Asia Undercovered Special: Sex Workers

Despite the World Health Organization’s call for the decriminalization of sex work, lack of appropriate legislation and workers rights, as well as criminalization and widespread societal stigma is still putting sex workers around the world in a particularly vulnerable position, including in Asia. And its gotten worse, as many Asian countries are failing to recognize sex workers as legitimate claimants of subsidies during the pandemic, even as a huge number of sex workers are on the verge of starvation.

In this special issue of Asia Undercovered, written by Daniela Muenzel and driven by the tragic shooting in Atlanta in March, which sparked conversations about racism, sexism and the dangerous and socially stigmatized position anyone even suggested to be linked to sex work are put in – we highlight reporting on sex workers in Asia – including articles highlighting their history and survival, ongoing battles again dangerous legislation, the impact of COVID-19, and regional heroines making waves.

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Legal Struggles

In Sri Lanka, police wrongfully use laws dating back to colonial rule to charge and fine sex workers, even though in 2020 the country ruled that sex workers could not be charged under the penal code. Kris Thomas speaks to sex workers and rights lobbyists in Colombo about why the problem cannot be solved simply by decriminalizing sex work (Roar Media).

In Thailand, a petition has launched with the aim to repeal the 1996 Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, a law claimed to protect sex workers and prevent human trafficking, but makes sex work illegal. Suwitcha Chaiyong writes about the activists striving for a future where sex workers can legitimately work under the labor law (Bangkok Post).

In Hong Kong, laws restricting sex work apply only to heterosexual services. However, this apparent legal grey area doesn’t mean male sex workers offering same-sex services face fewer legal hazards. Chiquiao Chen talks to David Wong, a male “massage technician”, about police entrapment, homophobic threats, and work ethic (Hong Kong Free Press).

In Bangladesh, prostitution was legalized by the High Court in 2000, stating that it must be a person’s independent choice to become a sex worker. But the reality is that many are trafficked and forced to risk their lives, for example by taking “Fatal” drugs meant for fattening animals used to enhance their appearance. Anisa Begum writes about the risks and stigma, sex workers in Bangladesh face, even in death (DESI blitz).

The impact of COVID-19

From working in secrecy in Japan, to HIV treatment put on hold in Myanmar, and facing hunger and homelessness in the Philippines,Ariana Staff’s extensive piece, written in partnership with the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, explores the impact of COVID-19 on sex workers across Asia.

Some sex workers around the world have turned to the internet to stay afloat during the pandemic. But in Indonesia, fear of jail time, due to the anti-pornography clause of the country’s Cyber Law Act has prevented many from making money online. (Faisal Irfani, VICE Indonesia).

Asia’s sex worker history

A colorful rendition on Japan’s Yoshiwara: a place where, over 400 years ago, government-licensed pleasure quarters helped give birth to a lot of what we see today in Japan’s distinctive culture – from ukiyo-e, to kabuki, traditional music and fashion (Hibiya Taketoshi Nippon).

In 2005, Nalini Jameela in Kerala, India – wrote her autobiography which sold a record 13,000 copies within just 100 days of the initial release, as well as being translated into English and French. Sarah David writes about the former sex worker and activist on a mission for Feminism in India.

Two articles written by a Harvard professor stirred waves earlier this year over atrocities committed by Japan during World War II against “comfort women,” many of whom came from Korea. One of the professor’s colleagues, Jeannie Suk Gersen critiques his claim that “the women had gone to the war front as voluntary prostitutes” (The New Yorker).

Sex worker heroines

Two decades after being trafficked from her village in Bangladesh at the age of 10 and sold into a brothel, Rina Akter is now supporting hundreds of sex workers in Dhaka who have been struggling due to the pandemic. Masum Billah writes about Akter, who in 2020, made it onto the BBC list of 100 inspiring and influential women (BD News).

Worth your time: this interview with pioneering sex worker activist Ping Pong from Thailand, who speaks with Asia Catalyst, an NGO which works to promote the rights of marginalized communities by supporting advocates to end stigma, discrimination and criminalization.

In her book Lotus, Lijia Zhang, a Chinese factory worker turned writer, tells the story of a young woman who is a sex worker in a big city, a character based on her grandmother. Her interview with Asian Cha gives insight into her research for the book, from surprising facts about China’s sex industry and the role of religion.

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Asia Undercovered: In-depth round-ups and analysis of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.