Should vice trade be legalized in US?

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/3/14 20:02:10

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


The arrest in a sting operation at a Florida massage parlor of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was intriguing indeed. Kraft was caught on videotape receiving sexual services at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa. The police were looking for human trafficking victims and catching the businessman behind the most successful American football franchise was a big bonus. Some other well-known financiers were also ensnared.

The original founder of the chain to which the massage center belonged is a woman named Cindy Yang, who it turned out helped US President Donald Trump raise money from rich Chinese. Other than the obvious appeal of money and sex, the charged political atmosphere in the US today is a guarantee of headlines popping up across the media spectrum.

But the news also shed light on humanity's oldest profession and reignited a long-lasting debate surrounding this industry - whether prostitution should be legalized or not.

The topic has been discussed extensively in the US in recent years because of the increasing focus on combating sex trafficking. 

The US is one of the top human trafficking destinations in the world. The National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH) documented 10,000 victims in the US in 2017, a 13 percent increase from the previous year. Other governmental figures estimate that 82 percent of suspected trafficking incidents in the country were classified as sex trafficking and nearly half of these involved victims under the age of 18.

Asian women, including those from China, make up a substantial percentage of the victims. The predominantly Chinese neighborhood of Flushing in New York is now known as an epicenter of prostitution around the country. It is where many sex workers arrested in police sting operations nationwide have their addresses, including some of those detained in the raid that had Kraft and other 300 or so men busted in various locations.

According to authorities, there are 9,000 massage parlors in the country that illegally double as brothels. Eight of them are clustered on 40th Road in Flushing, a street that is only a block long and was once known as a stop for cheap Chinese food. Despite elected officials and community organizations vowing to eradicate the vice, their business is ever-thriving.

Few women forced into the industry would argue for its legalization. But because not all sex workers choose the job against their will makes the issue complex. A woman named Adriane told me she is 26 and started to provide sexual services to make money when she was 20 - willingly. She loves her job and said most girls she knows chose the work of their own volition.  

I met Adriane on Monday at a rally at New York City Hall where a few dozen activists and human trafficking survivors came together to voice their opposition to a bill proposed in the state legislature to stop police from criminalizing prostitution as well as charging pimps and clients. Adriane hijacked the show, holding a placard and shouting in support of the proposed law. She even debated with a 22-year-old woman Melanie Thompson who was abducted at 12 years and forced into prostitution. 

From listening to the debate, it's not easy to draw conclusions. Yes, legalization may give sex workers like Adriane a better working environment. But to hope the johns will provide their real I.D. before they get the services, as she does, sounds naive. 

Yes, women have the right to sell their bodies, and letting men use up their excessive libido may help reduce rapes. But it's not realistic to hope legalization will stop trafficking. After all, the restaurant industry has been legal all the time, but it didn't stop the smuggling waves in the 1980s and 1990s that shifted a large part of the rural population of Fujian Province in China to work in the Chinese takeout business in the US.

They didn't mention Flushing, where Song Yang, a Chinese woman working at a massage parlor fell to her death last November from the balcony of a building while trying to evade a police sting operation. She may not have died if the industry was legalized. But what about the neighborhood businesses and residents whose life has been disrupted by aggressive marketing by massage parlors and the drunken harassment of women by their clients?   

But even with that in mind, there is still a missing piece. Research has found that the johns are equally likely to be married or single. Then what about their wives, girlfriends and children?

Kraft, 77, has a girlfriend 39 years younger. I don't know how she feels about the incident. 

But I can imagine the pain, humiliation, even self-blaming and the collapse of self-esteem a woman undergoes in such a situation. And I don't even dare to think what the children would feel when they learn that their father spent the money supposed to go to their college tuition on prostitutes.     

Such people are not normally considered victims because they are often left licking their wounds in silence. When men get the green light for their currently secretive recreation, there would be more broken hearts like this behind their satisfied animal instincts.   

Adding this to the scale, it would be clear to me which side it tilts. 

The author is a New York-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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