As long as men have gone to war, they have kidnapped women and children for sexual slavery. According to historian Gerda Lerner, military conquest led to the enslavement and sexual abuse of captive women in the third millenium BC. In The Creation of Patriarchy, Lerner writes,
“As slavery became an established institution, slave owners rented out their female slaves as prostitutes, and some masters set up commercial brothels staffed by slaves. The ready availability of captive women for private sexual use and the need of kings and chiefs, frequently themselves usurpers of authority, to establish legitimacy by displaying their wealth in the form of servants and concubines led to the establishment of harems.”
The earliest legal codes encouraged this practice – like this passage from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy, Chapter 21, verses 10 to 15):
“When you go to war against your enemies and Yahweh your God delivers them into your power and you take prisoners, if you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and find her desirable, you may make her your wife and bring her to your home. She is to shave her head and cut her nails and take off her prisoner’s garb; she is to stay inside your house and must mourn her father and mother for a full month. Then you may go to her and be a husband to her, and she shall be your wife. Should she cease to please you, you will let her go where she wishes, not selling her for money; you are not to make any profit out of her, since you have had the use of her.”
Still today, wherever there is militarism, there is prostitution. In occupied West Papua sex trafficking has been reported around mines – like Freeport, the world’s largest gold mine – guarded by the Indonesian military. Prostitution is fulled by so-called “peacekeeping troops”: recent reports from Rohingya show peacekeeper involvement in the sex trade, and prior to 2009, they showed peacekeeper involvement in the traffic of women and children for prostitution in the Balkans, Mozambique, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Congo and Haiti. In the early 2000s, Thai women were being trafficked into brothels frequented by peacekeepers in East Timor; peacekeepers created a prostitution industry in Rwanda in 1995; and in Cambodia, the arrival of peacekeeping troops caused the number of prostituted women and girls to rise from 1,500 to 20,000 in 1990.
As the United States makes a disaster zone of the Middle East, history is repeating. Egyptian feminist author Nawaal El-Saadawi points out in The Hidden Face of Eve that “In one year alone, the Crusades had to pay the expenses of food and shelter for over 13,000 prostitutes.” Today, the Middle East has the fastest growing sex trafficking industry, with peacekeepers involved in the traffic of Syrian women.
White slave traders introduced prostitution and sexually transmitted disease as part of conquest and colonization: when Captain Cook went to Hawai’i in 1778, he took a Hawai’ian woman named Lelamahoa-lani with him, in exchange for some iron, and sailors on the Endeavour followed suit. According to historian James Belich, by the 1810s in New Zealand, prostitution was more profitable than the trades in wool, dairy, or even gold. Sheila Jeffreys writes in The Industrial Vagina that “the colonial Dutch state has acted as a pimp” in Curaçao, by running, regulating and recruiting for a brothel from the early twentieth century. In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis points out that in the slave trade, “females… were inherently vulnerable to all forms of sexual coercion. If the most violent punishments of men consisted in floggings and mutilations, women were flogged and mutilated, as well as raped.”
State regulation of rape originated to prevent syphilis from having a debilitating effect on the military as a whole. This is what prostitution is: the regulation of rape in order to sustain men’s capacity to dominate. Organized feminist campaigning against this regulated rape dates back to Britain’s 1864 Contagious Diseases Act, which dictated that women found on or near navy ports or military towns (like Portsmouth) could be arrested, examined and – if they had venereal disease, incarcerated in “lock” hospitals. Feminists like Josephine Butler recognized that this Act meant “that men could use prostitutes with impunity while at the same time punishing the women,” as journalist Julie Bindel writes. Butler won her fight to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act in Britain in 1886 – and then she took her fight to India, where the British army was selling women into prostitution in military towns using the same same legal methods. In nineteenth century Ireland, too, British troops were prostituting women in military towns.
1884 was the year of Europe’s “Scramble for Africa”: when European nations divided the African continent among themselves at a Berlin conference, before invading their newly claimed territories. Italian and French troops established systems of prostitution as soon as they arrived in Africa: the Italian military set up a sifilicomio, where women would be sent to recover from sexually transmitted diseases, almost immediately after they occupied Massawa in February 1885. As for the French: the first police-regulated system of prostitution was created in Algiers on 13 July 1830, only eight days after French troops captured the city. Filles soumises or “subjected girls” were placed in European brothels and red-light districts marked as “indigenous” – this system then gradually extended to all North African territories under French control.
In Belgian-occupied Congo, King Leopold II sent conscripted soldiers into villages to hold women hostage, in order to force local men to harvest highly profitable wild rubber in the rainforest. “The women taken during the last raid… are causing me no end of trouble,” a Belgian officer named Georges Bricusse wrote in his diary on November 22, 1895. “All the soldiers want one. The sentries who are supposed to watch them unchain the prettiest ones and rape them.” By the early 1900s, German invaders had waged genocide in Namibia. They then set up a brothel to prostitute indigenous women who had survived.
In Nigeria, large percentages of women in indigenous tribes were drawn into prostitution during this era of colonization. Researcher Mfon Ekpo-Otu writes that by 1948, “prostitution had become so endemic in the region of the Agwagune (Akunakuna) that its name became synonymous with prostitution” – nearby tribes called prostituted women akuna or akwunakuna. In Kenya, a police officer reported in 1907 that there were three to five hundred women and children being prostituted in Nairobi, some as young as ten years old. By WWI, many Kenyan women who had been in street prostitution – which had come to be called watembezi – began to rent beds, mats and rooms in mud huts where they were prostituted by soldiers stationed in Nairobi full time.
