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French Culture Minister scandal: The sex workers' perspective

As I posted recently, Bangkok's red-light nightlife is often depicted by writers with  lurid imaginations.

For the gullible high school boys, there's a cartoonishly inaccurate Maxim article that tells readers of a "child bride" who'll titilate and strangle you for $300. For the moralizers, a story from The Oklahoman imagines that every woman in the trade is a "sex slave" waiting to be rescued and "freed" by a Christian missionary. Both perspectives are as condescending as they are absurd.

But seldom do readers hear from the women and men who actually work in this imagined, neon-soaked, pulp fiction netherworld.

That's why I was surprised to find this statement from the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers. It's their response to the firestorm started by French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, whose autobiography details his lusty fixations on "young boys" working in the prostitution "slave market" in Bangkok.

"All these rituals of the market for youths, the slave market, excite me enormously," he wrote.

Now, I don't have his book around the house, so I'm pulling these excerpts from U.K. news outlets. And in fairness, the book is a bit of a confessional. Still, I'm struggling to imagine a context that would redeem that particular line of prose.

In his defense, Mitterrand, who is 62, later insisted that "boy" is a euphemism that can apply even to men in their 60s — and possibly even jowelly culture ministers.

Back to the sex workers' association. I'm going to post their take on the scandal in full. It reads like a group statement, though it's signed by "Khun Chutchai," who is likely Chutchai Kongmont, one of the group's leaders.

Read until the end for the surprise dig at French colonials.

It has come to our attention that [there] is still continuing debate around the issue of the French Culture Minister, Frederic Mitterrand, and his admission that he paid for sex with male sex workers in Thailand. We have seen attacks on him from both the left and the right of French politics — attacks which we see as both homophobic and anti-sex worker.

Worse we see the racist, orientalist views of the elites on both sides of French politics who construct Thai sex workers as somehow “backward” and unable to choose what we do. In Thailand all male sex workers are referred to by the term “Nong” which means boy. We are not duped under age boys forced into “sexual slavery.” We are people in a poor country exercising our choices to live and earn money to support ourselves, our family and our country.

The money we earn and send home to the rural areas of Thailand is far larger than any international development programme and supports far more people.

Tourism to Thailand is our country’s second biggest industry — and people have sex on holidays. Are they meant to be celibate? Is it now unacceptable for Europeans to have sex with Asians in case they are exploiting us? If French politicians are so concerned about our exploitation they would do better to support labour laws for sex workers and to push the ILO to recognise sex work as work.

When and until the parties of the Left and the Right of French politics agree to substantially increase development aid to redistribute the wealth that France and other former colonial countries stole from the developing world, we would appreciate it if you keep sending us your tourists so that we can show them a good time and get some of your hard won cash.

(BTW: Thanks to SE Asian politics site New Mandala, where I originally spotted this statement.)