The column this week is aligned to the last post. It’s no coincidence that I choose to be responsive to 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 presents ‘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 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.
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.
In 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… I’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 to 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.