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The Sex Trade by Jody Hanson (1)

inJusticebusters is proud to present a series of articles by Dr. Jody Hanson, a former Saskatchewanian who forsook a professorship at a university in New Zealand to pursue her research of the sex trade unhampered by the uptightness of the academy. Jody writes both academic and popular articles. Her early research — before she realised it was research — was in Saskatchewan. The laws regarding prostitution are virtually identical in in New Zealand and Canada. We hope that you will enjoy reading Jody's work and that it inspires you to action.

Map to the Hanson articles

THIS PAGE: Child Prostitution in South East Asia: White Slavery Revisited? • Beyond the Rolling Hills and Sheep: Tourism and the Sex Trade in New Zealand • Ship-Molls, Sailors and Sex at Sea
PAGE TWO: Where There are No Tourists - Yet: A Visit to the Slum Brothels in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
PAGE THREE: Learning Democracy: Working at the University, Studying at the Brothel • Sex Tourism as Work: A Discussion with New Zealand Prostitutes

Child Prostitution in South East Asia: White Slavery Revisited?

Introduction

  • Are current accounts of child prostitution in South East Asia similar to the propaganda used during the turn of the century campaign to end the white slave trade in North America?
  • Emma Goldman (1970), an anarchist writing at the time of the so-called white slave trade, theorises, "It is significant that whenever the public mind is to be diverted from a great social wrong, a crusade is inaugurated against indecency, gambling, saloons, etc." (p. 19).
  • Does the literature in either case call for eliminating the structural causes of prostitution? Are the moralists, indeed, concerned with diverting our attention and is the general public accepting the accounts with which they are presented without question?
  • When reading contemporary accounts of child prostitution in South East Asia I am often left with a feeling of deja vu, with the distinct impression that this is all so hauntingly familiar. Dale Spender's (1983) book There's always been a women's movement this century serves as an example of this pattern of historical theme and variation.
  • Rather than offering an interpretation of turn of the century popular press material on the white slave trade, a polite term for prostitution, and reviewing the contemporary reports about child prostitution in South East Asia in a conventional academic manner, mainstream writings from the two periods are juxtaposed so readers can judge the tone, style and content for themselves.
  • In this chapter I examine the similarities of contemporary child prostitution and the white slave trade. Topics which are juxtaposed fall under the rubric of rural-urban migration in an industrialising context and include employment options, recruitment practices used to entice girls into prostitution and 'escaping' from the sex industry.
  • A discussion calling into question the class origins of the writers, the tones of the texts and the mission to 'save' women from prostitution follows.
  • The policies of protection and the limitation of the proposed solutions are also examined, as are the suggestions to eliminate the 'problem'. The works of writers who view prostitution from an "It's a job" perspective are then presented. In this section, the data base is the transcripts of taped interviews and the field notes I compiled while in Thailand and Vietnam in December and January of 1995-96. This field trip was part of my continuing study of the international sex-industry. Rather than a conclusion, this chapter ends with questions for further consideration.

Historical and Contemporary Accounts

The primary source for turn of the century literature is the book War on the white slave trade edited by Ernest A. Bell (reprinted in 1980). In the preface he writes "For the protection of the innocent, for the safeguarding of the weak, for the warning of the tempted and the alarm of the wicked, the truth must be told - the truth that makes us free" (p. 9). Contemporary accounts come from a variety of sources, including publications which consider themselves alternative press, and samples were chosen for their reflection of what is generally regarded as mainstream thought on the issue. I agree with Maggie Black (1994) when she writes, " In the phrase 'child prostitution', both words are questionably accurate - as far as the majority are concerned. And as for 'forced' into sexual work, in many cases the 'force' is metaphorical. There is often a strong element of volition, if not to enter, certainly to stay" (p. 12). This also helps explain why programmes to 'save' women from prostitution have met, over the years, with very limited success. Given the space limitations of this chapter, readers wanting clarification are advised to consult the original works to better understand the context of the brief quotations.

Juxtaposition of the Literature

Circa 1900

"Employment agents have been convicted for sending girls out as house servants to immoral places for the ultimate reason of making them inmates in the house."- Clifford G. Roe, Assistant State's Attorney of Cook County (in Bell. 1980, p. 171-172).

"The parents gave their consent, thinking that through the girl's life upon the stage their position in life would be raised, and they sent the little girl on to Chicago with this man, bidding her 'God-speed'"- Clifford G. Roe, Assistant State's Attorney of Cook County (in Bell, 1980,, p. 166)

Contemporary

"The road to prostitution may start in early years with female children working as domestic servants. They become easy prey to the sexual hunger of their masters, their master's friends and relatives"- Nayyer Javed (in Sekhar, 1980, p. 23)

"They talk to [the parents] about their debts and get them to believe that their children will be better off doing a nice job like selling flowers in the city". - Julie Roberts (1988, p. 23)

"The white slave trade may be said to be the business of securing white women and of selling them or exploiting them for immoral purposes. It includes those women and girls who, if given a fair chance, would, in all probability, have been good wives and mothers and useful citizens" (p. 14).- Edwin W. Sims, United States District Attorney

