February 18, 2018

Why Do Some Aid Workers Look at Sex with Locals as Privilege?


This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.

God helps those who help themselves, the saying goes. And aid workers, one might add, help themselves quite liberally on those who can’t.

The current prostitution scandal involving Oxfam seems to have shocked many, but, really, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the very people entrusted with the work of delivering aid often tend to conveniently imagine their mandate broadened to include their personal sexual gratification obtained from the very people whose lives they are supposed to be uplifting from the misery of poverty, homelessness, and yes, sexual slavery in forms blatant and subtle.

It’s really nothing new. In countries riven by conflict, UN soldiers tasked with keeping the peace have had no qualms taking a piece of the action, so to speak, and enjoying local delights. It was part of the package and came with the territory they were watching over. You know, like a job perk.

Julie Bindel, writing in The Independent, recalled that during her first trip to Kosovo in 1999, right after the end of the war, her driver told her “that a number of brothels were being built close to the area inhabited by a number of charities and UN organization, because so many of the men stationed there were prolific prostitute users. I saw a number of men going in and out of these establishments, despite the fact that many of them were there to advise local law enforcers on anti-trafficking strategies.”

Much like the mayor who advocates environmental conservation while stripping his province of trees to run his illegal logging business, or certain government officials who loudly denounce drugs and go on a trigger-happy killing spree targeting suspected users and pushers while they or their sons are allegedly involved in the drug trade, or the parish priest who preaches celibacy and sexual abstinence while sticking his penis into the little boys and girls whose purity he was supposed to be safeguarding, the Oxfam scandal and other situations like it is overflowing with an irony that is too tragic to be bitingly funny. One can’t help but wonder if the irony is lost on these people. Perhaps it is. Because, judging from the reactions of the accused and denounced, there doesn’t seem to be any inherent conflict in their minds between the aid they administer and the carnal pleasures that they sate. Peacekeeping, enforcing law and order, rebuilding a nation after disaster, war, political turbulence, __________________ (insert catastrophe here, whether man-made or natural) strikes is a tough job, they say in justification of their deeds, and they need to relax, unwind, have fun, have their sexual needs addressed, ______________ (insert other lame excuse for engaging and abetting prostitution and human trafficking here), and there is a willing supply of women—and girls—ready to happily open their legs for money. Supply and demand, their reasoning went, in aid of a woman’s economic emancipation.

There are, sadly, those who see nothing wrong with this line of reasoning, which Bindel thinks is disgraceful. Prostitution apologists “somehow create a defense of these vile sexual predators by suggesting that women and girls lured into the sex trade are somehow making a ‘choice,’ and are ‘professionals’ doing a ‘job.’” But the reality is that “these women and girls are being abused and exploited by men who are paid huge salaries to make their lives less horrendous.”

The other sad reality that the scandal has exposed—what with the Oxfam Haiti country director at the center of the maelstrom, Ronald van Hauwermeiren, admitting to engaging in prostitution in the Oxfam villa itself—is the steamy side of the charity business. The aid workers may come bringing food, clothing, security, and the skills to rebuild ravaged communities, but they also bring with them a warped sense of benevolence and entitlement, a kind of subverted noblesse oblige that allows them to see the people they are there to help as deserving of aid, yes, but also at some level subhuman, which therefore justifies treating the women and girls as commodities that exist for their sexual pleasure, even in the midst of abject misery. It is such a staggering abuse of privilege to believe that because they are addressing the greater good of the country and the citizens to whom they provide aid, indulging in a few carnal pleasures is not only excusable but necessary. Even charitable, since they are willing to pay for sex.

An aid official paying for sexual services does not usher women onto the road to economic empowerment. Rather, he preys on their vulnerability, exploits their desperation under the guise of “market realities,” perpetuates the cycle of abuse and actually makes them easier targets for human traffickers. And I’m not even going to go into the health risks involved in the sex trade, which further victimizes women, particularly in countries where health services are non-existent or diminished by catastrophe.

Whether you’re the director of Oxfam, or a peacekeeper from Chad, or a soldier in Iraq, there already is a built-in power imbalance that makes women and children easy targets for sexual abuse. And paying for their sexual services may make it a commercial transaction, but it does not erase the fact that the desire is often one-sided, and the women do not exactly have the luxury of choice.

So if God really does help those who help themselves, maybe aid workers deprived of sex should just resort to self-service. In the meantime.

B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant. 

For comments and questions, e-mail b.wiser.ph@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.


Photo by The Guardian

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Filed Under:

Abuse, Aid Workers, B. Wiser, culture, Oxfam, Scandal, Sex and Sensibility

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