Category Archives: Development Thoughts

My Thoughts on Sex Work

I was 17 the first time I saw a prostitute. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous – I’m aware of that even as I’m typing this – but it’s true. I was headed to a house party, and there was a woman on the other side of the street, walking slowly up and down the same road, not wearing very much, and sticking her head into approaching cars.

I remember this so clearly because I was absolutely shocked by it. Of course, I’m sure I’d seen other prostitutes before and just not been aware of it, but this time I definitely was. She was right there, on the other side of the street. I remember feeling a lot of pity for this woman, and a bit disgusted, wondering what could have possibly gone so wrong in her life that she had to resort to this. But, after that, I didn’t give it too much thought.

And then I moved to Amsterdam.

Being an International Development student back in the UK, we had touched slightly on prostitution in some areas, but I hadn’t really delved too deeply into it. I had learnt a little about human trafficking, and we’d had one class focused on this article by Andrea Cornwall, which I’d whole-heartedly disagreed with at the time. I couldn’t find it within myself to accept sex work as empowering in any form. I couldn’t possibly imagine that any woman (in the right frame of mind) would willingly choose to sell her body over other forms of employment. I just couldn’t.

But, luckily, minds are susceptible to change. Mine was certainly opened in Amsterdam, particularly after I took a fantastic course called The Local and Global Complexities of Prostitution. It was an intensive 7 weeks, which included visiting the world-famous Red Light District late at night to observe and interview tourists, interviewing a sex worker herself (at 9.30am on a Tuesday morning – a very bizarre experience), interviewing a regular client, interviewing people back home and of course, lots of reading and presentations.

I could talk about this for ages and ages, but the one thing I wanted to make clear is that YES, some women actually CHOOSE to become sex workers and YES, some of them enjoy their work. For many of them, it’s just a job like any other. For others, it makes them feel good and allows them to explore their sexuality. It’s easier for us, and perhaps more comfortable, to immediately view them as victims that have been forced into the sex trade, either by a person or an unfortunate circumstance. But that is not always true. I would have never believed it myself, but I have seen it with my own eyes and I have come to accept it. We often let our own prejudices about prostitution, and the fact that we would never consider it ourselves, cloud our judgments.

In fact, the most important thing that I learnt from this course was that one of the main problems that a prostitute faces is not the work itself, but rather how they are treated in society. How they are pitied, viewed with disgust and treated like criminals. How everyone either wants nothing to do with them, or otherwise desires to ‘rescue’ them from their hell. Mainstream media is inundated with images and narratives of the ‘poor prostitute’, waiting for someone to lend her a hand. This image is not always true. Another common misconception is that prostitutes have to do every sexual act that a client asks of them. Again, this is often false. Ilonka, the prostitute that we interviewed in class, explained to us that she never did anything that she didn’t want to do. If a client didn’t like it … well, that’s too bad. In her situation, she was lucky to have the support of living in The Netherlands, with people and places to go to if things ever got bad. However, Ilonka told us that, in her 25 years of being a sex worker, she had never been exposed to a violent situation.

As a society, I feel that it’s our job to make prostitution as safe as possible for those wishing to engage in it, because it’s always going to happen whether it’s legal or not. The Netherlands provides one of the best, and safest, models for prostitutes anywhere in the world. It isn’t perfect, but its definitely preferable to what some sex workers around the world have to endure. I think it’s about time that other countries followed suit, and started having an open, honest conversation about prostitution, instead of brushing it under the carpet.

Don’t get me wrong. Forced prostitution and human trafficking exists, and it’s a huge problem that needs to be tackled. But it’s wrong to assume that all sex workers have come into the trade this way. To assume is to deny agency to the women (and men) that actively choose to be in sex work. Whether we agree with it or not is irrelevant. Contrary to popular belief, prostitution can simply just be a private, consensual act between two adults. Because of this, there needs to be a clear distinction made between human trafficking and prostitution, which are often put together in a nice big box, despite them not being the same thing.

Not all prostitutes want to be rescued.

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Volunteering – how do we get this right?

This post was actually written about a year ago, when I didn’t have a blog, but had so many thoughts swimming in my head that I just had to write them down. It was all but forgotten about until something jogged my memory today, and now seems like a good time to share it.