"The country girl is more open to the enticements of city life, being more truthful, perfectly innocent and unsuspecting of those whose business it is to seek their prey from girls of this class"- Miss Florence Mabel Dedrick (in Bell, 1980, p. 105)

"A girl reared in the country is not taught to suspect everyone she meets, unless a rare occurrence presents itself, and when involuntarily the defence instinct asserts itself." (p. 105) - Miss Florence Mabel Dedrick (in Bell, 1980)

"It is through the lack of education of the fathers and mothers along these lines, particularly in the rural districts that Satan has been aided in his onward evil march. Some one has said, "No reform will ever be successful till people know the truth."- Miss Florence Mabel Dedrick (in Bell, 1980, p. 113-114)

"How many hundreds of innocent American and European girls have been led away to heathen and Mohammedan lands, on false promises of good positions as teachers, governesses, or even as missionaries, only the open books of the day of judgment will disclose" (p. 28)- Ernest Bell

"One girl, in telling me how she had been led astray said she had only been getting #3.50 a week. Seeing an advertisement for experienced workers at $5.00, she answered it. For two weeks they kept it from her that she was in a house of shame" - Miss Florence Mabel Dedrick (in Bell, 1980, p. 101).

"One victim was found and rescued in Winnipeg. Several others disappeared and have not been found. One daughter of the Parsonage, now fatherless, from across the Line, was rescued and restored to her mother from a resort in British Columbia"- Rev. J. G. Shearer, D, D., Secretary, Moral and Social Reform Council of Canada (in Bell, 1980, p 345) "Agents of the sex trade take advantage of women's vulnerability to violence. Often, women run into the trap set by these agents to escape violence. . . "- Kripa (reprinted from the New Internationalist in Sekhar, 1995, p. 28)

"Large numbers of children and young women- mostly from poor families in Burma, southern China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan- were sold to pimps and forced to work in sex dens throughout the region"- Hildebrand (in Sekhar, 1995), p.10."Some of the women and children are abducted from outside their house or while they are at work" (p. 24)- Nayyer Javed (in Sekhar, 1995)

"Sometimes, I think, it's innocence on the part of the parents when they sell their children, "Dahlin said. "They think really they will work in a factory or in a restaurant or in an office. But some parents know exactly what their children are going into". (Kelly, 1990, p. 2)

"In other parts of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, there are several thousand less fortunate women who are held in captivity as virtual sex slaves working in dingy prostitution dens or classy nightclubs and restaurants operating as fronts." Angeles-Forster (in Sekhar, 1995), p. 1

"These young women who come from remote local areas or overseas are lured by illegal recruiters into accepting non-existent decent jobs in the cites and abroad". Angeles-Forster (in Sekhar, 1995)

"There are more Tanyas and Martas in other parts of the world, some whisked away to oblivion, others luckier to have been rescued"- Leonora Angeles-Forster (in Sekhar, 1995).

"If, in spite of all this, a girl should be brave enough or rash enough to try to make her way out of the dive, and escape, almost nude, as she is kept, into the street, perhaps she would be allowed to go". Ernest Bell, p. 241-242.

"If the young girls who are seeking a living upon the stage could know of the pitfalls that are in their way, I believe many of them would seek other employment. One of the girls is now married and living very happily." Arthur Burrage Farwell, President Chicago Law and Order League (in Bell, 1980, p. 233).

"Two girls were brought before the registrar general, both of whom pleaded for protection against their owner, stating that she intended to sell them to go to California. One of these had been bought by this woman for eighty dollars; the girls saw the price paid for her.- Ernest Bell. (1980, 214-215).

"Others are first seduced, then half willingly go, this seeming to them a less evil than facing the shame at home. Still others are wooed, won and wedded in cold blood by heartless slavers, then inveigled or forced into the segregated colonies in the great American cities"- Harry A Parkin, Assistant United States District Attorney (in Bell, 1980, p. 335) "In the last few years, it has become harder for girls to escape prostitution and the reality is usually very different from what they have been promised" Judith Mannion & Phillip Ridge, 1990, p. 60).

"In many countries throughout the region, the flesh trade is fully integrated with other, quite legitimate businesses. the health cubs found in many hotels are often mere fronts for brothels, offering a range of services to hotel patrons." Judith Mannion & Phillip Ridge (1996, p. 59).

"She was still in primary school when her mother sold her to a teahouse for $275. For her mother it meant a television and a bottle of whisky. For little Pim, it meant the beginning of life as a sex slave, being forced to take customers for $1.75 each in a room behind the restaurant. She was just 12 years old." -Frances Kelly (1990, p. 2)

"Other women have been tricked into marrying foreigners, sometimes with the help of illegal marriage brokers, only to end up working in brothels abroad"- Leonora Angeles-Forster (in Sekhar, 1995, p. 2)

Middle Class Accounts and Proposed Solutions Both turn of the century and contemporary literature reviewed thus far reflects middle class values and liberalistic concerns. The moralistic tones of the texts, in both instances, often represent second hand accounts, and are stories which appeal to our sense of injustice. Harry A Parkin, Assistant United States District Attorney (in Bell, 1980), for example, writes:

A very few days ago this pitiful case was, in an official way, brought to my attention. A little German girl in Buffalo married a man who deserted her about the time her child was born. Her baby is now about eight or nine months old. Almost immediately after her husband ran away she formed the acquaintance of an engaging young man who claimed to take deep interest in her welfare, and in that of a certain girl friend of hers. He persuaded them both that if they would accompany him to Chicago he would immediately place them in employment which would be far more profitable than anything they could obtain in Buffalo. . . . "Madam, do you know that this is a house of prostitution?" (in Bell, 1980, 330-331).

