Sex Trafficking in Hawaii Is More Than Harm Reduction


I need to write this because I cannot participate in evil. It is actively revisionist and a form of prejudice to discuss the sex trafficking in these islands without mentioning the colonial violence, cultural genocide and systemic racism, which are the causes and effects of the sex industry in Hawaii.

I know this because I am the daughter of an island people with a parallel history. I am a Shimanchu woman whose identity was shaped by both the organized and spontaneous sexual violence that went hand in hand with the American occupation of Ryukyu.

The modern sex industry – sometimes colloquially referred to as prostitution or sex work – is a holdover from imperial expansion and war across the Pacific. The industry cannot exist without a brutal form of recruiting known as sex trafficking. Even without trafficking, the sex industry encourages toxic masculinity, often destroys women’s lives, and negatively shapes how society views women and LGBTQ people.

Stories of rest and recreation with “exotic women” in war zones turn into stereotypes and assumptions that hurt entire nations of women. These stereotypes show their ugly head in yelling, sexual harassment, gender pay gaps, domestic violence, buying sex from home and deadly attacks like the massacre at a massage parlor in Georgia in 2021.

“Sexual slavery”

Let’s call a spade a spade. Sex trafficking and prostitution are not about sex if you define sex as a mutually desired and mutually enjoyable activity – which I hope you do. Fighting the sex industry is actually fighting for sex.

Both sex trafficking and prostitution are about men deriving pleasure from people who have less power because of their gender, race and social class. However, sex trafficking occurs when people are forced to have sex without pay or freedom. It is rightly described as sexual slavery. Harm reduction (the subject of a recent Community Voice) is an inappropriate response to a form of slavery. We should not reduce the damage done to slavery but end slavery.

I am not alone in this request. There is a coalition of women and LGBTQ people in Hawaii who dreams of more than harm reduction, while we also provide short-term care. Our steering committee manages Hawaii’s only emergency fund for sex workers, and we passed the first and only law in the United States that allows sex workers to cancel their prostitution cases. We demand the immediate elimination of the damage.

But what is harm reduction? Harm reduction is a Western political movement that comes from a time when the government refused to provide acute care to marginalized communities due to the sexist, homophobic and racist views of drug users and those living with HIV. Harm reduction argued that people should not be excluded from acute care because of behaviors such as drug use and prostitution labeled as “at risk”.

Harm reduction has not attacked the racist, homophobic and patriarchal roots of the HIV + crisis, the war on drugs and prostitution. Harm reduction has its place in history, but we must be careful not to refuse to end the harm.

Downsizing the sex industry

Today the needle has swung the other way. Harm reduction is the dominant approach in public health and is institutionalized by the government. We no longer significantly support prevention and treatment to the extent necessary. We fund free needles, but not free recovery beds for those who want them.

Harm reduction may have good intentions and good origins, but ultimately it shines a light on people of color calling out harm systems like prostitution.

The harm reduction movement opposes the downsizing of the sex industry. Harm reduction equates drug use with human consumption: “Legalize it!” Unfortunately, the markets, materials and morals involved are very different.

It is time for lawmakers to look beyond the narrow view of harm reduction. Harm reduction, legalization and bad faith “banning” have all been tried and failed.

As we move through a water crisis and another variant of Covid, it is essential that we recognize that the root causes that fuel these problems are the same that allow sex trafficking to flourish. The commodification and abuse of land and water has always followed the commodification and abuse of Indigenous women and homosexuals.

The harm reduction movement opposes the downsizing of the sex industry.

We cannot afford to waste time with quick fixes while our aquifers are poisoned and Hawaiian women remain disproportionately exploited. It is time to focus the needs, care and wisdom of the most vulnerable populations, who are unmistakably indigenous people.

Desperate times call for new measures. What we need is a comprehensive feminist approach rooted in Indigenous values. The Bodies Back is a community dedicated to the just transition of inherently harmful systems. Bodies Back does not rely on prison to tackle an economic and patriarchal cultural problem (the sex industry). Instead, the Bodies Back movement emphasizes exiting industry support and mass education to defeat the toxic male culture of buying sex.

We call on the government to engage the Bodies Back community and focus the most affected, especially the less critical.

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