Exploring Linkages...

Who wears the mask?

my.vanderbilt.edugoodpersonpublicationsThe column this week is aligned to the last post. It’s no coincidence that I  choose to be responsive 20130225_IOM_307to an issue that had reoccurred in the media last week. International media captured the ongoing debate on the sex trade law between the United States government and organisations that benefit from the PEPFAR (Presidents Emergency Plan for Aids Relief) funding. Prostitution remains a controversial issue, little wonder I struggle to get an appropriate definition for it.  Hmm… That flesh for cash business; anyone that buys or sells the flesh for cash is a prostitute. Did I hear you say I am wrong? Speaking jocosely, you must be an American politician, a man, a moralist or a judgemental person to disagree with me. You can be everything else but not one of the three gods of Setzuan or Shen te the renowned prostitute.
In the stereotypical way of engaging the issue of prostitution in many societies, Bertolt Brecht Photo by Johny Knightpresents ‘Shen te’ (alias the Prostitute) who lived in ‘Setzuan’ (an imaginary city in China) and relates with masked men. (I say masked men because we rarely know who patronizes a prostitute. Maybe because they are ignored being that their involvement is inexorably, a force of nature that is above the law.) With his noted style of using masks in his work, the writer presents an interplay of characters and scenes that gives insight into survival sex work and the poverty that drives it.
In a time when good nature was rare and the laces of poverty littered everywhere, three gods visited Setzuan in search of one good person. Contrary to the ideals we may expect, the search of the gods yielded ‘Shen te’ as the finest human being in the capitalist impacted city of Setzuan.
In Bertolt Bretchs work, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan literarily translated the good woman of Setzuan; we see a society existing in cycles of poverty. According to Wong (the water seller) there is ‘nothing unusual about poverty’ here. In Setzuan, we are reminded images (1)that goodness and capitalism cannot coexist. The characters in this play proved that evil and criminal acts are necessary for a capitalist system to survive as they grease its wheel. The three gods suffer a dearth in their search because there really may be no good person existing in such a system that is not corrupted by the obscenity of capitalism.images
One begins to question how goodness and morality alike should be prioritized by an individual in the face of hunger, lack of shelter and all the needs that comes with poverty.  How also does a state cladding a capitalist coat suggest that morality should loom over policy decisions that govern issues like prostitution which in many cases, is a detritus of immoral capitalism? A good case in point is this 2003 anti-prostitution law of the American Congress which has not been reversed.
The Anti-prostitution law reads that federal funds may not be used to ‘advocate the practice of prostitution’ or ‘provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution’. Hence it requires that all PEPFAR beneficiaries take a pledge in accordance with the law against prostitution.  The United States is the largest governmental donor of HIV/AIDS funds in the world, hence taking the pledge or denouncing it has huge implication for global health. Prostitution inarguably is a strong component in the fight against HIV/AIDS and the broader challenges of Human Trafficking issues amongst others. This cobweb relationship is inextricable and therefore any policy intervention that ignores it is problematic. Engaging this from a law and policy perspective of international development, the review of this law is neccesary. Through the past week, media has captured activities focused on this as the Supreme Court responds to the amicus briefs filed by UNAid and other organizations for its reversal.
httpwww.lowbird.comdataimages200903girls-love-thief-in-the-mask-012931.jpgIn America, likewise many other countries where prostitution is illegal, the laws are based on ideologies which are morally inspired, lacking sincere grasp of realities. The moral ideologies are often deflated by the verity on ground and compounded by the strategies adopted in implementing the law. Many times through enforcing our law, we discriminate participants in the skin trade by continuously masking and protecting the recipients, and prosecuting, humiliating and stigmatizing the service providers. More women have been victims of this unfair rule except for rare situations where men like the morally upright Elliot Laurence Spitzer (the past governor of New York) are exposed for political gains.
It will be short sighted of me to say that the solution for countries that criminalizes prostitution is in adopting a more holistic approach that equally engages both the supply and demand angle of the flesh for cash industry. Short sighted because I think there is need for the policy makers to understand the intricacies and drivers of the sex trade market. Prostitution in many cases is driven by poverty which must be addressed. It’s also worthy of note that prostitution is an addiction, a means of livelihood, a coping mechanism, a hobby amongst others.
Bertolt Bretchs dramatizes poverty and survival sex as a driver for ‘Shen te’ who proclaims that ‘I should love to stay with one man… stock-vector-teardrop-a-woman-touching-a-masked-man-the-characters-and-the-background-are-on-separate-layers-37520596I’ll like to be good but surely there’s rent to pay’. Cyprian Ekwensi’s narrative in ‘Jagua Nana’ presents us a psycho-social case in point in understanding the drivers of prostitution within the urban African society. With the Character of ‘Jagua’, we find a young woman whose sojourn into the skin trade sprang from her restless spirit and a search for adventure.
Though written many decades ago and representing different social contexts, the two writers through their characters, show that empowerment and new preoccupations can wean women off prostitution. The high point for the two protagonists is seen in their shifts into trading and becoming more useful to the society. While ‘Shen te’ opens a tobacco shop and becomes the angel of the slum, Jagua also goes into socially profitable ventures.
If Americans where gods, they will judge Shen te, if they had the power, she would know no empowerment.  Many thanks to the absence of PEPFAR in Setzuan, Shente got a new life as the angel of the slum who ran a tobacco shop.  The three gods of Setzuan were clearly non-judgemental,  It appears reasonable to look beyond the actions of a prostitute and focus on the intent. In the face of stinking poverty and lack which gnawed the three gods in Setzuan, the mask of morality dropped. The gods empowered ‘Shen te’ not on the grounds of morality but that of necessity. Where the gods to be judgemental,  their own morality will be deciphered and hence they will be found wanting for sharing shelter with a prostitute.
Through his master piece character ‘Shen te’, Bertolt Brecht calls for us to think outside the conventional box, it persuades a thorough consideration of many issue of obscenity far and above prostitution. A moral law against prostitution may be ideal but should not be a precondition toimg_125927872942_49207_eventoriginal sustainable development interventions. Apart from a possible negative impact on global health, another implication is that some people’s livelihood will be set on fire, children of prostitutes will walk the streets and yet the world will worse. Rather than shut the door on their faces, we must think of how to shelter them. Maybe replacing a law against prostitution with a law against poverty and inequalities can wean those to whom the flesh for cash business provides bread and butter.