The theme of wanting to 'save' women from prostitution is apparent in both eras. The 'discourse of decision', which may be an extension of survival in an industrialising country, however, is absent. Subsistence farming holds little appeal for anyone other than romantics. Is it any wonder than that sex work attracts young women when "The average wage for a Government employee [in Cambodia] is $20 a month. A female child can earn three times that much in a week through prostitution" (Thompson, 1994, p. 53)?

Thompson dismisses the economic factor as inconsequential, and she fails to discuss the idea that in Cambodia children are expected to contribute to the family income. She does, however, report that Tony, an Australian who works with World Vision "has resorted to photographing and following some of the men to try to stop them taking advantage of the desperate children" (p. 53).

Why are the wages of parents, in relation to the goods and services they can purchase, not questioned? After all, poor parents have poor children and poor children have to contribute to the family income if they are all going to survive. Could it be that poverty, not prostitution is the issue? Both at the beginning and end of the 20th century, the charitable solutions being proposed by well meaning liberals are of limited value, by my estimation. Judith Mannion and Phillip Ridge (1996), for instance, acknowledge "And if a girl enters domestic service [in Thailand], the expectation is usually that she will provide sexual favours to her male employer who, if he is feeling generous, may extend those same favours to his friends" (p. 59).

They then go on to endorse the work of the Daughters' Education Programme where they "Snatch girls - some as young as seven - in immediate danger of being sold into prostitution, and provides them with up to three years education or vocational training" (p. 61).

Granted it keeps the young women out of the brothels for three years, but does it also mean that they will be better servants (which is about the best job one could hope for with minimal educational skills)? As Mannion and Ridge already established, many servant positions also include sexual services so whose interests are really being served? The need for domestic servants being directly related to middle-class interest in 'saving' girls from prostitution has been documented (Roberts, 1994; Henriques).

In Thailand, groups, such as Empower and NET, are working with prostitutes and, given their peer education focus, girls in the sex-industry are more likely to have access to condoms and sexual health checks than are their domestic servant counterparts. At a brothel at Soi Cowboy in Bangkok where I was a frequent visitor, for example, there were safe sex posters on the back of the doors in the woman's toilets and above the men's urinals. The girls who worked there said they used condoms and a couple of them pulled some of out their pockets and bags to show me (Hanson, fieldnotes).

Samantha, a fifty-nine year old prostitute who has been in the business for many years, told me she always insists on condoms and that she counsels young women to do the same. It is the clients who do not want to practice safe sex, not the prostitutes. As well as the moralistic tones being consistent in both eras, the policies of protection are similar in intent and international in scope. In the case of the white slave trade, according to Bell (1980),

An international project of arrangement for the suppression of the white-slave traffic was, on July 25, 1902, adopted for submission to their respective governments by the delegates of the various powers represented at the Paris conference, which arrangement was confirmed by formal agreement signed at Paris on May 18, 1904, by the Governments of Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and the Swiss Federal Council" (p. 15).

Given that these laws were already in place, it seems to be an extension, rather than a new statute that "Germany, Norway and Sweden have passed laws allowing prosecution of child abusing sex tourists in their country of origin. Australia, France and New Zealand are considering similar legislation" (Sekhar, 1995, p. 9).

By passing the laws, it seems, the campaigners are relieved of some of their moral responsibility. After all, by prosecuting the offenders in their home countries, they are now 'protecting' the young women of Asia from the hordes of sex tourists who are often portrayed as perverted dildo wielding, video-packing paedophiles. Exactly how this prosecution is going to take place- who is going to lay the complaint, how is evidence to be gathered, how are the women going to testify in a foreign language and in a foreign land- is yet to be established and, except for a few showpiece cases, the legislation is unlikely to do much other than create a 'See we're doing something about this problem' sense of relief.

The 'It's a Job' Perspective Child prostitution is about as emotive an issue as one can find these days. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the topic. Black (1994) rightly warns "As with all child labour, it is extremely difficult to challenge the conventional wisdom without being accused of condoning what cannot, and must not, be condoned" (p. 12).

Like Black, I do not think prostitution is necessarily the worst occupational choice a woman can make. Again, the economic realities and the discourse of decision also have to be taken into account. Further, like Black (1994), I have trouble with the idea that a girl can be married at the age of thirteen and become a mother at the age of fourteen, but is categorised as a child prostitute until she is eighteen. "The overwhelming majority of 'children' in prostitution are well past puberty, mostly in their mid-teens, and many are beyond both the legal age of marriage and of sexual consent" (p. 12).

While in South East Asia on two occasions I spent quite a lot of time in a sweatshop factory where the women sewed silk clothes for western women like me; I also visited a number of brothels in Bangkok, Surin and Ho Chi Minh City. At the end of the day, I have no problem whatsoever understanding why women opt for sex work. Working in an oftentimes poorly lit poorly ventilated factory for fourteen hours a day six days a week for low wages is, by western standards, unacceptable. Still, many women find it more appealing, more profitable and more social than subsistence farming (Hanson, fieldnotes).

