Why do Australian liberal feminists care so little about the most vulnerable?

I remember the cool, calm evenings in Vietnam like I never left — many times, I wish I hadn’t.

Long dusty roads, the landscape broken up occasionally by a scattering of bright blue plastic chairs that furnish the informal bars, the side of the road dotted with chickens, a few kids playing and the occasional wandering nu xe om — or, quite literally, “motorbike girl.”

Equally memorable is that sense of helplessness as I watched young women and girls being harassed, exploited by older men, and solicited by Westerners in whom they had no interest, but equally had no choice other than to “entertain” for the sake of their jobs.

These experiences are burnt into my memory, visceral and raw, I can still smell the smokey barbecue restaurants where groups of older men would yell and laugh at the young beer girls as they scurried to serve them for what was likely an $80 monthly salary.

Returning to Australia brought to life just how close to home these experiences really are. Re-enacted across Australia were the same scenarios in various forms. From the many migrant women who are sexually exploited in equal measure both at home and abroad, to the sexual assaults, rates of abuse and murder of women in Australia that continues to break hearts and hope on a daily basis.

What shocked me most, however, was the realization that on issues related to poverty and sexual exploitation, there is no solidarity from Australian feminists.

In my naive optimism, I imaged that our many feminist writers would point out how exploitation flowed seamlessly across our borders. I had wrongly assumed that those leading the charge against sexism would examine how ethnocentrism and economic disparity have created and maintained conditions, policies, and norms under which exploitation of women is inevitable.

What I found in the mainstream feminist discourse — that is, liberal feminism — was quite the opposite: rather than any solidarity, I found outright denial that sexual exploitation or trafficking is a major issue at all. Indeed, the status quo among liberal feminists is to argue that trafficking is overstated or that it just simply doesn’t happen in Australia. Apparently migrant and poor women enter the sex industry on the basis of free choice rather than the lack of it. Testimonies and reports that refute such theory are all but ignored.

According to the recent feminist conference organised by Anne Summers, pointing out exploitation surrounding the sex industry is apparently now the problem. The two day event featured many survivors of male violence, yet notably did not invite any survivors of sexual exploitation or trafficking, arguing instead that it is somehow racist to assume that exploitation occurs.

My surprise over the state of affairs was echoed by Nimko Ali, a British-Somalian Female Genital Mutilation activist, who reflected on how Australia is stuck in the dark ages when it comes to women’s rights. On ABC News24, Ali said the fact that “the sex industry is seen as a form of empowerment is quite shocking.” Ironically, women like Ali who criticise the industry are tainted as racist, Puritan or somehow looking to create anti-sex “poverty porn.”

Every time I hear such arguments, I find myself face-to-face with the young girls who I know will never have any other choice than to live with the inevitable exploitation that is going to greet them every day of their lives. The dire consequences of such a situation cannot be overstated. I think back to Manila where the hunger of street kids was palpable. When around 40 per cent of the Asian industry is estimated to be children and 80 per cent of the red light zone is owned or managed by Australians and frequented by Western sex tourists and paedophiles who pay a premium for children and indulge in dangerous unprotected sex acts. These men leave behind in their wakes hundreds of Filipino-Australian children who will grow up in poverty in the backstreet brothels.

Liberal feminists and leading human rights advocates alike claim that women in poverty can somehow better themselves in the sex trade. Yet an expanding sex trade only results in more women trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence. Rather than opening up new opportunities, women in the sex trade are far less likely to live to see 40 years of age due to the violence, illness, and disease to which the johns expose them. Yet, according to First World armchair philosophers, this situation constitutes “better off.”

Australia’s main feminist outfits all but refuse to publish on sexual exploitation or trafficking across Asia, as I recently argued. The work of ending trafficking is left to piecemeal legislation and underfunded not-for-profits. Vulnerable women’s voices are blocked out of feminist media in order to preference a few wealthy women in the Australian industry. Meanwhile, men traveling for sexual exploitation number in their hundreds of thousands — estimated to be around 70 per cent of single males traveling to Asia — supported not only by lax laws and social norms, but also by a so-called feminist movement that is hell-bent on rebranding exploitation as choice.

My heart breaks for every one of these girls, not only because of the misogyny and economic disparity that will keep them in these circumstances, but also because their Australian sisters are scoffing at their exploitation over bottles of Merlot and Wagyu steaks in chic inner-city bars, all while congratulating themselves for being staunch advocates of women’s rights.

What I’ve learnt is that Australian feminism is not so much a sisterhood as it is a mean girls’ clique. The mainstay of liberal feminism moves around circles where it’s in vogue to discuss “high class escorting,” where porn is merely an element of women’s freedom, where it’s acceptable to publicly malign campaigns and joke about women as “c–ts,” and yet it’s somehow unacceptable to make the most vulnerable women and girls a priority.

While many people may be uninformed or unaware of the modus operandi of the sex trade, liberal feminists claim to be better informed and yet they use this information to undermine women in poverty. I’ve come to realize that if anyone couldn’t care less about the countless Asian girls being exploited at home and abroad, it is Australian feminists.

Laura McNally is a psychologist, researcher, author and PhD candidate. Her doctoral research examines the political and social implications of global corporate social responsibility. She is the chair of the Australian branch of Endangered Bodies and provides social commentary on issues related to gender inequality.

This post was originally published at ABC and was republished with permission from the author.

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