“Did the earth move for you?” as the aid worker said to the quake victim after sex in the ruins.
Or maybe this particular aftershock was followed by, at best, a less romantic “Thank you, ma’am” plus a few dollars. Or “Thank you, young lady” if she happened to be a marginally underage 17-year-old in Haiti where the age of consent is 18.
Oxfam staff in that country after the 2010 quake, as the world has known since The Times broke the story early this month, had been involved with prostitutes, according to the organisation’s own leaked internal report, which was reportedly “unable to rule out that some of the sex workers were underage” – a sensibly cautious conclusion, but careful caveats were utterly ignored, of course, by opportunist moral panic mongers, who lost no time in deciding there had been rampant child prostitution and a plague of predatory paedophiles.
Personally, I have little doubt that those who risk life and limb in war zones, earthquakes, and other dangerous scenarios, to help desperate, traumatised people, will tend to end up physically exhausted and psychologically shocked themselves; so it seems mean to begrudge them a bit of R&R, at least at the end of their tour of duty. That was certainly what the American military thought during the Vietnam War, when soldiers were billeted in Thailand for a vacation on their way home, where they were expected to enjoy the services of sex workers, including underage ones, notably in the beach resort of Pattaya. Previously just a fishing village, Pattaya grew to accommodate one of the biggest red light districts in the world. R&R was a military term meaning “rest and recuperation” but the soldiers often called it “I&I”, for “intoxication and intercourse”.
As for the “underage” aspect, this may have been officially frowned upon by the US military, but nothing was done about it and a blind eye was turned to soldiers cavorting with even very young girls and boys in Pattaya, Bangkok, and other R&R destinations such as the Philippines.
There is no evidence whatever that Oxfam’s leadership ignored staff involvement with obviously underage sex workers, or younger children, and there has been no more than a hint that anything went on with underage persons at all. Yet the storm in the British media was immediate, sustained, and so relentlessly thunderous one might have supposed this was the most appalling, sickening scandal in the long history of scandals. It was as if “we murdered babies in their cots”, beleaguered Oxfam boss Mark Goldring lamented in a Guardian interview; but, if he thought his bemused bleating would help, he would soon have to think again. Only days later, after coming under heavy fire for daring to complain about being unreasonably attacked, he found himself forced into a grovelling apology for his remarks, in front of a parliamentary committee.
Why? This level of outrage is usually reserved for cases involving children. But there were no children; or at least there were only imagined, slightly underage, teens in the case of Oxfam.
The hue and cry is to some extent easily explained by the view that people in certain occupations, such as the clergy, and teachers, are expected to set an example to others. When they fall from grace, therefore, they disappoint high expectations. Some media commentators have explicitly made this point in relation to Oxfam, although it is by no means obvious to me why those doing this type of work should have to demonstrate saintly celibacy when the task in hand frequently calls upon them to prove their worth in other ways – for instance, like soldiers, they very often need to show courage and endurance. So are we saying, as we sit at home comfortably doing nothing, that these people – many of whom are volunteers, or very modestly paid local staff in poor countries – must be perfect in every way so as not to fall short of our pampered expectations?
The unreasonable requirement of saintliness has definitely contributed to the outrage against Oxfam and other aid organisations dragged into the scandal, notably Shag the Children (sorry, Save the Children), UNICEF, and latterly the Red Cross, but this is not the half of it. There are at least two further factors. The most obvious one for Heretic TOC’s usual concerns is that victim feminist outrage is no longer confined to concern for child victims, so the lack of evidence that Oxfam staff availed themselves of child prostitutes in Haiti does not kill the story. I will come to this factor later.
A much nastier aspect of all this, sadly, is that not only do we punish other people for falling short of standards we would be hard-pressed to match ourselves, we also rush to engage with a narrative that seems to justify our own hard-hearted, lack of compassion and generosity. Well, I say “we”, but really I mean readers of the Daily Mail and similarly minded elements of the mainstream media, which have leapt onto the Oxfam story, following it up with page after page of reports and commentary all designed to play up the idea that the charities are hopelessly corrupt, siphoning off donated money off into huge executive salaries and bloated expense accounts, while conducting wasteful and inefficient operations in the field. Another element in this narrative, in fact an ideologically even more important one, is that government aid also goes to waste, allegedly ending up in the pockets of “corrupt dictators” and the like rather than the people who need it.
Ian Birrell, in the Mail on Sunday, even managed, at least implicitly, to link these two themes – private charity and government aid – when he took the opportunity to hammer Oxfam over their “flawed” (but he did not say what was wrong with it) recent report on global inequality. On their website, Oxfam said in January: “Last year saw the biggest increase in billionaires in history, one more every two days. This huge increase could have ended global extreme poverty seven times over. 82% of all wealth created in the last year went to the top 1%, and nothing went to the bottom 50%.”