What about sex work? Yes, some of the clients (the vast majority of whom are local, by the way, as sex-tourism is a small, but highly publicised, percentage of the actual market) are drunk or obnoxious. Of course there are chances of catching sexually transmitted diseases. For some women these occupational hazards, when weighed up against the odds of violent husbands or sweatshop conditions, make prostitution the preferred occupational choice. Sex work also allows prostitutes to send more money home to their families, "They can earn easy money, and especially when they have a large family which they have to feed. They are so poor. So this job can bring money very quickly so that they can use it for emergencies, immediate expenditures" (Hanson, Ho Chi Ming City transcript). At the turn of the century, poor and working-class women in America (both native-born and immigrant) had few real options. In short, they could marry a farmer, go to the city in search of work in a factory, seek employment as a servant or become a prostitute. Goldman (1970) argues,

"The wife who married for money compared with the prostitute," says Havelock Ellis, "is the true scab." She is paid less, gives much more in return in labor and care, and is absolutely bound to her master. The prostitute never signs away the right over her own person. She retains her freedom and personal rights, nor is she always compelled to submit to man's embrace. (p. 26-27)

Are the employment opportunities for American women at the turn of the century similar to those available to uneducated rural women in South East Asia today? Unlike the reformist writers of both periods, I find that prostitution is often a conscious occupational decision for young women, as mentioned earlier, insofar as it appeals more than working in a factory for low wages or subsistence farming. Further, most prostitutes get into the sex-industry because they already know someone, oftentimes a relative, who is already working there. The following account serves as an example and is from the transcript of an interview with Miss Min, the translator at the Sex Worker Outreach Project in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam:

Many prostitutes have very little education, and they are poor. Maybe they start off, not with sex work, but with something else. But life is harsh, and they see other people very beautifully dressed up and they think "Why don't we try it?" And they do the same and they earn a lot. So they come back to the rural areas and talk to other people and they see that many just follow suit because they see that their life in the rural area is very difficult, and they cannot earn as much money. . . . When [parents] need money they even send their children to prostitution. Perhaps they have a 16 year old daughter and they need money, so they just take her into the business.

More Questions and Further Considerations

Returning to Emma Goldman's (1970) idea that sensationalist and emotive campaigns are waged to divert us from more serious issues gives me pause. While I do not claim to have the answers, I do have some questions.

  • Could it be that Goldman was right when she wrote "To the moralist prostitution does not consist so much in the fact that the woman sells her body, but rather that she sells it out of wedlock" (P. 25)? Why are the reformist people, in both instances, willing to settle for limited measures, such as providing at-risk girls with minimal education?
  • Could it be that calling for the elimination of the causes of prostitution also means calling for the elimination of the capitalist system which currently supports it? As South East Asia becomes industrialised and produces inexpensive goods an increasingly number of rural people are moving the urban areas in the hopes of finding work. The market images of, say, Coke, MacDonalds and Reebok to name just a few, create consumer needs. Along with these needs comes the obligation to have enough money to purchase the desired goods. So if prostitution is a way to make fast and relatively easy money, why should people be surprised when young women exercise this option? Again it goes back to the idea of supply and demand.
  • While people voice their concern about child prostitution in South East Asia, child prostitution going on in their own countries, cities or even neighbourhoods is often ignored or, when it does attract the attention of the press, is often passed off as an isolated incident. Once, for instance, I asked a 54 year old Kiwi prostitute how long she had been in the sex-industry. She looked at me and said "I've been cracking it since I was four years old and my step-father would not give me enough to eat unless I came across" (Hanson, fieldnotes). So why, then, it is that many liberals are content to see child prostitution as a problem 'over there' while ignoring it at the local level?
  • Some of the attitudes about child prostitution and sex tourism are, indeed naive, "I don't see why paedophiles from Australia and New Zealand should be able to go to other countries and do things to children that are totally illegal and punishable in their own countries" (Ansley, 1993, p. 9). Does that mean Australian and New Zealand children are somehow safe because the paedophiles now go overseas? It seems unlikely given that most children are molested by someone they know. Since it seems that all accounts of child prostitution start with what Black (1994) calls a 'gut-wrenching' account, I thought I would turn it around and end this chapter on a positive note.

Goldman's (1970) optimism comes through when she writes "And educated public opinion, freed from the legal and moral hounding of the prostitute, can alone help to ameliorate present conditions" (p. 32). Yes, child prostitution, along with other forms of child labour, can be eliminated. But in doing so we also have to eliminate the capitalist system which underpins economic, social and cultural exploitation. Could it be, as Goldman (1970), suggests, that a war against child prostitution is being waged to divert our attention from the real problems? The effects of capitalism, not only young women, but all people who are not in positions of power, are being lived in South East Asia on a day-to-day basis. And perhaps the harsh realities of having to cope with what that means is more than we can handle. It is easier, therefore, to concentrate of a small and moralistic crusade to save a few child prostitutes, rather than to question the system which leaves them with few other choices.


