Problems with Face

Cultures are generally complex, and I’m not interested in rating them, in saying one is superior to the other.  But I am interested in that kind of cultural troubleshooting which is so popular in the West, and which is done by both progressives and conservatives.

And in my reading of biographies written by U.N. social workers, I’m noticing a pattern.

Something inexplicible happens, very often, when young women and girls enter into prostitution.  A little over a third of the time, I seem to notice this pattern.

The girl — I’ll stick with that term because they’re very rarely of age — is tricked or forced into sex-work.  She’s promised work as a seamstress in another village for good money, and then shipped to a brothel; or she’s abducted; or she chooses to prostitute herself because she needs money, often to pay for medical treatment for a sick parent.

Sometimes her madam, who might be an aunt or other relative, pays her monthly as a means of keeping her dependant; and then sometimes refuses to pay her at the end of the month, or doesn’t pay the agreed wage.

Sometimes, she’s just molested or raped, and it has nothing to do with money.

After that, what we’ll call the initial contact, she very often may escape the (usually exploitative) situation and return home.  Then, inexplicably, she starts looking for work as a prostitute.

This happens even with girls who were raped; they escape their victimizer, return home, and then leave to find work in the sex-trade.  Sometimes they might send money home.

I’m thinking there are two inter-related ways to describe what’s going on here.

First, there’s the idea that only virgins are marriageable.  So if the girl has lost her virginity, she can’t marry.  She’s damaged goods.  Therefore, the only thing that remains for her is prostitution.

Now that, to the American mind, is bullshit.  But cultural expectations are generally bullshit; conventions are arbitrary.  Asians can very easily identify any number of bullshit American conventions.  The issue is whether it’s helpful bullshit or not.

Now, you might say that, even if she now can’t marry, that’s still no reason to become a prostitute.  (And keep in mind the ones who have an initial contact and do not become prostitutes don’t get interviewed.)  But there’s something else going on:

It seems, from the behavior, that she’s lost face.  Face is your public pride; your standing; it seems to be not only the way you feel, but also the way others think about you.  And (all going from what I’ve read), it seems the two aren’t well-distinguished.

In other words, the way people think about you is a real thing.  And it determines your honor.  So when these girls in some cases get raped or molested, they’re no longer virgins, and that’s it.  It’s a done deal.

Now, in the West, we largely don’t think that way.  And, speaking as an atheist (who likes to wear a cross to fake people out), I think we have Christ to thank for that.  Christ died a shameful death, utterly victimized, but we have not culturally been willing to say that compromises his dignity or honor.

So, although I kind of hate the culture of victimspeak that has evolved in the West, where everyone competes to be the biggest victim and get the most sympathy, it looks to me right now that we culturally transmit a better set of emotional tools for rebounding from being victimized than Asian cultures do.

We teach that it has nothing to do with who you are; it’s just what happened to you.  And that’s often difficult for people to entirely accept; but even half-taken to heart, it provides real defense against having a spot of bad luck ruin your self-image.

Plus, in the West you basically know that other people won’t judge you based on what happened to you, but on how you respond to it.

Now, I’m not currently in touch with anyone who’s combating Cambodian trafficking, but if I’ve got a grip on the emotional logic here, a major way to help girls not enter into prostitution would be to put the message out that girls who get raped or tricked into prostitution, or who wittingly dabble in prostitution for brief periods, have a good set of options for re-entering respectable mainstream society.  And especially that how they respond says more about them than what happened to them does.

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. hmm…food for thought. What other means of employment would they have? Who consumes their prostitution/sex work?

  2. No, there’s all kinds of work available to young women in Cambodia. Besides traditional women’s work, you quite often see women doing road work — pounding gravel and sand into place in preparation for paving — and roadside clean-up — picking up garbage and mowing grass.

    Also, there’s no reason women can’t work as tuk-tuk (taxi) drivers, although I’ve only seen one so far. And the UN reports indicate that about a quarter or a third of the prostitutes they interviewed wanted to leave and start a business.

    No, there’s work.

  3. Face is very interesting to think about. I liked this piece.

  4. I wrote this a long time ago. Since then I’ve discovered how little I understand Asian cultures. So I can only tell Westerners — you probably do not understand what’s going on in Asian cultures far more deeply than you think you do not understand.


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