking... as if her answering them wouldn't be seen as an immediate confession. Her silence on the matter, of course, is taken to be an admission of guilt.

    Being an Asian, knowing lots of sex workers, and being part of the sex industry myself... This entire program was insulting, degrading and made me very agitated. I know a lot of girls who are migrant sex workers from Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan. They are often paying off stupid debts (30k worth of LV bags, anyone? I'm being serious), come here, make a bucket load of money (I kid you not they willingly work the 12hour shifts. But then again, so do a lot of my Australian working girl friends). Then they head home after about 6 months. Some of them 'tour' from brothel to brothel. Usually about rotations of 3 weeks per brothel, so they can be the 'new girl' on roster and earn the 'fresh face' cash that newbies often come across.

    Why does every sex trafficking piece of sensationalist BS have to be about Asians, by the way? As if no other ethnicity ever gets trafficked. They're as bad as the idiot Asian woman from the Salvos, talking about 'saving me' from my job as if I were some uneducated, homeless, drug addicted git. The blank stare I received when she realized that not only was I from a good family background, but I was tertiary educated and live a drug free, alcohol free and cigarette free lifestyle.

    Stupid people and their stupid misconceptions about sex industry workers.

  2. Anonymous, thanks so very much for stopping by. The racism inherent to this trafficking rubbish is absolutely vile. I'm a white gal and it angers me to the point of throwing things. I can't even begin to imagine how it makes you feel. I'm so sorry they are treating you this way.

    I'm in Western Australia, so I haven't seen Four Corners because hasn't screened here yet, but I imagine I'm going to want to kill it with fire. May have to record it and watch when I'm in a better frame of mind. Too stabby at the moment!

    Thanks again for your awesome comment. I hope lots of people read it and rethink their own attitudes to this issue, including their racism.