Sex Trafficking In Hawaii Is About Far More Than Harm Reduction - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Esme Yokooji

Esme Yokooji is a recent graduate of the Ethnic Studies Program at UH Manoa. She is an organizer within the Bodies Back movement, which advocates for an indigenous and feminist response to the systemic issues of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.


I need to write this because I cannot participate in harm. It is actively revisionist and a form of harm to discuss sex trafficking in these islands without mentioning colonial violence, cultural genocide and systemic racism, which are causes and effects of the sex industry in Hawaii.

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I know because I am the daughter of island people with a parallel history. I am a Shimanchu woman whose identity has been shaped by both the organized and spontaneous sexual violence that came hand-in-hand with U.S. occupation of Ryukyu.

The modern sex industry — sometimes referred to colloquially as prostitution or sex work — is a remnant of imperial expansion and war across the Pacific. The industry cannot exist without a brutal form of recruitment known as sex trafficking. Even without trafficking, the sex industry encourages toxic masculinity, often destroys women’s lives, and negatively shapes how society views women and LGBTQ people.

Tales of rest and recreation with “exotic women” from war zones harden into stereotypes and assumptions that harm entire nations of women. These stereotypes rear their ugly heads in catcalls, sexual harassment, gender pay gaps, domestic violence, sex buying at home, and fatal attacks like the 2021 Georgia massage parlor massacre.

‘Sexual Slavery’

Let’s call a spade a spade. Sex trafficking and prostitution are not about sex if you define sex as a mutually desired, mutually pleasurable activity — which I hope you do. Fighting against the sex industry is actually about fighting for sex.

Both sex trafficking and prostitution are about men extracting pleasure from people who have less power due to their gender, race and class. Sex trafficking is when people are forced to have sex without wages or freedom. It is rightfully described as sexual slavery. Harm reduction (the topic of a recent Community Voice) is an inappropriate response to a form of slavery. We should not reduce harm for slavery but end slavery.

I am not alone in this demand. There is a coalition of women and LGBTQ people in Hawaii that dreams bigger than harm reduction, while we also provide care in the short-term. Our steering committee runs Hawaii’s only emergency fund for sex workers, and we passed the first and only law in the U.S. that allows sex workers to vacate their prostitution record. We demand immediate harm elimination.

But what really is harm reduction? Harm reduction is a Western political movement that comes from an era when there was a government-backed refusal to provide acute care to marginalized communities because of sexist, homophobic and racists views of drug users and HIV+ people. Harm reduction argued not to cut off people from acute care because of behaviors such as drug use and prostitution labeled as “risky.”

Harm reduction did not attack the racist, homophobic, and patriarchal roots of the HIV+ crisis, drug war, and prostitution. Harm reduction has its place in history, but we need to be careful that we are not refusing to end the harm.

Downsizing The Sex Industry

Today, the needle has swung the other way. Harm reduction is the dominant approach to public health and is institutionalized in government. We no longer meaningfully support prevention and treatment to the extent needed. We fund free needles, but not free recovery beds to those who want them.

Harm reduction may have good intentions and origins but ultimately it gaslights people of color who call out systems of harm like prostitution.

The harm reduction movement opposes downsizing the sex industry. Harm reduction equates drug consumption with consuming human beings: “Legalize it!” Unfortunately, the markets, materials and morality involved are very different.

It is time for legislators to look beyond the narrow vision of harm reduction. Harm reduction, legalization, and insincere “prohibition” have all been tried before and failed.

As we navigate a water crisis and yet another Covid variant, it is vital that we recognize that the root causes which fuel these issues are the same that allow sex trafficking to flourish. The commodification and abuse of land and water have always followed the commodification and abuse of indigenous women and queer people.

The harm reduction movement opposes downsizing the sex industry.

We cannot afford to waste time with band-aid solutions while our aquifers are poisoned, and Hawaiian women remain disproportionately exploited. It is time to center the needs, care, and wisdom of the most vulnerable populations, which are unquestionably indigenous.

Desperate times require novel measures. What we need is a comprehensive feminist approach rooted in indigenous values. The Bodies Back is a community dedicated to justly transitioning away from inherently harmful systems. Bodies Back doesn’t rely on prison to tackle an economic and patriarchal cultural problem (the sex industry). Instead, the Bodies Back movement emphasizes support to exit the industry and mass education to undo the toxic male culture of buying sex.

We call on government to engage the Bodies Back community and center on the most harmed, not the least critical.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.


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About the Author

Esme Yokooji

Esme Yokooji is a recent graduate of the Ethnic Studies Program at UH Manoa. She is an organizer within the Bodies Back movement, which advocates for an indigenous and feminist response to the systemic issues of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation.


Latest Comments (0)

1) In the 1960s, some young women went to go-go bars in hopes of meeting older businessmen who were seeking female companionship. Of course, nothing was required, but those men who were generous did better finding company than those who were misers.2) One night, I was walking home along Bethel Street after a late night at work. By the Hawaii Theatre, a young local Asian boy hollered at me, "Do you have some buds?" I asked him what he was talking about. He said, "marijuana" . I asked him how old he was and he told me sheepishly that he was 18. Some Caucasian kids can pull that off; not so easy for Asians. I asked him why he was out on the street at 1 a.m. He had left home after a fight with his mom.There have been others, most recently a young Micronesian boy, but the comment box doesn’t have space for it.Lazy abstractions are useful to those who seek to rule over others but are of little use in understanding the human condition. To understand that one must talk to people in the here and now and understand who they are as individuals, how they see their situation, and how their mindset and implicit values influences them to do as they do.Reality. Reality uber alles.

Scott_Israel · 4 months ago

Like others who have commented, I appreciate Ms. Yokooji’s passion—but I am not clear about what specifically she is proposing. On the one hand, she would eliminate, rather than reduce, the sex industry—and on the other, she wouldn’t rely on prison to "tackle an economic and patriarchal culture problem." Since a significant # of people involved in the industry presumably wouldn’t leave voluntarily, what is she proposing to do with or to them? And how would she address the emerging DIY porn business and the hundreds  of young men freely trying to make a few bucks by undressing in front of a camera and ‘chatterbating’? It seems that we are once again facing that perrenial question: how do we balance the need to protect a vulnerable population with the need to protect a fundamental human right—the right to exercise personal autonomy.. By asserting that the entire sex industry is a byproduct of  "the toxic male culture of buying sex" and should be eliminated, she is committing to an absolutely impossible task—and seemingly dismissing the value of personal autonomy thus depriving one population in the name of protecting another.

dona007 · 4 months ago

Trafficking is awful, as is any kind of forced labor (I.e., slavery), and forced sexual labor sounds like some of the most traumatizing.But if we’re going to "call a spade a spade" , as the author suggests, let’s be honest about how prostitution is likely about as old as the human race, that it’ll never disappear, and recognize that sex trafficking as a way to satisfy this market-that’s-as-old-as-time exists almost solely because prostitution is illegal and unregulated.In the markets where prostitution has been legalized, regulated, and is socially acceptable (e.g., Australia), sex workers are far far far less trafficked.This seems like a cheaper and more practical solution than trying to play cat-and-mouse on a high-demand market under Prohibition.

joeyaloha · 4 months ago

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