References:
Ansley, Greg. (9 June, 1993). Nations combine in child prostitution crackdown. New Zealand Herald, pp. 9
Black, Maggie. (1994). Home truths. New Internationalist, 252, 11-13.
Bell, Ernest. (Ed.). (1980). War on the white slave trade. Toronto: Coles.
Goldman, Emma. (1970). The traffic in women and other essays on feminism. Washington: Times Change Press.
Hanson, Jody. (January 1996). Transcript of the interview at the Sex Worker Outreach Project, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Hanson, Jody. (continuing). Fieldnotes.
Hanson, Jody. (various dates). Transcripts of interviews with sex-industry workers.
Henriques, Fernndo. (1963). Prostitution in Europe and the New World. London: Magibon & Kee.
Kelly, Frances. (12 May, 1990). Asian flesh trade now big business . . . and growing. New Zealand Herald, pp. 2,4.
Mannion, Judith & Ridge, Phillip. (1996). Sacrifical lambs. More, 156, 58-61.
Roberts, Julie. (15 August 1988). Kiwi spearheads child rescue mission. New Zealand Women's Weekly, pp. 22-24.
Roberts, Nickie. (1994). The whore, her stigma, the punter and his wife. New Internationalist, 252, 8-9.
Sekhar, Kripa. (Ed.) (1995). A window to the street [Special issue]. NETWORK of Saskatchewan Women, 10 (1).
Spender, Dale. (1983). There's always been a women's movement this century. London. Pandora Press.
Thompson, Judith. (25 July 1994). Ashamed to be a Kiwi. New Zealand Woman's Weekly, pp. 52-53.

Beyond the Rolling Hills and Sheep

Often times when people think of New Zealand they imagine a pristine pastoral country, complete with rolling green hills dotted with sheep contentedly grazing. Ah yes, and this is the squeaky clean image the tourism department wants to portray. Behind the 'g'day mate' exterior, however, the landscape is sprinkled with parlours, agencies and independents. In other words the sex industry - so near and yet so far from the paddocks - is an intricate part of New Zealand life. And it ranges from the bustle of Fort Street in Auckland to a quiet little parlour in Dunedin.

It is estimated that there are about 10,000 sex workers in New Zealand, a country with a population of about three and a half million. But estimates are exactly that and calculating a precise number of people involved in the industry is impossible as it varies on a daily basis. And, as in many other countries, it is further diversified in that there are people who work long hours and those who only do one shift a week, those who have been in the industry for years and those who only work for a short while. It would seem, though, that as economic times get increasingly worse there are more workers. Another financial indicator is that in some centers price wars have broken out and the fee per appointment has plummeted. A few general observations - and they are, indeed, general - is that perhaps ten percent of the people in the sex industry work on the streets, predominantly in Auckland and Wellington. Cuba and Vivian streets in Wellington, by the way, have the distinguished honour of being known as 'the world's smallest red light district'.

Most sex workers are found in agencies and in parlours although the number of independents is increasing. The vast majority of the workers are heterosexual women but there are also gay men, lesbians and transgenders, the latter groups found mainly in the larger cities. As well as prostitutes, New Zealand also has dominatrices and submissives.

Another trend seems to be that specialist services are increasingly in demand. Again like so many other countries, there is movement between parlours and agencies in a city as well as migration to other centers. Workers from Hamilton, for instance, might decide to go work in Tauranga (an hour's drive) for the weekend. Prostitution is, after all, one of the few occupations where a person can quit one job, go down the street and get another very shortly.

Katherine O'Regan, a National Party MP (in conjunction with people at the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective and interested others) is preparing a private member's bill to decriminalize the sex industry. Hopefully it will serve as a starting point to gain public recognition of prostitution as a service industry. The attitude towards the sex industry in New Zealand is often one of 'Oh yes it is here but we really don't want to know about it and we certainly don't want it in our back yard'. Provincial and parochial, perhaps, but again not substantially different from the view in, say, Canada from hence I come. In terms of law enforcement, the police usually don't bother with sex venues as long as they don't suspect drugs, stolen property or receive a complaint which requires that they investigate. Perhaps the definitive generalization about the sex industry in New Zealand is that it is fairly unassuming and discrete - which may well be why it can co-exist with the sheep and the green hills.

Dr. Jody Hanson, who lives in Auckland, is a consultant with ad-Vice: The Sexual Services Consultanty. She has conducted sex-industry field research in New Zealand, Tanzania, Canada, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, and Fiji. After three and a half years of research she became bored with regular sex so she diversified her study to the esoteric practice of female domination and is currently writing a book on the topic.


Ship-Molls, Sailors and Sex at Sea

The idea of sailors having a girl in every port is a well-known and generally accepted phenomena. But what about the women who have a sailor on every boat? It is the latter, the ship-molls-- also sometimes known as coastal hostesses, shippies or ship girls-- rather than the former who most interest me.