According to Cynthia Enloe’s Does Khaki Become You, at the beginning of World War II, brothels in Tripoli (Libya) were brought under direct control of the British army. Officers were placed in charge. British army commanders stationed in India also ran official brothels, and in both of these cases, women were subjected to compulsory medical examinations, and brothels were designated according to the race and rank of soldiers. When orders later came from London to shut down the brothels in India, the military blamed the spread of syphilis on this move. In his book A Man’s Country, Jock Phillips tells how New Zealand soldiers burned down brothels in Egypt in 1915 as revenge for catching syphilis, as though the women were to blame – expected as they were to stay “clean” for the sake of the troops.
In the 1930s and 40s, Japan continued to expand its territory into China and the Pacific. In Japan’s Comfort Women, Yuki Tanaka explains that by April 1933, the Japanese Imperial army had set up a station called the “Hygienic Facility for Prevention of Epidemics” in Shanghai, housing 35 Korean women and three Japanese women. Two condoms were distributed to each soldier – a total of 15,528 condoms. In the year 1942, 32.1 million condoms were sent to units stationed outside Japan, and all in all, Japanese troops kidnapped around 200,000 women and girls from Korea through purchase, deception and force, to use as so-called “comfort women.” Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese women were also used, and Filipino girls as young as ten were abducted by groups of soldiers. Young virgin girls were preferred, since they were least likely to have been infected with syphilis, and under the comfort women system, officers had first “rights” to the younger trafficked girls.
The Japanese established this comfort women system in Indonesia; and 3,000 Japanese, Chinese and Korean women were also shipped to Japanese occupied Papua New Guinea, to deal with 25 to 35 “clients” per day. Japanese women were used less in the “comfort woman” role, because it was believed that their job was to raise healthy Japanese children who would grow up loyal to the Empire. The Japanese wartime government had taken its lead from Nazi eugenic ideology, proclaiming the National Eugenic Law in 1940. According to Jeffreys, under the Nazi regime, Himmler had ordered the establishment of at least nine brothels in concentration camps. Upon instruction by the health department, the Warsaw ghetto set up a brothel with fifty Jewish women for the use of German soldiers, and in some places Jewish women were imprisoned for use by SS guards.
In 1945, the beginning of the first Vietnam war, the Vietnamese resisted handing over local women to French troops – but by 1954 the French had broken this resistance. “First bar girls, then massage parlours for the Marines at Da Nang, then a shanty town of brothels, massage parlours and dope dealers known as Dogpatch soon ringed the bases,” recorded one U.S. Veteran. Again, there were separate brothels for black and for white soldiers. In her book Don’t Be Afraid Gringo, Elvia Alvarado says that the Honduran people referred to syphilis as the “flor de Vietnam.” “When the gringos first came,” Alvarado says, prostitution “shot up something terrible, with whole streets full of bordellos.” She adds,
“There was also a scandal around the sexual abuse of children by the gringos. There were cases of children who were raped. We’d never heard anything like that before the gringos came here.
And people started talking about a sexual disease called the “flor de Vietnam,” the flower of Vietnam. I guess it’s named after that country Vietnam, where the United States fought another war. All I know if that it’s a sexual disease that’s hard to cure.
But the worst thing has been AIDS… They said that when gringos got AIDS they lasted longer, because they had better defenses than we Indians have.”
By the end of the second world war, Japan lost its grip on Korea, and Korea split into two states: North and South, leading to the Korean war. Since that time, over one million Korean women have been prostituted by the United States military. In her book In Order to Live, Yeonmi Park recounts her experience of being smuggled out of North Korea by traffickers who prey on North Korean girls looking for safe passage, in order to sell those girls into marriage and prostitution in China.
One focus of Jeffreys’ Industrial Vagina is the regions that the United States military turned into “rest and recreation” regimes, before these countries became sex tourist destinations. Korea, Thailand and the Philippines are among these regions: 100,000 women in Bangkok were prostituted under the pretense of “rest and recreation” before Thailand became a sex tourist destination. 70 per cent of those women and girls suffered from syphilis. By the 1960s, 55,000 Filipino women were being used in prostitution by U.S. troops for “rest and recreation.” The Filipino feminist organization Gabriela was established to resist the way that Filipino women and girls were blamed, punished and medicalized because of the spread of syphilis caused by the influx of U.S. troops who were prostituting them.
According to human trafficking expert Siddharth Kara, Asian countries now have the highest total number of women and girls in prostitution. Nations like Kenya, Hawai’i, Tahiti and Brazil also major militarized sex tourist destinations.
The connection that prostitution and pornography have to militarism is cyclical. Military prostitution fueled demand for the porn industry that grew rapidly in the after World War II; porn is also used to encourage aggression within armed forces. Porn was used for this purpose when Pakistani soldiers invaded Bangladesh during the 1971 genocide; a U.K. women’s newspaper called Outwrite reported that hardcore porn films were shown to British troops bound for the Falkland islands in 1982. Yugoslavia had been saturated with pornography before the Bosnian genocide, and pornography was a factor in the establishment of rape camps by Serb militias in Bosnia. Serb combatants filmed the rape of non-Serb women to make porn within a prostitution business in which murder was common.
Prostitution and pornography are inseparable from militarism. Together, these institutions sustain the dominance of men in power over women, and over occupied regions: more than that, porn and prostitution encourage men to fetishize violence and domination.
Feminist resistance to regulated rape – like Gabriela’s work in the Philippines, and Josephine Butler’s campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts in Britain and India – remains a crucial part of opposition to male violence and militarism. Prostitution is becoming increasingly normalized around the world, with jurisdictions like New Zealand implementing contemporary versions of the 1864 Contagious Diseases Act. Under New Zealand’s legislative model of so-called “harm reduction”, the “outreach” that women in prostitution are offered constitutes nothing more than condom distribution, so that men can be protected from sexually transmitted diseases. The rape of women will continue unchecked, until feminists realize that we need to take action.