The Mail and other billionaire-owned media outlets hate any such “socialist” hints that the super-rich are not paying their way, with the implication that they should be taxed more in order to finance not just foreign aid but also health, education, etc., at home. Thus hacks like Birrell are hired to stir up public resentment against outfits like Oxfam for daring to think about important issues of politics and finance instead of (actually, as well as) building tent cities for quake victims, distributing emergency food aid and so forth.
A counterblast to this mean-minded, selfish attitude to the world was to be found, though, by those with the patience to look beyond the headlines and in the right places. The distinguished foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn, for instance, writing in the Independent, said that if we care so much about Haitians we should be asking why Oxfam was there in the first place. It was not as though Oxfam staff were too busy having it off with prostitutes to organise food distribution and so forth in the immediate aftermath of the quake, which was in January 2010. Months passed after that during which UN soldiers, brought in from Nepal to help, inadvertently brought cholera with them, starting an epidemic that killed over 7,500 in two years.
Few recent commentators, said Cockburn, bothered to ask what Oxfam was doing in Haiti at the end of 2010, long after the quake itself, and the beginning of 2011. He wrote:
In fact, Oxfam was trying with some desperation to stem the cholera epidemic, the first outbreak of which was detected in central Haiti in October, from spreading further. By the following month, it had reached Port-au-Prince and Oxfam was trying to provide uncontaminated water to 315,000 people already rendered homeless by the earthquake. An Oxfam statement on 10 November describes how “Oxfam continues to strengthen water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure and activities in the camps/communities where we are working. A cholera strategy is being developed to guide our activities for at least the next three months. At this time, we are reinforcing our water, sanitation and hygiene programmes in camps where we already work in Port-au-Prince, and in Artibonite. We are currently reaching over 400,000 people with water, sanitation and hygiene programmes, and another 100,000 individuals mostly through our emergency food security and vulnerable livelihoods (EFSVL) programmes.”
This work, in Cockburn’s view, “kept a lot of people alive who would otherwise have died”. But foreign journalists and politicians huffing and puffing about the alleged exploitation of Haitian sex-workers did not even appear to notice that there was cholera epidemic raging in Haiti while Oxfam was there, and neither noticed nor apparently cared about the vital work being done by Oxfam.
The clashing worldviews represented by Birrell and Cockburn do not appear to speak directly to our primary concerns here at Heretic TOC and I know that expressing my left-leaning view may serve only to piss off the right-leaning (or toppling over) heretics among us. Nevertheless, the Oxfam aspect of the “predatory paedophiles” narrative is inextricably embedded in a world of politics, economics and human values: to remain mutely agnostic on these big issues would surely be to deprive our discussion of context and depth.
I said I would return to the fact that the absence of child prostitutes in Haiti did not kill the story. Suddenly, this is part of an emerging theme. The entire #MeToo movement in the wake of Harvey Weinstein has been about allegedly exploited and vulnerable women rather than children. As for prostitution, the “social purity” campaigners in the 19th century would dearly have loved to ban it altogether, and this has been an aim of moralistic feminism ever since. The big stumbling block for a hundred years was men’s entrenched political strength; when this came under serious challenge with second-wave feminism in the 1960s and beyond, further headway was prevented by sex workers themselves, who organised and gained a media presence in the UK through the English Collective of Prostitutes and through COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in the US.
Now, it seems, their voices are being drowned out by the all-conquering victim lobby. A recent BBC report, for instance, did not mention any such organisations or quote anyone in support of sex work when covering a review of a police deployment, Operation Sanctuary, which saw 18 people jailed for the “sexual abuse” of young women “groomed” in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, in northern England. The review concluded that “vulnerable women” are probably being “extensively” abused across the UK and that the government should look at tightening up the law.
The most depressing aspect of this, for those of us who value sexual self-determination at all ages (and personal freedom generally) is the mounting pressure against even adults being allowed to make their own sexual choices. This was made clear in the review’s finding that the authorities did not have the powers to intervene with adults to stop them “making bad choices” or forming “inappropriate relationships” – with the implication that such powers ought to be established in law.
As for how far some feminists are prepared to go in stamping out sex work and “exploitation”, it was made almost comically clear in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s World At One, when host Martha Kearney interviewed a BBC colleague, Gemma Cairney, who had helped raise funds for Oxfam until the present crisis. Asked what could be done to prevent such scandals, Cairney replied, apparently in all seriousness, “We need to change human nature”. Even Kearney, a fellow female and no doubt a card-carrying feminist, remarked that this might be a bit ambitious; but I fear all too many women would be up for the challenge – provided that the target was only men’s human nature.