When I asked the women on board the Emma Rose which name they preferred, Karla said she didn't much care and a few others nodded in agreement. Carrie mentioned that these are simply the terms the shore-side people use when discussing the women who visit the ships. Like the terms for many other groups, the various names were coined by outsiders. In the context of writing this article, however,

I had to decide on a name for the women-who-visit-the-ships so I settled on the term ship-moll because it appeals to me, even though some people might consider it derogatory. Now I think the term 'moll' has a certain hint of mystery, complete with a touch of the outrageous. It is, however, important to remember that having been on the ships myself I don't a problem with people referring to me as a ship-moll- if anything it adds credibility to my report and strengthens the idea of taking back the word. For variety, though, I also use the other terms interchangeably. Perhaps, I should explain how and why a lecturer from the University of Waikato stepped onto the Emma Rose in Tauranga and became a ship-moll.

Since taking up my academic appointment in June 1994, my research focus has been studying the informal and non-formal learning practices (specifically peer-education, mentoring and apprenticeships) and socialisation processes of workers in the sex-industry. When I talked with sex-industry workers in mid-size New Zealand cities when I started my field research I often heard references to ship-molls. The stereotypical image I developed of shippies was that they were big, stocky women, about fifteen kilograms overweight, with longish matted hair and lots of visible tattoos. Coming from land-locked central Canada as I did, I knew very little about women who visit the ships.

I became increasingly curious about how their activities and lifestyles differed from those of more formal prostitution. Through a friend of a friend of a friend I made contact with a self-identified ship-moll named Misty. I arranged to visit her one Saturday morning at her house near the wharf in Tauranga. On meeting Misty, I felt an immediate sense of affinity, partly perhaps because she reminds me of my sister-in-law, Jackie.

The stereotypical image of ship-molls was immediately shattered. Misty is in her thirties, has longish brunette hair, green eyes and a bit of a tan. She is of average build, and has a winning smile and sparkling eyes - and no tattoos. As I spent the morning talking with Misty and her friend Karla, whom I mentioned earlier, I increasingly began to see being a ship-girl as a lifestyle, rather than an occupation. Looking through Misty's photo album at pictures of the parties on the ships further reinforced this idea. As I was getting ready to leave, Misty asked me if I would be interested on going on a ship sometime. It took me about three seconds to say, "I'd love to!" She consulted her shipping list, a computer print-out of which day which vessel is expected in port, and announced that the Emma Rose would be a good choice for my first visit to the ships. The

Emma Rose is a Filipino ship which has a courteous crew and a reputation for hosting good parties so when it arrived in port a few weeks later I returned to become a ship-moll. The only way to properly understand the lifestyles of the shipmolls in Tauranga, according to my research methodology, is to spend time with them so I can better appreciate their situations. Life History Research

This article focuses on my first visit to a ship, although subsequent visits support what I had learned on my initial encounter with the coastal hostesses. Following the methodology developed by Sue Middleton in her book Educating feminists: Life histories and pedagogy, I interview women who work in various areas of the sex-industry about their lives. In the course of my research in the last two and a half years, I have met about three hundred sex-workers including prostitutes, madams, receptionists, submissives, dominatrixs and, now, ship-girls.

Some people say that to be an effective researcher you should distance yourself from your research situation so that you can remain objective. I disagree. I argue research, and the mere presence of a researcher, is by definition and situation, interactive, and, thus, I make no claims about being a passive observer. I should also note that while I am empathetic to the ship-molls, I still retain the critical eye of a journalist, the somewhat suspicious perspective of an outsider. Fernando Henriques once commented that, "A foreign, but favourable critic, is sometimes an excellent guide to the manners and customs of another age". Rather than romanticising or glamorising the lifestyles of ship-molls my aim it to briefly describe their circumstances with the express purpose that a wider public audience will begin to better understand their situations. Using a life history methodology means that the people I write about are actively involved in my final product. My observations as an outsider were commented on by some coastal-hostesses when they reviewed the drafts of this article and offered their suggestions.

Having people respond to what is written about them is an interesting process for both researcher and people being researched. Carrie, for example, noted that she hadn't thought about women going on the ships being judged by how they acted, rather than by what work they did, until she read I had written about it. Like Sue Middleton, who writes about teachers, I learned, through association with the ship-molls over an extended period of time, that what they initially told me was reconfirmed by them on other occasions and further verified by others. Unlike questionaries where people can tell you what it is they think you want to hear, life history depends on revisiting answers and it presents a more insightful assessment and account of people's lives.


Lifestyles of the Ship-Molls

Many of the women who visit the ships come from the lower socio-economic range, although it does vary somewhat. A number are single mothers. Some work at low-paying jobs such waitressing or clerking in a store. And at least one (namely me) is a university lecturer. To hire a child-minder and go off to the bar and pay for their own drinks is often too expensive a social outing for women on a limited income. Going down to a ship, however, means that the alcohol is free and sometimes food is provided as well. These occasions also offer the opportunity to go out, the chance to socialise and the possibility to have some fun.

Ship-molls, I learned, come in all shapes, sizes and ages. Some are teenagers, others are in their fifties, but most fall in the 20 to 40 year old range. They may be fat, average, thin, and have blonde, red or black hair. And they range from pretty to plain. Some have tattoos, others don' t. The motivation for going on the ships also differs from person to person. For some women it is simply a social outing, an opportunity to have a few drinks and dance. These women, like Karla, go home alone after having a good time. Carrie, for instance, told me that the only reason she goes on the ships is because she likes the social life and she gains respect because she is treated as a person, not an object, by the sailors with whom she chooses to have sex. After all, she doesn't have to have sex with a man she doesn't find attractive.

