The image above is Freeport mine in Grasberg, West Papua. Largely owned by U.S. company Freeport McMoRan, this is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world. It used to be a glacial mountain peak – now it is a stomach-turning hellhole.
Waste from the mine pollutes the river system, causing environmental devastation and displacing West Papuans. Sex trafficking is reported around mines in Papua, and the Freeport mine is heavily militarised. In May last year, 97 West Papuans were detained by Indonesian police for entering Freeport, which openly pays the Indonesian military for “protection”. The mine is a big part of the reason West Papua has been under U.S.-backed Indonesian occupation since the 1960s.
This is Kajol, in Kandapara brothel in Bangladesh. Kandapara is in a walled brothel district located in Tagail. Many of the women inside are kept as sex slaves through debt bondage – by being sold to a pimp and forced to buy themselves out. The largest brothel in Bangladesh is Daulatdia – 1,500 girls and women are kept there “servicing” 3,500 clients per day across twenty brothels. Many of these women are forced to take drugs like Ventolin and Oradexon, designed to fatten up cattle. The whole local economy runs on prostitution, with drugs flowing freely.
It is ordinary to claim that prostitution is a “job like any other” by likening it to mining. I can see how Daulatdia or Kandapara brothel might be comparable to Grasberg. Where there was once life now are pillaged, gutted holes. But the question is – if prostitution is like mining – where is the gold, the copper, the coal? What is commodified, bought, sold and traded in Daulatdia or Kandapara, but women’s bodies? What is held by force, cannot be reclaimed without fear of retribution, what is occupied and colonised, but women’s bodies?
When New Zealand was first colonised by European invaders, women were treated as bounty – commodified like any other resource. As James Belich writes in Making Peoples,
The sex industry began at first contact in 1769, and from the 1810s it became large and important – very probably preceding wool, gold and dairy products as New Zealand’s leading earner of overseas exchange.
Today, Māori women are still over represented in prostitution, constituting 15% of New Zealand’s total population and 33% of those trapped in the sex trade.
To call prostitution chosen “work” is to suggest that Māori women must be somehow predisposed to opt into this industry. This seems very similar to nineteenth century colonial ideas about “manifest destiny”, ideas that America and other lands were unpeopled and destined for British settlers. How is justifying the over-representation of Māori women in prostitution in terms of natural inclination any less racist? How could it not be dehumanising to talk about any woman being predisposed to sexual use? Surely that is to suggest that she is a sex object. Like coal, like copper. Less, if you think that coal and copper have inherent value separate from any industrial purpose.
Prostitution is often normalised as “work” by the very same people who, to drive home the damage done by colonisation, land appropriation and commercial resource extraction, will use prostitution as an analogy. To talk about violation, the theft of integrity for profit, they will refer to “rape of the land”.
Why might rape an appropriate term to describe Freeport mine, but not the brothels nearby, or in Kandapara, Daulatdia or New Zealand? As Jade*, who has now exited New Zealand’s sex trade, testifies:
Over ten years I estimate I have been raped at least 30 times and suffered about 2,500 severely violent attacks. I never got any medical treatment.
One way it is possible to hold these crudely contradictory positions – prostitution is work, mining is rape – is if you believe deeply in the sanctity of prostitution. 99% of those who patronise the sex trade are men – to believe prostitution is justifiable is to believe that men have a right to sex that trumps the freedom of women. Many men believe this, for obvious reasons. Some women accept this for fear of retribution, much like the 97 West Papuans who dared to “encroach” on land occupied by Freeport must have feared retribution.
The colonisation and commercialised exploitation of land and communities is often characterised through the use of the term “rape”. We use this word to express the way that profiteers – mainly white and male – violate life for their own purposes, ignoring its inherent worth. Prostitution, which colonisation inevitably establishes, is what this metaphor refers to by definition. Why, when we look at that industry in its literal form, do we call it “work”?
It is apt to talk about rape to describe the invasion and destruction of land and people. But if we are going to do that, we should not at the same time trivialise commercialised rape as it really happens to women. That will not help us fight exploitation in any form.