A wordle generated specially for the series on prostitution. I have been inspired by the many names I could derive from sex trade.


Jagua Nana's Daughters


Marriage is a Private Affair


  1. One of my friends told me that the “Gay scene” is nearly dead in the town I was born as people are hooking up for the night on sex sites, meaning that many bars and clubs catering for the gay community have closed down. Apparently something similar is happening with prostitution in the same town, with the easy availability of free, casual sex on the web is making life difficult for sex workers. The booming economy in that state also means that many women who would once have become sex workers have other options. That future is a long way for some countries who cannot provide enough work and opportunities for their people.

    • Dear Madonna, your views were also captured by the 70yrs old twin sex workers http://tiny.cc/wywpww . I had read about them doing my search. The introduction of taxes seemed to have influenced the decision to desert the streets and occupy the internet. But again, that is where the world is moving to. With the new introduction of taxes for most internet transactions coming up, I look forward to seeing what the trends will be. As for other countries that are still acting based on sentiments, one day am sure they will come around. For African countries, change is often slow but it eventually catches up. We may not formalize certain things out of sentiments, but by permitting it, we have accepted it.

  2. Mallam Clem

    Well I can see your stand on the issue of PEPFAR, an do agree that some day there will be a change with that law if only to better the lives and health of many with HIV/AIDS

    • And let’s hope other government policies take the management of this trade more seriously. Thanks for reading and taking time to leave a comment, pls keep reading, your presence is appreciated.

  3. I loved it. Really well researched and well written piece. The calling for pledging allegiance to the anti-prostitution clause is really difficult. I once worked on a HIV/AIDS prevention and control program, and it was funded by PEPFAR, and managed by a US Govt sub-contractor. Most of the recipients of our condoms and trainings were those regarded as most at risk populations (MARPS); chiefly commercial sex workers, amongst others. They were very happy to receive their supply of condoms, and these numbers were reported back to the donor, how hypocritical right? 🙂
    Prostitution is spurred on by so many factors like you mentioned. I think that the factor I see so commonly these days is the greed element, people just want more and are unwilling to invest extra time and energy to make money anyway else, or wait for their income to grow. Is that designer handbag really necessary? Does she really need to be spending $1500 on Brazilian weave? You know what I mean?

    • Dear Anne, I just feel like rebloging your reply. Thanks for this insight and practical contribution. I often wonder what trigger is in the politics of aid. They just twist and turn with new laws that don’t come across as objective. I am in agreement with many issues you raised. Many are stuck in fulfilling their materialist fantasy and there is no doubt about the fact that prostitution is adopted to make that happen. However, I feel the people who benefit or suffer lose from the PEPFAR sentiments are actually the ones like ‘Shen te’. Those are the people who poverty gnaws every day. Maybe when we have succeeded in eradicating poverty, providing basic needs of people and achieving true freedom for individuals, then we can start making laws. The Laws will deal with materialist motivated prostitutes and not people dealing with survival sex.. These are my thoughts, not sure if am right.

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