A person who stays in a country long enough is likely to pick up on patterns in the local zeitgeist that repeat as part of the evolution of public opinion — or at least what the government and media portray as public opinion.
In Taiwan, a consistent pattern that has emerged since the liberalization of the media in the 1990s is handwringing over the perceived imminent collapse of the social order and public morality.
This year, it has manifested itself in concern over a spate of violence associated with late night entertainment venues, drugs and alcohol-related aggression.
Premier Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) has decided to tackle this problem, issuing warnings to the venues and admonishing local police to better combat street fighting.
Su told police to crack down on public rowdiness, because it has “negatively affected people’s perception of public safety,” adding that “to make these places safe, police must ensure that illegal drugs are not sold, and that there are no stabbings or violence. If more public violence occurs, then the local police chief will have to go.”
Instead of focusing on alcohol, public drunkenness and the carrying of weapons, the crackdown’s public face has been the raids on human trafficking rings, which have brought women into the country to work in the sex industry.
Nineteen foreign women allegedly working as sex workers, along with nine Taiwanese clients, were arrested. Police only detained two alleged traffickers who hired the women and arranged for their transport to a number of Taipei hotels.
A Taichung nightclub announced a temporary shutdown after it was raided and accused of hiring “scantily clad female dancers” — an offense to morality — to interact with male patrons.
In Kaohsiung, police permitted the media to film officers checking the identity cards of female dancers, despite the workers not having been involved in the public brawling that concerned the premier.
Front pages and breaking news bulletins showed salacious, uncensored images of the women — exposing their identities — but not images of the men fighting outside the venues.
Putting aside how sensational and repetitious reporting helps to glamorize and exacerbate a problem, the media’s “concern trolling” of the mass brawls, and the premier’s reaction, blows the issue out of proportion.
It reveals an enduring cultural double standard and the ineffectiveness of two criminal justice policies — the criminalization of sex work and the war on drugs — that, given their consistent failure to achieve long-term results, exist purely to assuage supposed public opinion.
The sexual morality law is selectively applied to acts assumed to be offensive to Taiwanese that threaten to transition from acceptable private deviance into wider public visibility or acceptability.
Without the brawls outside the hostess clubs, the clubs’ prostitution services — which, it should be pointed out, serve a largely wealthy clientele — would not have been exposed and police would probably not have conducted the raids, with the media in attendance.
In the eyes of the law, the clubs’ original sin was not to offend morality, but rather not to control their clientele. They made a mess in public, embarrassing the police, who had looked the other way, and politicians, who had tied ascending careers to their city’s domestic and international image.
The public is not aware of how openly these clubs, and the human and drug trafficking rings that work with them, hide in plain sight. This is not part of the discussion on the collapse of the social order that periodically resurfaces like a case of cultural herpes. The media soon obsesses over some other issue and business returns to normal.
Meanwhile, sex-trafficking victims have been publicly shamed, arrested and likely deported. Taiwanese sex workers have been further criminalized and pushed deeper into an underground economy that can imperil their lives.
Scantily clad female dancers continue to perform from trucks and jeeps at weddings, funerals and in political convoys — but that is all right, because “it’s fun for the whole family” and a local “tradition.”
Scantily clad women are hired to help sell products to men at trade shows — “it’s just marketing” and everyone knows sex sells — but that laissez faire attitude does not apply to sex for sale.
Casual misogyny is apparently inevitable, as is institutionalized misogyny that criminalizes sex workers — the only profession denied the very rights and protections that the law affords to all other laborers.
To maintain an illusion of public piety, an entire group of workers is devalued, abused and scorned, while their health and safety are undermined, driving them into the hands of pimps and traffickers, who recognize that these workers have no legal protections or recourse to police protection.
Sex work is work like any other. It is often more difficult and dangerous than most jobs, but that plain reality is clearly too difficult to swallow for politicians worried about getting re-elected.
A similar dynamic can be seen in the failed war on drugs, another object of the premier’s strongman crackdown.
No matter how hard they try and how many people they grind through the blunt tool of a cruel judicial system — whether it targets gangsters importing hard drugs or the man in Yunlin looking to ease the symptoms of his wife’s terminal cancer — there is always someone else ready to supply the product to satisfy a consistent demand.
As with sex work, there is a class element to this issue. While the artistic and entertainment community might prefer softer drugs such as cannabis, it is the much richer “playboy” cohorts who provide the market for harder drugs, simply because they can afford them.
However, the law tends to punish the “little people,” while the rich negotiate a way out. Both are consumers in the same market.
That the buying and selling must occur underground empowers violent gangs and puts customers at risk. It also clogs up the courts and fills prisons with long-term inmates, who comprise an overwhelming majority of those locked up.
If police were not traipsing up the mountainsides to catch cannabis growers — who must hide their farms rather than register them as legitimate businesses (and pay tax on profits) and sell the produce to dispensaries — much time and money would be freed up.
All but the hardest drugs could be sold from small boutiques, having already undergone rigorous quality control akin to the Food and Drug Administration standards for pharmaceutical drugs, and bring in the same tax revenue as recreational drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Using hard drugs could be handled as a public health issue, instead of a criminal problem.
A “progressive” government might consider the host of examples worldwide that show workable alternatives to prohibition. It would forcefully and unapologetically advance a comprehensive plan to legalize “soft” recreational drugs and implement treatment programs, like in Portugal, for those addicted to hard drugs.
Sex workers could be treated as any other group of professionals. Sex work could be legalized in a way that ended the stigma, and the danger for both workers and customers. Taiwan could stand out in Asia for advanced social welfare and public safety.
The government, police and media should stop the public parading of moral hypocrisy, misogyny and hysteria.
The core issue must be tackled: Alcohol must be acknowledged as the most destructive drug, and addressed as the biggest source of public and domestic violence.
Black market economies must be brought out into the sunlight, thus neutralizing the revenue streams of gangs and traffickers.
A continued refusal to do so, however rationalized, only demonstrates that government officials and elected representatives prefer the convenience of scapegoating and imperiling sex workers — and locking up “little people” as a fix for drug trafficking and addiction — than the hard work of improving the health, welfare and security of a public they claim to profess concern for.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident of Taiwan.
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