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Wednesday 08 October 2008


Proclamations of the Red Queen

26th August 2008

Review: Elizabeth Pisani: The Wisdom of Whores (2008)

Posted by: Craig Young

whores.jpgElizabeth Pisani: The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS: New York: WW Norton: 2008.

New Zealanders can pride ourselves on taking a sober, serious stance toward HIV/AIDS prevention over the last quarter-century, but what about elsewhere in the world?

Pisani’s book is especially interesting because she spent some time working alongside waria (transgender) sex workers in urban Jakarta. Unlike their rural sisters, who play religious and ceremonial roles in the countryside, urban waria have to deal with earning a living, and many turn to sex work to support themselves. Sex work? But isn’t Indonesia the world’s largest Muslim-majority country? Yes, but it shares the country with Hindu, Christian and Buddhist minorities, as well as animists.

Moreover, as Pisani sagely observes, it’s usually a better idea to sit down and talk, providing a qualitative basis for any quantitative (number crunching) research one later does, so one can have some guidelines about how gender, gender identity, class, economic development and urbanisation, ethnic differences, religious conservatism and the presence or absence of public health services affects the well-being or otherwise of one’s respondents.

In Jakarta, waria sex workers view themselves as women, and dress accordingly, although many have other livelihoods than sex work. In Jakarta’s sex industry, they coexist with men who sell sex to other men but do not identify as gay, self-identified Indonesian gay men, and middle-class IV drug users (in the latter case, much to the despair of their families- Indonesia is perilously close to South East Asia’s opiate and methamphetamine drug black markets).

As with western societies and evangelical Christianity, Indonesia occassionally experiences its own episodes of Muslim devotionalism, piety and moralism. Recently, this led to the demolition of a red-light district in Jakarta, making it difficult to provide continuous services to waria sex workers in the district. However, brothel managers are co-operative, even if some are annoyed at the absence of regular funding for condom distribution, STI and HIV testing and healthcare for either female or waria sex workers.

As for gay sexual identities, they appear to be spreading eastward, along with urbanisation, information technology and industrial development. These result in gay community formation in Indonesia, China and other East Asian societies, as well as avenues for HIV/AIDS and STI transmission- and prevention.

Africa is a different story, although one must bear in mind Cindy Patton’s caution twenty years ago that different African societies have different histories, and not all are under malignant fundamentalist Christian or Muslim social conservative rule. As with East Asia, urbanisation and economic development have had their consequences- where one’s husband is away, some women may decide to emulate them, and have multiple heterosexual sexual partners. In some societies, late teenage women have relationships with older ’sugar daddies’ in their forties, and end up having unprotected sex with them.

Moreover, fundamentalist US Christians have a greater chance of exporting their abstinence-based junk science misinformation to these societies, instead of reliable health promotion, and concrete condom provision. In addition, the Vatican also preaches male sexual irresponsibility, denying the efficacy of condom use, while promoting a sexual culture of stigma, discrimination and denial. However, Brazil has gone its own way on caring for the poor and oppressed, given that it was the birthplace of liberation theology last century.

Pisani also deals with the insidious ‘coercive sex trafficker’ myth amongst opponents of decriminalisation of adult sex work. Rather than penalise Southern sex workers for earning several times more than factory workers, why not get tough with International Labour Organisation industrial relations regulations and foster unionisation amongst female factory workers?

But no, sex workers are “benighted” or “immoral” women (and men) who must be ’saved’ from ’sexual slavery.’ When these women are ‘rescued’, they aren’t even taught meaningful skills that would enable them to escape from rural deprivation and poverty, which they probably fled in the first place. Recidivism is a hallmark of these ‘rescue’ programmes.

When it comes to dirty needles and IV drug user transmission of HIV/AIDS, it is surprising to learn that China’s Guangxi province, Bangladesh, Brazil and Iran (!) all have needle-exchange programmes, whereas the United States has refused to fund federal needle exchange programmes since 1988. Unfortunately, the spread of cocaine as an injectable drug is complicating the picture. Whereas shooting up heroin is regular, predictable and can be planned for, coke highs are of shorter duration, and abusers can go on unplanned binges, leading to needle exchange shortages, increased risk of sharing dirty syringe needles, and consequent HIV/AIDS exposure. In addition, when it comes to detox, point of service methadone access programmes work to wean abusers off dangerous drug use, whether in Balinese prisons, China, Iran, Kyrgizistan, Germany and Canada- but not the United States, given the absence of continuous and sustained needle exchange or other health promotion, risk reduction or harm minimisation services.

However, Pisani concludes with an encouraging look at China. In the late nineties, Chinese administrative pragmatism led to the emergence of United Nations AIDS Programme consultation and nonpunitive preventative focuses amongst IV drug users, emergent gay communities and sex workers- which gives one cause for hope.

Tags: Politics · Religion

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Daniel Reeders // Sep 11, 2008 at 3:37 pm

    This review totally misses the point of the book, and seems more interested in showing off the reviewer’s knowledge of religious prevalence in different countries than engaging with the Pisani’s argument about the misdirection of AIDS funding away from ’sex and drugs’ towards ‘women and children’.

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