Voices: What I learned listening to sex trade survivors around the world

Voices: What I learned listening to sex trade survivors around the world
Source: Reuters, Carlos Jasso

She was the spitting image of my first cousin. I’ll call her Rosamie. She walked into the storefront room that early evening with a dozen women, some pregnant, some with toddlers straddled on their hips. The older children trailing them chose to stay outside and start a game of tag on the dirt road.

In January, right before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted, my colleagues in the Philippines had driven me from Manila to visit a group of women who had survived sex trafficking and prostitution. They lived in Olongapo, a coastal town next to the former United States Subic Bay Naval Base. Stagnant air filled the crowded room, heavy with humidity, which languished above the gray linoleum floor. The blades of the ceiling fan swirled too slowly to stop the dripping of sweat down my back.

The firstcomers sat on the handful of white and green plastic chairs lined up between two sewing machines and a small refrigerator against the paint-chipped wall. The others, including Rosamie, stood by the open door.

The director of the group introduced me in Tagalog as an advocate who had flown all the way from America to hear and remember their stories so we could push for laws and policies to end trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation together. I greeted them through interpretation and expressed what an honor it was to sit with them.

Since childhood, two of the constants in my life have been travel and feminism. In New York where I was born, my father worked as a unionized ramper for an airline company, which offered us free flights anywhere in the world. My siblings and I embraced airports as our launchpads to faraway adventures with glee.

Like many children of immigrants, our school holidays included trips to our parents’ homeland – in my case, Haiti. It was there that my grandmother fought for women’s suffrage. She also entered the workplace as a secretary, a decision deemed scandalous in the early twentieth century, especially on a colonized Caribbean island.

Her daughter – my mother – reminded us often of these feats and admonished that the long road to ending the patriarchy was one we were expected to tackle, despite the contradictions laced in our lessons about the importance of obeying rules and duties of family. From as far as collective memory carries us, my mother would narrate, women secretly wept for their daughters’ liberation, even if trapped in golden shackles. Feminism was in our blood.

The survivors in Olongapo also spoke of blood, of it spilled, of US servicemen and Australian tourists who purchased their bodies with neither concern nor pity. These men negotiated with pimps or designated taxi drivers the fees the women would never receive. Often, to save money, the sex buyers would rent one motel room for six men at a time, with six or more prostituted women. Those nights were the most violent, they said. When the sailors avoided the middlemen or rented rooms altogether, they’d lure the women to the back of the darkened church on the US naval base.

In between the women’s testimonies, I would glance back at Rosamie. In contrast to the silky, flat hair of her survivor sisters, hers was coarse. A cloth headband pulled back her brushed curls. Her full lips and chestnut-colored skin framed by high cheekbones offered a perfect genetic blend between a Filipina and a Black man. The American may have never known he left behind a daughter who would later be serially bought by a younger generation of his Navy brothers.

And yet there was Rosamie. She was living proof of intergenerational prostitution – the offspring of militarism and colonialism, now fighting to protect her daughter from the same fate.

I asked the survivors what they thought of legalizing or decriminalizing the sex trade, which so many organizations and politicians now support. They looked at each other with puzzled stares, then burst into laughter. Why would anyone suggest this, they asked me?  When I explained that these people believe that prostitution is a job like any other and assume such laws would make it safer, they hooted: sex buyers must have come up with that idea.

If they legalize prostitution, the women told me, the state will push their daughters into it as a default instead of offering the poor education and jobs. No law would prevent the myriad ways the men tortured, abused or humiliated them in prostitution. With such a law, men would believe that every woman is a commodity to sell, a body to buy.

The survivors in that narrow, sticky room in Olongapo echoed the hundreds of women I’ve met during my decadeslong travels advocating for the rights of women and girls, from the lushness of the Colombian Amazon to the ocher roads of India. I’ve listened to them as they sheltered from overcrowded barrios in Buenos Aires or the desert heat of Reno and spoke of their ordeals and survival.

Everywhere I went, each survivor vowed to prevent the prostitution of their children and of other people’s children. Whether in Latvia or Spain, Hungary or South Africa, each swore with animated voices and fingers in the air to push their governments to offer them services to rebuild their lives instead of allowing police harassment and arrests. Each proclaimed their fundamental right not to be prostituted and the urgent need to pass laws that will hold sex buyers, pimps and traffickers accountable.

The social contract allowing prostitution to flourish is the logical offshoot of economic agreements inked by colonialists and other patriarchs that sanctioned, with sacred texts in one hand and whips in the other, centuries of human enslavement. These women also became disposable bodies that disappeared in plain sight from communal empathy and were sacrificed for the pleasure and profit of others.

My mother warned me that women like Rosamie would haunt me. Misogyny seeps into the crevices of our societies, difficult to extricate. It explains why with close to four billion women and girls on the planet, one in three will experience male sexual violence or battery in her lifetime. It justifies laws and cultures that allow legalized rape known as girl marriage; why thousands of girls are genitally mutilated daily; why property rights are denied; and why women are sold in the thriving global sex trade.

The survivors in Olongapo and every sex trade survivor leader around the globe know their struggle chafes against the refrain of “boys will be boys” at great cost to them. They witness the noxious ethos that bathes the highest levels of governments, the United Nations and political campaigns. They understand they’re up against the narratives the media and Hollywood stitch into our psyches; myths that portray sexual exploitation, violence and harassment as empowering, as long as men pay for it.

Blood will continue to spill as long as prostitution is perceived as a benign source of employment. But like David, these warriors believe their proverbial slingshot will one day hit Goliath between the eyes.

So, I stand with them – both in Rosamie’s and my foremothers’ honor – to ensure, with organized resistance, that governments abide by international laws, listen to survivors and find solutions to break the waves of femicide.

This story was written by Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

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