I think it’s fair to say most people are reasonable; want to lead their lives well, with compassion and kindness. But we have only to open a paper, turn on the news to know there are those, both men and women, intent on wreaking havoc and pain. Sexist I know, but on the whole women are built to be mothers, to be nurturers, and are often the best advocates for other women. Which is why I find it even more distressing to read of a woman being the protagonist in cases of women harming women and children.
Women’s cooperatives in countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Guatemala and Uganda have allowed women to take control of their own lives, and little by little improve the lots of their families. Dame Pauline Green, President of the International Cooperative Alliance said, “Cooperative businesses have done so much to help women onto the ladder of economic activity. With that comes community respect, political legitimacy and influence.” One study by Rachel MacHenry on Nepalese women’s cooperatives, shows “how social barriers were broken down between classes, castes and ethnicities.” The reality is that no woman, no matter what class or ethnicity, looks good in childbirth. That’s a great leveller.
That cooperative spirit was not embodied by Hortensia “Tencha” Medeles. Living in Houston, she had little interest in improving the lives of desperate women and was charged with, amongst other things, “sex trafficking and related crimes”.
Houston, regrettably, is one of the gateways on the drug route north from the Mexican border about 350 miles away. That same route is also used for human trafficking. And many of those poor souls not caught at the border by the authorities, some boys but mostly girls and often underage, are passed along the pipeline by coyotes and other unscrupulous people promising safety and a job. Instead they are housed in hovels and forced to repeatedly perform sex acts against their will. Sleazy bars with hidden back doors that lead up a flight of stairs, or around the back to some other sordid building, is where they spend their days and nights. Guarded. Enslaved.
Prostitution, pimping and brothels are illegal in all states in America except Nevada, which allows the ‘oldest profession’ to function in eleven rural counties. Prostitution in the UK is legal, but pimping and brothels are not. For some, Thailand is synonymous with the sex trade, and yet prostitution is illegal there. But prostitution is lucrative. It brings in approximately 4.3 billion dollars annually in Thailand, 3% of the country’s economy. No wonder blind eyes are turned. In the US in 2007, the latest numbers I could find, it brought in significantly less, though still a respectable 290 million dollars.
But I think the thing that shocks me most is that in a study, Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major Cities, under the auspices of the American public think-tank, The Urban Institute, 37% of respondents said they became involved in prostitution through a family connection. In the case of Tencha Medeles, the Houstonian recently sentenced to life imprisonment, that is certainly true. A son, two daughters and a niece have already pleaded guilty for involvement in the same charges.
I do recognize prostitution might seem the only way forward for some women. I remember many years ago talking to a woman, a prostitute in a Bangkok bar, who told me she worked to pay for her children’s education, and to send money back to her family in her village. Was it her only choice? I don’t know. But much as she disliked her work, it had been her choice. For girls and women enslaved by women like Medeles, who described the underage girls she served up as ‘fresh meat’, the choice has been made for them.
Like every service industry, prostitution is fueled by demand. Going after those seeking such services doesn’t appear to work. It’s the oldest profession for a reason, and it’s naive to think it will ever go away, so maybe it would be better to legalize it. That way at least there are safeguards in place for those working, and for those paying for their services. Brothels, or pimping, are cooperatives which are certainly not needed, but if prostitution itself was regulated it might lessen the incidence of women, like Medeles, selling women against their will.