Desperate Sex and other Exploitative Measures part 1

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Recently the Guardian decided to publish an article about the sex lives of Humanitarian Aid workers written by Pauline Oosterhoff and Elise Wach of International Development Studies department at the University of Sussex in the UK.

The authors start with a sexy scenario, which in this instance actually means sexy. They wanted to explore the complexities of having a sex life when working as a humanitarian aid worker. At first, they complained about coworkers in the field watching porn on the shared TV and the logistical and security problems of getting your boss to sign off on a sexual relationship with a staff member of another agency. The authors stated “paid sex with local sex workers avoids some of these issues, but clearly poses others.” They then go on to ‘helpfully’ tell the readers

“in many countries, bars and discos have rooms available to rent for a short stay and are usually considered brothels by the local population. Making decisions on the best way for staff to visit brothels is a familiar dilemma for some humanitarian logistics managers. While providing the organisation’s car ensures the driver is likely to get humanitarians home safely, having its logo on a jeep outside a brothel is hardly ideal for the organisation’s reputation.”    

Upon reading this, many of us at Cassandra and in the GBV community were saddened and shocked. The comments section on the Guardian website and chatter on Facebook showed us that we were not alone. The authors are blithely promoting something that has been a real problem in the humanitarian world – sexual exploitation and abuse by  humanitarian aid workers and by UN peacekeepers.

The authors seem to have completely ignored the work that has been going on since 2002 to address the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse (a form of gender-based violence) BY humanitarian aid workers and missed an opportunity to raise awareness and promote this work and have possibly undermined it. It was disturbing for us to see an institution such as IDS not even mention the power dynamics involved while suggesting that the completely unethical behavior of having sex with locals is a legitimate “option”.  Several of us responded with the following piece which can be found on the Guardian website.  The Guardian’s editors took out some of our points so here’s the full response as submitted.    

“We, the authors, all work on preventing and responding to sexual violence in humanitarian emergencies and have for decades. Your recent article caught our attention because it raised a very dangerous ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of humanitarian workers having a sex life while in the field. We are extremely disturbed by the author’s suggestion that humanitarian workers and peacekeepers pay for sex and, more so, that the authors believe that this is an issue that is open for discussion. It is simply not true. Their article is not well informed and ignores a key principle within the humanitarian system that prohibits sexual exploitation and abuse of our beneficiaries.

The 2003 United Nations Secretary General’s bulletin on Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse explicitly prohibits humanitarians from exchanging money, goods or services for sex. Every international organization that receives funding from the UN, United States or European donors must abide by these requirements, including mandatory reporting against any suspected violation. While there may be logistics officers and drivers who take coworkers to brothels, they should be reported for doing so and they and their brothel-visiting coworkers should be investigated and fired.

Humanitarians are human beings who have sexual relations while deployed – this is true. We all know couples that have developed relationships with other humanitarians but this is not a given. Many also understand that a lack of appropriate partners means that one must postpone this aspect of their life until R&R or return home. Sexual relationships with local staff and people affected by the crisis involve significant power dynamics and call into question the idea of “consent”.

Aside from being prohibited by our codes of conduct, for the authors to suggest that visiting local sex workers is an acceptable solution to sexual frustration while deployed is unethical. The Guardian article’s comments section recounts some horrifying stories of what happens when these power dynamics are ignored and abused. The heart of these policies is to ensure protection of vulnerable populations (not merely to protect our own organizational reputations). Organizations still struggle to implement these policies. Articles like this piece may strive to start a conversation about sex but have missed an opportunity to inform about why we need to protect affected populations from those who can’t control their sex drives. Ms. Oosterhoff and Wach‘s lack of understanding about the harm of sexual abuse and exploitation—and failure to reference the code of conduct—is simply dangerous – especially for the vulnerable men, women, boys, and girls that we seek to assist.”

Chen, Micah, Beth, and I have all been working on preventing and responding to sexual violence in humanitarian and development settings for nearly a combined 65 years (!!). We know that it is rare to see our issues in the mainstream press so we relish these kinds of opportunities to educate people about these very complex issues. It was also good to see others working on the same issues as us take the time (that we often are unable to find) to raise these issues in a widely read and respected newspaper and website. It was therefore particularly shocking to see that the IDS authors completely missed the point.

Not mentioning the codes of conduct from the piece immediately leads knowledgeable readers to call into question the author’s understanding of the topic of sexual activity by aid workers. It undermined any point that the author might be trying to make, for example that codes of conduct are failing, irrelevant, or a band aid solution (all of which would be an interesting addition to the subject).

Regarding the authors’ point about the “awkwardness” of reporting a sexual relationship with colleagues, this raises a valuable point about how difficult it is to get people to report sexual harassment or concern that others are breaking the code of Conduct due to fear of no organizational follow-up or negative repercussions (see the movie the Whistleblower which highlights the work of a great gender activist, Madeleine Rees.) Policies are in place but implementing them is harder. While larger agencies such as UNHCR can hire people to travel to the field to engage in discussions about codes of conduct (which reach beyond just the sex lives of their staff) and building capacity to address the issues, it appears to be the smaller agencies that struggle with reporting and screening staffChild protection agencies in particular are aware of the problem – how to protect vulnerable children from pedophiles.   

I don’t think people are pretending its not happening…. there have been activists working on this issue for years. Nor is it a case of agencies “preferring a policy to make it a fireable offense” – it’s about implementing codes of conduct that are tied to their human resources policies and their funding. It’s also about making it unacceptable behavior and changing the attitudes that put an aid worker’s sexual fulfillment over the right of a person from a crisis affected setting to live a life of dignity. 

As humanitarian aid workers, we are supposed to be saving lives and alleviating suffering. We should not be contributing to the pain and suffering of the people that we have come there to support. 

For more discussion on the topic of paid sex work and humanitarians, stay tuned for Part 2: Desperate Sex and other Exploitative Measures.

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