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Interview on Prostitution in Afghanistan: Masculinity and the Sex Trade Heather ReaSOC 235Erica DixonAugust 16, 2010
I was interested in researching this subject because it has had an effect on my family.I believe it is important to discuss this issue because of the prevalence of human trafficking and human rights violations associated with military actions.I believe that by bringing out into the open the practical policies regarding prostitution and sex trafficking in effect in war zones where the U.S. is active, we can make better informed decisions on how to enact foreign policy based on human rights concerns.I believe that our society is highly militarized, and that those at the pinnacle of idealized masculine military power—mercenaries—are afforded privileges such as legal immunity for human rights abuses.I also believe that this speaks volumes as to the disparity of power that our society continues to reproduce between the masculine and feminine.
In fall of last year, scandal erupted after photos of drunken parties and sexual hazing involving security contractors employed by ArmorGroup, the company tasked with providing security to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, reached the public eye. Soon after, more serious allegations against employees of this company began to surface--including not only the frequenting of brothels known to house trafficked women, but also direct involvement in the trafficking and prostitution of women--after former ArmorGroup employee James Gordon filed suit against the company September 9, 2009. Similarly, employees of another mercenary company, Dyncorp International, were accused of trafficking women and underage girls for the purpose of prostitution and household help--Dyncorp was then working for the U.N. Police Task Force in Bosnia. One employee, retained by the company, claimed to own a 12-year old sex slave; another man who was fired admitted to buying an Uzi and a Moldovan woman from a local bartender with connections to the Serbian mafia. (Isenberg, 2009) Blackwater International, perhaps the most famous military contracting company, was accused earlier this year of directly billing the U.S. Government for “Morale Welfare Recreation” for the travel expenses and monthly salary of a woman from the Philippines brought to Iraq in the company‘s employ. Despite mounting complaints against these mercenary companies in regard to their violations of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, there have been no prosecutions in any of these cases. Often there is ambiguity as to which law enforcement entity has jurisdiction over these international workers. This suggests that, although supposedly strict guidelines are in place to prevent private military security companies (PMSC) from engaging in trafficking and forced prostitution, the general policy is no enforcement. Further, it calls into question how a nation involved in various peacekeeping missions, such as the U.S., does and will negotiate the subjects of prostitution, trafficking, and human rights. It has long been accepted that military endeavors and prostitution go hand-in-hand. Cultural lore has it that the services of prostitutes are necessary to protect local populations of women from the supposedly uncontrollable masculine urges of military personnel; further, it may be said that accessing these services is regarded as a particular perk of, especially foreign, military service. However, it is difficult to pin down specific policies in regard to prostitution set out by the military, and now, military contracting companies. This may be because the attitudes and practical policies toward prostitution are implicit rather than explicit. Cynthia Enloe (2000) describes the difficulty of “unraveling” these politics in the face of vested interest: …Military policy makers’ attempts to construct a type (or a particular array of types) of masculinity that best suits their military’s mission are exposed by taking seriously their prostitution policies. (p.51) Certainly, returning to the ArmorGroup scandal, the pictures present a view of a certain type of masculinity at play--a sort of hyper-masculine overindulgence (with the Spartan shipping container/housing units of Camp Sullivan in the background.) In Kabul, however, this manly culture perpetrates not just alcohol abuse and hazing, like some post-apocalyptic fraternity, but a very real violence, and oppression of women used to provide sex. Making the relationship between the military, national and private, explicit in the case of the war in Afghanistan is particularly problematic given the cultural opposition to prostitution on religious grounds that permeates the country. This opposition gives rise to “hidden” brothels fronting as restaurants that serve primarily foreigners rather than locals (who are often barred from such establishments), as well as to the trafficking of non-Afghani women brought into the country to work as prostitutes. Debra McNutt (2007) describes a similar situation in Iraq, where culture and security concerns influence prostitution, driving the practice underground and into the hands of crime syndicates. Further, the trafficking of women also directly relates to the disempowerment of prostitutes, as they work away from their support networks at home and are more vulnerable to violence, coercion, and the withholding of pay and personal documentation by employers--or who may not even be aware that the work that they going to get is sex work in the first place.