For others it is a chance to make a bit of additional cash. And for a minority of ship-girls, it is straight out prostitution, an agreed upon fee-for-service arrangement. The sex-at-sea part of the title, by the way, means in the harbour as ringbolting (women stowing away on board the ship as it moves from port to port) is no longer widely practiced. Because many of the women go on the ships on an infrequent basis, it is difficult to get an accurate estimate of the number of ship-girls in Tauranga, but the general agreement is that there are about forty.

Occasionally shippies come in from Auckland or Wellington. The local women, however, aren't too happy about having other molls (who sometimes cause trouble) moving in on their territory. Tauranga is one of the busiest harbours in New Zealand and the local women prefer to work the port themselves.

On the Emma Rose I met four Maori women from Auckland who came on board later in the evening. Misty later told me that Diane and her friends had followed a ship to Tauranga about a month ago and simply stayed on. She said they were okay, but that they were not really part of the local chapter of coastal hostesses. If a ship-woman decides to have sex with a sailor, he will generally give her at least enough money to cover a taxi home and the cost of child-care. He will often also give her a present of money. Rather than prostitution, which is a negotiated amount, the sailors give varied sums of money to the ship-women.

After the party I attended on the Emma Rose, for example, Bert gave Misty $70 American. Misty said she never discusses money with Bert, whom she has seen before a number of times. He simply tucks bills into her purse and when she gets home she counts the money to see how much he has given her. American dollars, by the way, are the preferred, and most frequently used, currency. Much of the exchange between sailors and ship-molls is presents, rather than cash. Sailors will often ask a woman what she wants from his next port of call. Misty says she has been given more pairs of shoes than she could possibly ever wear. Her house is also decorated with art and ornaments from around the world.

The first morning I visited her I immediately noticed that she had Chinese figurines, Indonesian puppets and Egyptian papyrus. While ship-molls may have a number of boyfriends on various ships, they generally have only one man that they see on each vessel. And it can be territorial in that the women can be quite jealous about another ship-moll making advances to their particular boyfriends. Some of these relationships develop into long-term arrangements. A few result in marriage. Sometimes a ship-moll will marry a sailor from another country. He will go back to sea and they may not see each other for a couple of years. By Misty's estimation, most of the marriages between sailors and ship-girls don't work out very well. Some because of the cultural differences, others because of the time and distance factors.

The ship-women often receive letters from sailors around the world. Misty told me, for instance, she received 54 Valentine cards one February. It is also almost inevitable that the boyfriends of one woman will end up working together on the same ship. Misty, for example, has had a long standing relationship with a sailor named Randall. Randall ended up working on the same boat as Spike, another of Misty's former boyfriends. Spike told Randall the intimate details of his encounters with Misty. An upset Randall wrote to Misty from West Africa. What angered Misty most about the episode was not that Spike had told Randall about his relationship with her, but that he had lied about them not using condoms. Misty is very responsible about safe sex and was outraged that Spike would tell such a blatant lie about her sexual behaviour. She is going to write to Randall to explain her side of the story. Randall, apparently, tells Misty about other women he has sex with because he considers her his special partner, the woman he would like to marry. Misty really doesn't want to know about Randall's encounters with other women and she doesn't tell him about other men in her life. The problem is that Misty's letter may not reach Randall for a month or so, until he gets back to his home port.

Misty told me that a good number of the ship-molls are responsible about using condoms and having regular health checks. Carrie estimates that about 90% of the ship-girls practice safe-sex. Misty sometimes talks about not going on the ships anymore. Because it is a lifestyle choice, some women don't bother going onto the ships for extended periods of time. It is rather like deciding not to go to the bar or not to go dancing. If you change your mind, the bars and the dance halls and the ships will still be there. Pragmatically, Misty realises that the additional money helps her pay her bills. She recently bought some new lounge furniture, for example, and her car needs repairs.

In short, the present-money she receives from her sailor friends is what stands between her and poverty. And another consideration is that she also has fun at the parties and genuinely enjoys her time on some of the ships. Is a party on a ship different from, say, one at someone's house?


The Party on the Emma Rose

At the top of the ramp onto the Emma Rose, Karla turned to me. "You realise," she said, pointing to the green deck of the ship, "that once you step onto here you become a ship-moll." I smiled and walked onto the ship, pleased with my new status of being a member of the Sisterhood of Ship-Molls, Tauranga Branch. After boarding the ship we (being Misty, Karla, Carrie and I) were ushered into the lounge area. Jim, the cook of the Emma Rose, appeared with a couple of bottles of cognac, saying that Sparks, who had gone to the Seaman' s Club, had the key to the liquor cabinet. The other women did not like cognac, making me the only one who enjoyed the drink.

We decided to go down to the bar for a while and come back later. That is when the beer, which is what most of the ship-girls drink, suddenly appeared. Misty said that happens when they don't want you to leave. The crew, some of whom had been into town and others whom had been at the Seaman's Club, slowly filtered back on board. Jim introduced a novice seaman named Billy, who was celebrating his 28th birthday. We all said "Happy Birthday" and Carrie jokingly added that he could have his pick of a woman for his birthday present. A few minutes later Jim, who was acting as Billy's translator, said "He wants her" and pointed at me. I didn't feel threatened as ship arrangements are based on mutual consent and I realised that being 'selected ' didn't mean I had to comply.

