The year is 2031. India is flooded with refugees displaced by rising sea levels that have submerged their homes in coastal regions. Environmental catastrophe has caused the fish stocks to disappear and with them local livelihoods and a protein staple.
Anbu is the eldest daughter of Selvi and Munusamy, a now out of work traditional fisherman. Shortly after being forcibly removed to an inland refugee camp, Munusamy is killed in a tragic accident. Selvi, desperate for money to support her younger children, arranges for Anbu to be taken Bengaluru on her 18th birthday to join one of the many megabrothels that have sprung up since India, on the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and international NGOs, fully decriminalised the prostitution industry four years earlier.
Anbu is devastated – she’d been hoping to finish high school and go to college. But it soon becomes clear that she has no choice. She loves her mother and little sisters and knows they have little hope of survival in the primitive refugee camp unless she can send them money. Potential jobs for a girl like her who hasn’t finished high school are practically non-existent. She knows the brothel will be brutal – but even so, the reality is shocking.
Having read and listened to literally hundreds of women’s first-person accounts of prostitution, I struggled with the descriptions in the book of the brothel and Anbu’s encounters with punters. Yes, Anderson has done his research and much is plausible. But it felt a bit like being an outsider looking in rather than being inside Anbu’s head actually feeling the terrifying reality of serial forced intimacy with men she has no interest in, many of whom she finds disgusting, and who are mostly much bigger and stronger than her. Not to mention that they have the entire legal brothel bent to supporting them, believing their every miserable complaint.
Anderson seems to think that the dissociation that is so common among women involved in prostitution is a voluntary state that you can will yourself into – rather than an involuntary response to overwhelming trauma and horror. This is perhaps a metaphor for what I found missing – a visceral sense of the overwhelming reality – and the understanding that fawning is both a natural trauma response and a deeply ingrained pattern in many of those who are poor and marginalised – especially those who are female.
Once I accepted this limitation, I went on to enjoy the book. It feels a bit weird saying I enjoyed it, given its harrowing subject matter – but I did enjoy getting caught up with Anbu’s story. I wanted to know what happens. Would she ever escape this merciless existence? Would it eventually crush her? And what about the other girls and young women she gets to know in the brothel? Would her mother and little sisters survive living under a tarpaulin when the monsoon comes? Would the authorities ever come to see the catastrophic impact of their so-called Right To Sex Act?
And then there are the scenes with the Western-funded foundations and NGOs who are promoting full decriminalisation (‘decrim’), not only in India, but also in other developing countries, many of whom are also struggling with the impact of climate catastrophe.
Sally Rivers, the CEO of the fictitious Great Foundation, gives a speech to an audience of invited VIPs about decrim’s “success” in India:
“India’s model of decriminalization is universally recognized as a transformational win win, because, by leveraging market forces, it is rapidly improving public health, reducing unemployment, and achieving greater social and gender equity! And I’m sure I don’t need to remind this audience how committed the foundation is to equity. It will always be a key evaluation indicator in all of our programs.” [Page 119]
Anbu and some of the other young women from the brothel are in the audience at the back of the hall, having earlier performed a dance – meaning we get to hear the speech through their eyes. Understanding the poverty, family catastrophe, lack of options, and often outright trafficking that led to their entry into the brothel, the dishonesty and callousness in Sally Rivers’ speech is thrown into crystal clear relief.
She goes on to say:
“We see a sharp increase in the proportion of women in the workforce, enabling women to work their way out of poverty and into the middle class. […] and decriminalization has been a significant stimulus to India’s economy, particularly in the tourism sector. […] Last year, India’s brothels attracted twelve times more foreign visitors than the Taj Mahal.” [Page 119-120]
And there’s the rub. It’s a vast investment opportunity for the middle and upper classes – just as the transatlantic slave trade was for the British middle and upper classes three centuries ago.
The next speaker is Lisa Gilbert, founder and CEO of Investment for Impact:
“The potential is literally unlimited, because we’re dealing with something that every man is eager to buy and that every woman is able to sell. That is, the demand is insatiable, and the supply is infinite. We are at the beginning of a rare opportunity that is right before us, and for us not to grasp it right now and to focus on its potential would be a criminal waste of this precious opportunity.” [Page 123-4]
And suddenly it’s completely clear that the enthusiasm for decriminalisation is inseparable from the desire for easy profit. And its promoters won’t let any inconvenient truths about what is the raw material for that profit disturb their enthusiasm. And while they claim to listen to “sex workers”, in fact the NGO workers on the ground simply turn off the voice recorder when one of the prostituted women says something that doesn’t mesh with the party line they’ve been trained to enforce. We feel the young women employed by the NGOs squirming and thinking of their jobs and the horror that if they bring something back to head office that doesn’t fit the required narrative, they will risk losing their jobs and face life in the brothel themselves. Their greatest dread.
This book is very clever in how it makes you think about what the consequences of full decriminalisation of prostitution would be and what it would mean for a country facing entrenched inequality, mass poverty, and environmental catastrophe.
It shows the dishonest and devious methods of the decrim lobby and provides a brilliant overview of the forces lined up against the international campaign for the abolition of this heinous and ruthless industry. It comes highly recommended.
Object of Desire by Brooks Anderson is available on Amazon.