While the official stance on prostitution is put forth as a “zero tolerance” policy--i.e., contractors are officially forbidden from frequenting brothels according to National Security Presidential Directive 22--the practice is not secret. (Schwellenbach 2010) The State Department’s own report on human trafficking states “Women and girls from Iran, Tajikistan, and possibly Uganda and China are forced into prostitution in Afghanistan. Some international security contractors may have been involved in the sex trafficking of these women.” Why is this connection between military contractors and trafficked prostitutes so pervasive? I believe there are several reasons. First there are factors such as poverty and culture that cause women to become involved in prostitution, or enmeshed in a trafficking ring, in the first place. Areas of high conflict are particularly impoverished. But quite importantly, there is a culture of hegemonic masculinity at work that propagates the sexual politics of armed, highly-paid men in a position of authority in relation to relatively low-paid women, who may have no authority or autonomy, in a subordinate position. Kimmell (2008) states that we “come to know what it means to be a man or woman in our culture by setting ourselves in opposition to a set of others…For men, the classic “other” is, of course, women.” (p. 10) Kimmel also makes reference to the work of sociologist R. W. Connell, calling the hegemonic definition of masculinity a ‘particular variety of masculinity to which others--among them the young and effeminate as well as homosexual men--are subordinated.” (Kimmel, p. 116) In the case of mercenaries in Afghanistan, this definition of “other” could be expanded to include nearly everyone but themselves: the local population, non-Western company employees, and women. The “pay for play” nature of prostitution and the power structure this engenders converges neatly with the masculine ideals of mercenary culture as one of dominance. In short, the kind of man who is a mercenary is thought to be the kind of man who advantages himself of prostitutes, or who perhaps “owns” a few himself. In an official company document responding to trafficking allegations, ArmorGroup manager Nick Duplessis words it this way: “Some members of the workforce had violated the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) policy for the purpose of seeking out prostitutes, but this represented only a minority against the overall net benefit of having a ‘light-touch’ MWR policy.” (Isenberg) Apparently, there is a net benefit for advantaging themselves of trafficked women against the upholding of human rights laws. What this benefit is, perhaps, may be one of the advantages of being a part of a dominant group of men. Another factor is the relationship between the authoritarian structure of military forces and the proclivity to condone antisocial behavior. In their article “Attitudes Toward a Military Enforcement of Human Rights,” DetlefFetchenhauer and Hans-Werner Bierhoff describe the results of their correlation study between authoritarianism and antisocial behavior: (T)he question arises whether military enforcement of human rights is--from a psychological point of view--more related to prosocial or antisocial personality, respectively. Our data indicate that it is more related to antisocial personality than to prosocial personality because we found significant correlations with authoritarianism and aggressive sanctioning but not with social responsibility and constructive sanctioning. In addition, the higher endorsement of military enforcement of human rights by men compared with women points in the same direction. (p. 90-1)
Here, a gendered social construct--authoritarianism--comes into play. Not only is this correlation a prime explanation for the sorts of criminal activities engaged in by security contractors on all fronts, but it also exemplifies the incongruencies at work: peacekeeping troops participating in human rights violations--exactly the kind of societal ills we are told they are there to prevent. Combine this with little to no oversight and zero risk of prosecution, and employees of PMSCs are abroad in a legal and ethical no-man’s-land.
Hypothesis The prevalence of masculine hegemony inherent in the practice of the war in Afghanistan supports the commodification and abuse of women, including violations of human rights and anti-trafficking laws.