Being on the ship does, in fact, provide an element of safety in sexual matters. The women are perfectly free to say 'No' and a shout will immediately bring other people to their aid. Billy, who was really very shy, sat next to me. Later we danced. It was, at best, a fairly innocuous encounter. Later I talked with Manu, who spoke English very well and told me about his travels. Like many other parties, the main activities on the ship were talking and dancing and drinking.

One noticeable difference between the topics of conversation on the ship and those of other parties I have been to in New Zealand is that people weren't interested in what I did for a living. Carrie, in fact, was the only person who asked me where I worked. I suppose that a number of people, on hearing my Canadian accent, simply assumed I was a tourist. Perhaps it is because the sailors have their defined jobs and the ship-molls don't generally have the sorts of jobs that people discuss at great length. Carrie, in fact, was the only one who talked about her job although I know there were other ship-women who were also in paid employment.

Nonetheless, it was interesting to learn that on the ship you are not immediately categorised by 'what you do'. Rather, you are assessed by how you act. About ten-thirty more shippies started arriving. Molly called from another ship and said nothing was happening there so she was on her way over. The party on the Emma Rose, it seems, was the best one in port that night. Lisa, one of the local ship-molls had spent three months in Vancouver, so we talked about Canada. There were a couple of other women's whose names I didn't catch.

As a group I enjoyed talking with the ship-molls because they were interesting women and they all had their own stories. About eleven p.m. Misty told me that she was going to Bert's cabin with him and to send someone to get the key to her house if I needed it. By midnight the music was getting louder and the alcohol was flowing freely. Shortly after the witching hour Karla said she was going home so I decided to catch a ride. I considered staying for a while, but decided that I had had more than enough cognac by then.

One of the sailors went to Bert' s cabin to get Misty's house key for me while Karla and I said our farewells. I gave Manu one of my cards, so who knows, I may get a postcard from Panama. Scrutinising the party and the interaction between the sailors and the ship-molls raised a number of questions for me. First of all, how much difference is there between going on a ship and going out to dinner with a man who pays the bill and expects you to have sex with him? Or the one who expects you to pay your share of the bill-- because you are a liberated woman, after all-- but still have sex with him because he has spent time with you?

The evening on the Emma Rose also reminded me of other similar situations I have been in elsewhere. In northern Canada, for example, the local men went out fire-fighting during the summer. When they came back to the community with a good supply of money, the parties were wild and often times went on until the alcohol was gone. There were also a number of babies conceived on these occasions. Once in Calabar, Nigeria (West Africa) two women friends and I were invited to an expatriate oil camp one evening. Except for the local cooks, we were the only women on the site and even though we left early, I'm not sure that the unspoken sexual expectations weren't there. Closer to home, and to my way of thinking, the pick-ups on the ship aren't much different from the pick-ups I have watched in various Kiwi bars around the country.

One contrasting point, though, may well be that ship-molls carry condoms with them when they go on board. In many, if not most, respects I simply don't think the lifestyle of the coastal hostesses differs all that much from the social lives of many other women Or, on a more fundamental level, could it be, perhaps, that ship-molls are simply more honest about their financial and sexual motives than some of the rest of us?

As I said, I don't claim to have the answers, but I want to leave the reader with these questions to consider. Some people might think I should discuss other social issues-- such as whether or not the ship-molls had arranged adequate child-care or if accepting presents isn't cheating on the tax system-- but I think that is outside the scope of this article. The focus of this piece is the lifestyle of ship-molls as assessed by attending one particular party on one ship. Or, to put the situation into another context, if I were reporting on, say, a garden party would readers expect an analysis of where the participants left their children before they set up their rose displays? Or, if this was an account of a political gathering, would readers be concerned with whether or not the politicians involved had exceeded their travel allowance for the month?

This is not to suggest, however, that the wider implications of the lifestyles of ship-molls does not warrant further study. The morning after the party on the Emma Rose, Misty mentioned that the party hadn't been quite as good as she had expected it to be. I honestly assured her that I had had a great time. I also told Misty that if she wanted to experience truly boring function that I would arrange an invitation for her to attend a cocktail party at a particularly dull academic conference which was coming up in the near future. She declined my offer. After breakfast, Misty, Karla and I took Rover and Spike, their two dogs, for a walk. As we went by the wharf we picked up copies of the shipping lists. I did, as I indicated earlier, take Misty up on her invitation to visit again. The subsequent parties with the ship-molls in Tauranga simply reconfirmed that what I had been told was accurate. Given my sense of the outrageous, I added 'Sisterhood of Ship-Molls, Tauranga Branch Member' to my curriculum vitae. Although the Probation Committee at the University may not find it a noteworthy achievement, my street-wise friends will be impressed.


The names of the people in this article have been changed to protect their privacy. I wish to thank Misty for her analysis and hospitality, Karla for her practical insight, Carrie for her comments on an earlier draft of this article, the other ship-molls for their acceptance and the crew of the Emma Rose for a good party.

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