I have a fairly extensive volunteering history. It started when I was 18, and travelled abroad for 7 weeks to Costa Rica & Nicaragua with Raleigh International. I was very fortunate to be sponsored by the Jack Petchey Foundation, which provides opportunities to disadvantaged youths, to be able to go. Because my trip was fully funded, I was required to do lots of volunteer work across London upon my return in order to ‘give back’ to my community. I thoroughly enjoyed doing this, and my jobs ranged from sorting out flower bulbs, serving food and drinks at charity functions and completing office work for the organisation that helped to arrange my trip.

My trip with Raleigh was the most challenging thing I had ever done, but it ultimately fuelled a fire in me and set me up on the path to international development.  Upon returning home, I worked all hours to save up for more international trips – first to South Africa where I volunteered in a care home for babies and in a wildlife rehabilitation centre, then to Kenya where I worked in a school, then to India (though I had to come home early due to a family emergency before I actually started volunteering) and then back to Kenya again to volunteer at the same school (this time as a chaperone for other volunteers). Some of my placements were arranged independently with the centres, and others were through volunteer organisations.

I can’t really explain why I feel so compelled to keep volunteering and travelling, but my next trip is never far from my mind. I just love it. I am at my happiest when totally immersed in, and learning about, a culture so different from my own. And I’ve always loved helping people, ever since I was young. In my naiveté, I never really thought about the effect my ‘voluntouring’ had on projects and communities until I started studying for my degree. I always thought: helping others = good. I have since discovered that this is not always the case, and have seen with my own eyes some of the problems that can occur when volunteering overseas. For example, I have experienced fellow volunteers who decide that they knew better than the locals (and proceed to make their criticisms very vocal), and I have also seen the downsides of fundraising. On one occasion, I decided to raise some money and spent over £500 on playground equipment, exercise books and a few other things for the school. Whilst we had an absolutely brilliant day giving the children all of their gifts, I was extremely disheartened to discover when I went back two years later that absolutely nothing remained. Goal posts that we had constructed with the children in the field were gone, the globe and dictionaries were nowhere to be seen, and the field was empty once again. I’m sure I can think of many other examples, too.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been thoroughly researching this issue and have learnt about traumatic attachment issues that can occur from working with children, dependency on hand-outs, taking jobs away from locals and all those other issues that you can find in abundance floating around internet blogs and forums.

I have read many comments suggesting that us volunteer-lovers should go and help in our ‘own countries’. Now, herein lies another problem. Last year, I decided to do just that, and signed up to volunteer with a homeless charity over Christmas. ‘Finally,’ I thought ‘I can do some volunteering and not be made to feel bad about it!’ At this point, I was becoming totally fed up with the consumerist attitude that comes hand-in-hand with Christmas, and wanted to do something more meaningful that would make the holiday really special. I was so looking forward to volunteering at the shelter. Sadly to say, I really, really disliked volunteering there. In fact, I disliked it so much that I walked out before my shift ended as I couldn’t bear to be there anymore. Considering my past volunteer history, this was totally unexpected for me. I found the shelter to be extremely patronizing towards the guests, and the volunteers were given jobs that were absolutely pointless. We were placed in groups of 4 and told to clean handrails that had literally just been cleaned by other volunteers. We were told to ‘guard’ doors to stop the homeless guests going through them, almost treating them in a childlike manner. In fact, over 50% of my day was spent guarding a door that nobody attempted to go through. I felt like a spare part, just tossed aside and forgotten about. I had very little option to interact with the guests and, when I did (attempting to clear his breakfast plate as I had been instructed to do), I was snapped at so harshly that it actually made me cry! I felt totally unsupported by this organisation and we were not given a proper briefing about how to act around the guests or what to do should a provocation occur.  I decided to walk out when I realised that my time was being wasted and I wasn’t doing anything at all productive or helpful. My experience with the snappy guest made me feel that they didn’t actually want my help or company. They just wanted a hot meal and a warm bed for the night (and fair enough, I suppose!). I have read reviews about this organisation from others who have absolutely loved their experience, so I’m not sure if I was just having a bad day or if people are just not questioning whether they were really helping or not. I could be totally wrong, but I got the impression that most people were content with the idea that they were doing something good around Christmas time, regardless  of whether they actually were or not.