My research focused on the case study of one man, Travis Roberts, a former security contractor with Global Risk Strategies, in Kabul, Afghanistan. I interviewed Travis about his experiences in Afghanistan, particularly those involving prostitution. Travis is now 34 years old. He has been married five times. His military odyssey began at the age of twenty when he enlisted with the U.S. Army. He was schooled in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California, and served with a peacekeeping mission in Egypt. After the end of his Army involvement, Travis attended the University of New Mexico, majoring in peace studies. However, he was soon drawn back into military life as he took a job as a security contractor working on a military base in Kosovo, where he eventually completed three one-year contracts. Travis spent a year in Kabul, part of which time he was worked as a guard at the U.S. Embassy. After the termination of his employment, Travis partnered with a Chinese prostitute to open a restaurant and brothel. This business was designed to cater to the burgeoning population of Nepalese migrant workers employed in Kabul by security contracting firms, as well as Westerners. The brothel also employed six Nepalese women, as well as Chinese, who had been trafficked into the country through organized crime networks. Today he is retired from the military industry, and has devoted much of his time to peace activism, including a personal music project. I found Travis was a good subject for interview because of his intimate knowledge of the culture of prostitution and trafficking in Kabul, because of his education involving human rights, his long participation in military culture, and his willingness to speak on the subject. Other possible interview subjects available to me were either unable or unwilling to interview. I attempted to ask the subject questions which might shed light on the cultural and social aspects of mercenary society and its relationship to prostitution, especially forced prostitution.
The subject’s answers to interview questions show a widespread support in mercenary company culture for engaging in prostitution. “Almost all of us were engaging in prostitution. The company supported it off the books, but in plain sight, “ he states. Security details used to escort personnel to brothels on days off, however, were billed to the Department of Defense. He describes a company demographic consisting of ex-military personnel from countries where English is the language of dominance--U.S., U.K., New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe--who supervised a contingent of Third Party Nationals (TPNs) from places such as Nepal, Peru, and the Philippines. TPNs, he states, were expected to do most of the work for about one-tenth the pay. Recreation was a bonding mechanism in this society, and was achieved “by consuming large amounts of alcohol, smoking hash, going down to a brothel for a shag, and shooting things up.” Kabul, he said, was dotted with brothels fronting as restaurants, employing mostly Chinese prostitutes. Travis also referred to the trafficking scandal involving Dyncorp employees in the Balkans, stating that he knew many other contractors there to be involved in the human trade. He stated that for two to four hundred U.S. dollars, one could buy “a nice-looking Moldovan or poor Bosnian girl and her passport.” he goes on to say that there is a connection between trafficking crimes between the war zones of the Balkans and Afghanistan in that “many of the people (contractors) are the same, just moved to the next contract.” This mobile culture carries with it a “wild-west” atmosphere, as he put it. When questioned as to the nature of the prostitutes work, in regard to their willingness, as trafficked persons, to work as prostitutes, and to the common knowledge of forced prostitution, he stated: “We were all aware that these women came from somewhere else. As to how many came willingly to work as prostitutes and how many were forced into sexual slavery is a mystery…I also knew hookers who I believed were there against their will.” Travis also opened and operated his own brothel while in Kabul. He procured women for his operation through governmental departments: the Afghan Investment Support Agency and the Departments of Labour and Interior. The women were Nepalese nationals; they earned “room and board for the duration.” When questioned about their willingness to work as prostitutes, the subject stated “Only two of the women were opposed to working as prostitutes, however (they) changed their minds after some persuasion.” When pressed as to the nature of this persuasion, the subject initially declined to elaborate. Later, a note from the subject clarified this example of the practical aspects of trafficking women:
“I think that the best way to describe the method of convincing the two females…is coercion. Threats of physical violence were used and in some cases physical violence and rape. Fear was used as a tool to manipulate the girls. Fear of debt, fear of violence, fear of embarrassment…were used against the women. Women who chose not to fuck were subjected to excessively long hours of hard labor with little to eat. Women who chose not to fuck were denied access to personal hygiene and even clean drinking water, forcing them to drink from the sewer. Women who chose not to fuck were driven deep into Taliban country and given the option of remaining there in the desert, or coming back to fuck.”
The data gained by this case study proved difficult to quantify. I chose to look at the expressed ideas recurring two or more times in the subjects answers to twenty-four questions. Although the questions themselves may lead into these subjects, they are also the subject’s own explanation of the cultural phenomena that give rise to expressions of mercenary culture. The scope of the topic is so far reaching, that it was impossible to discuss in a completely objective manner, and it is difficult to abstract the aspects of hegemonic masculinity because they are so inherently involved in so much of reportable activities in Afghanistan. A better study, preferably involving many subjects, might use an intensive survey of mercenaries and their attitudes and experiences.
