In its broadest sense, the concept of “sexual servitude” covers a myriad of practices and relationships, limited only by the brutishness of human imagination. It has existed since our species began to walk on two legs and will remain as long as we do.
Today it is used to cover such diverse phenomena as legal and illegal prostitution; mail-order brides; geishas and other contemporary forms of “comfort women”; numerous types of arranged marriage; polygamy; and culturally-sanctioned rape. Then there are those who follow Marx and the more radical feminists in saying ordinary bourgeois marriage itself is a form of prostitution.
The notion may even cover aspects of social security. The London Daily Telegraph reports (January 30, 2005) that Germany's welfare reforms provide that a woman under 55 out of work for more than a year who refuses to take any available job - including one in the sex industry - will lose her unemployment benefit. An endearingly Teutonic form of mutual obligation.
Clearly, we cannot get rid of all forms of sexual servitude. But what we can do is rein in those variants which are regarded as intrinsically abhorrent (at least in our kind of society) and over which governments have jurisdiction and some control.
I am referring specifically to the sexual trafficking of women, mainly from South-East Asia and China, to work as slaves in Australian brothels.
The term is not a metaphor. This is the real thing - the ownership and exploitation of women who are physically and psychologically vulnerable and who are usually acting out of the sheerest desperation. They are the effective property of other human beings (mostly, but not always men).
They may be potential migrants promised certain kinds of work but forced into prostitution when they arrive in the country. They may have paid a fee, or bribe, or have entered into a “debt contract”, which they have to pay off by having sex with as many men as their owners care to force on them, often without using condoms. Virtual prisoners in the brothels, these women put their bodies at others’ disposal for anything up to 15 or 16 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week. Their “wage” is a few dollars a week.
Admittedly, the more benign owner allows them to work for themselves on the occasional day off. But, generally speaking, they are the de facto - though certainly illegal - property of the traffickers and brothel owners. This, in plain language, is bondage.
Once the women have paid off their “debt” they are usually discarded. Indeed, the traffickers are more than happy for them to be caught and deported when they are no longer a saleable commodity. Often the traffickers themselves dob in the women to immigration officials.
Over the last few years there have been some changes in the way we confront and deal with both victims and perpetrators. Governments at all levels have begun to take the problem seriously - notably through the Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission Inquiry into Trafficking in Women, as well as the National Action Plan to combat Trafficking in Women. There have even been a few prosecutions, though not, as yet, any convictions.
There has also been a welcome change in attitude towards the victims. Until 2003 foreign women caught in brothels who appeared to be victims of sex trafficking were usually taken directly to immigration detention centres where they would be processed and then unceremoniously deported to their country of origin.
Among other things, this proved awkward for prosecutors who were unable to obtain relevant testimonies against the traffickers. So the federal government came up with a compromise. If the women agreed to act as witnesses they might be granted a special visa to stay in Australia while they were helping police and prosecutors with their inquiries.
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