Another common opinion that I have read on blogs is this: “Why do you need to go out and help? If you want to be effective, just donate money instead.” So, I decided to give this a go. When I was in India, just before I moved to university, I discovered that my mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer and jumped on the next plane home. I couldn’t think about volunteering with others when a loved one needed support. Once her treatment was underway, I began to think about how I could help in more ways than just attending hospital treatments with her. I decided, along with family members and friends, to take part in a sponsored walk in our bras to raise money for breast cancer research and support. Over the course of the summer, we managed to raise almost £3500. I felt extremely proud of this achievement. Then, a few months later, I was invited to a film screening of Pink Ribbons, Inc. by a seminar tutor. This film opened my eyes to some of the truths about breast cancer fundraising. It criticised the idea that we raise so much without following up on where the money goes. It suggested that breast cancer research was flawed and not collaborative, and that lots of the money is wasted on the same treatment tests being repeated over and over again. It suggests that the pink ribbon has been hijacked and glamorised, abused for profit from companies who use it to promote products, thus painting a ‘pretty picture’ of a very horrible disease. It also suggested that the constant use of the word ‘survivor’ in fundraising to describe people given the all-clear could have negative impacts on the loved ones of those who weren’t as lucky. Now, I am unsure what to think. Should I feel proud that I raised lots of money, or ashamed that I didn’t realise the harsh truths that can creep up behind the ribbon?

(Here is a link to the trailer of Pink Ribbons, Inc. for anyone interested).

And, here is my dilemma. I love charity work. I believe that caring for others, helping those less fortunate, giving a little of your time etc. is so important for our society. I think that people should be surrounded by kindness and have somewhere to go in times of need. But, how do we do this right? I have tried volunteering overseas, I have tried volunteering at home and I have tried simply raising money. But my efforts on all three parts feel tainted. I feel that, in a lot of cases, I’m just doing more harm than good, and that makes me very sad. I want to be able to help people. I think it’s so important. I’d like to think, too, that people would be there to help me should I ever fall into a bad situation.

Is there a way to do charity work with minimum harm? Or how do we lessen this impact? Should we give up trying to help strangers and just look after those that we know? Is it better to establish a long-term relationship with just one charity that you can invest your time in? Is volunteering ever just 100% worth it? I’d be really interested to hear any responses to this blog, and any positive experiences that you may have had. I could certainly do with some inspiration!

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Is Privilege Poverty?

Just came across a really interesting video and response. Very thought-provoking,

If you’re at all interested in international development it’s worth having a look!

Is Privilege Poverty?.

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What it’s all about, really.

I can’t believe I’d never heard this speech before until tonight. As soon as I did I knew it had to go on the blog.

It’s beautiful, and so important. Listen.

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August 14, 2013 · 9:12 pm

“So, what do you study then?”

The question that every international development student dreads. Or, at least, I do. I can be almost certain that I will receive one of 4 reactions, and 3 of them are rather unpleasant:

  1. The stare(r). This is the main reaction. A long, hard stare. An awkward silence. The person has no idea what I’m talking about. Then I have to explain myself, which usually goes a little something like this: “Its, erm, about poverty. It’s kinda like international relations but focused mainly on poverty. You know, like hunger and health and stuff. And other things like climate change. It’s helping other countries to develop. It’s like a mixture of history and geography and politics …” and I usually ramble on so much that they’re even more confused.
  2. The interrogator. This is my least favourite reaction, and luckily one that doesn’t occur too often. It is usually someone who is very cynical and doesn’t see the point of studying development. I’ve actually been asked why I would bother and if I’m doing it for my own ‘altruistic satisfaction’ or so I can ‘feel good about myself’. I then usually get asked what I plan to do with my degree and am expected to have an exact plan. Honestly! Nobody knows what life has in store for them! I don’t interrogate you about your career choices, so please don’t interrogate me about mine.
  3. The tabloid reader/problem solver. This is someone who, apparently, knows my degree better than I do. They have a very simple solution to all of the world’s problems and usually find it reading tabloid newspapers. It’s normally something like: ‘Ah yes, I know. We have poverty because when we send all that foreign aid abroad, they swindle all the money away! Too much corruption! That’s the problem!”
  4. The acknowledger. Finally, my favourite type of reaction. Someone who smiles and says “oh, that’s interesting” and may (but not always) have a little knowledge about the subject or know someone who is involved in some way. Someone who is easy to talk to and understanding of my choices. That’s always the nicest conversation to have.

And so, first blog entry complete! I’d be really interested to see if anyone has any other reactions that they come across when telling people they study/work in development. Please feel free to comment!

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