Recurring themes were: Money/Greed-- mentioned seven answers Violence--mentioned/implicit in four answers Sex--mentioned/explicit in two answers Opposition to mission in Afghanistan--mentioned/implicit in five answers Expression of regret--mentioned twice Instance of traditionally hyper masculine social expression--results arguable. I counted eight including work-related and recreationally related expressions.
It seems that my research supports the hypothesis of the prevalence of masculine hegemony, supporting the commodification and abuse of women, including violations of human rights and anti-trafficking laws. However, I would go on to say that it is but one of many facets of the sex trade-military relationship that needs to be addressed before a real understanding of the situation is reached. For example, the subject describes how his brothel operation mirrored the greater corporate interest in Afghanistan--economic and cultural considerations convolute this issue. Further, there seem to be a variety of social aspects of the military culture and its relation to masculinity that need to be explored, as well as a much more thorough understanding of the women who are working in the sex trade servicing these men. This study is but the tip of a gendered iceberg, and much more work will be needed before we can gain a clear sociological perspective on this increasingly complex, but timely, issue. It is important that this subject be studied and brought into the arena of academic and political criticism. As our nation becomes more embroiled in conflicts across the globe, particularly in Southwest Asia, these issues will have effect not only on foreign countries, but on the shaping of our own culture as well. I expect that in the future, the forms prostitution is taking place in the peacekeeping-mercenary world will become mythologized much as those of the wars in Southeast Asia. It will become a part of our history and cultural background as Americans; the political will become personal as the cultural reverberations from this through our society. By rooting out the facts, and bringing attention to the human rights violations being committed, we can bring the issue into public debate on foreign policy. Also, it is important that there be serious repercussions to this kind of activity in order to maintain any sort of credibility as in our foreign policy--and credibility is something we are losing every day in regard to the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps this issue, among other crimes being committed by peacekeeping forces, brings into question the legitimacy of such “nation-building” policies. It certainly casts doubt on the way these wars are packaged and sold to the American body politic. Also, the cultural glamorization of mercenaries in regard to masculinity will continue to reproduce this kind of behavior as such expressions of masculinity are tied to the heroism afforded military servicemen, and such masculinities are tied to money, power, and immunity to censure or prosecution.
I believe that through education and access to information we may be able to make policy decisions that reflect truly humanitarian views. As the subject stated: ‘I am learning from my mistakes.’ However, this will take a strong commitment of political pressure to end government and international inaction on ending sex trafficking practices in war zones, a breaking down of the masculine elite’s privileges of immunity, and the casual acceptance of a militarized society. Truly, this is one case in which women’s issues must be recognized in opposition to the reproduction of hypermasculine military culture both at home and abroad.
Fetchenhauer, Detlef and Bierhoff, Hans-Werner. 2004. “Attitudes Toward a Military Enforcement of Human Rights.” Social Justice Research.
Enloe, Cynthia. 2000. Maneuvers: The International politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. Berkeley, California. The University of California Press.
Kimmel, Michael. 2008. The Gendered Society, Third Edition. New York, New York. Oxford.
Isenberg, David. (October 6, 2009). Sex and security in Afghanistan. Asia Times Online. Retrieved from: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KJ06Df04.html
McNutt, Debra. (July 11, 2007). Military Prostitution and the Iraq Occupation: Privatizing Women. Counterpunch. Retrieved from: http://www.counterpunch.org/mcnutt07112007.html
United States Department of State. Offices to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Trafficking in Persons Report 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2010/142759.htm
Scwhellenbach, Nick, and Leonig, Carol D. (July 17, 2010.) Despite allegations, no prosecutions for war zone sex trafficking. The Center for Public Integrity. Retrieved from: http://www.publicintegrity.org/articles/entry/2231/
Timely News: HamidKarzai Bans Contractors from Afghanistan! See: http://www.newsweek.com/blogs/declassified/2010/08/17/officials-karzai-blindsided-u-s-embassy-with-contractor-ban-announcement.html Perhaps this piece of news will make more sense in light of the kinds of things my project mention.