Taiwan filmfest looks at world of sex workers

A group of sex workers stage a protest at the Ministry of the Interior Tuesday over the minister’s objection to decriminalizing prostitution. Displaying posters and shouting “Prostitutes and patrons are more noble than corrupt politicians,” 20 members of the Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS) gathered in front of the ministry. (CNA)

Article on The China Post website

By Trista di Genova and Blake Nemec, Special to The China Post

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Taiwanese film directors such as Hou Hsiao-hsien (“City of Sadness”) and Lin Jing-jie (“Taipei, Looking Up”) and concerned community members have come together to examine sex work in Taiwan through a film festival, and urge easing regulations over one of Taiwan’s most disadvantaged groups.
The Sex Workers Film Festival through Dec. 16 is sponsored by COSWAS (Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters) — formed in 1997 in response to the criminalization of prostitution — and offers a glimpse into the lives of formerly licensed Taiwanese prostitutes, while exploring the sex trade as an international site of struggle.

The group’s members are staging unannounced “political actions” to coincide with the festival, such as a protest at the Executive Yuan during the convening of its Human Rights Protection and Promotion Committee that took place Tuesday. The Committee recommended but failed to overturn Article 80 of the Social Order Maintenance Act, whereby adults soliciting or selling sex face three days in jail or a NT$30,000 fine. According to national police statistics, 38,263 such arrests have been made over the past eight years.

For two weeks, the film festival is screening works that examine the lives of Taiwanese, American, European and Guatemalan women who work or have worked in the sexual service sector, one of society’s most marginalized groups.

Who are these women?

Former prostitute Lei Kun faced social stigma and obstacles when she tried to re-enter the job market, and makes the plea that “Taiwan prostitutes have the right to live and work in peace and with dignity.” Now 64, Lei Kun began her transformative journey from sex worker to activist in 1997, when then Taipei City Mayor Chen Shui-bian decided to abolish licensed prostitution, and declared the city’s more than 120 licensed prostitutes illegal.

The ban only pushed prostitution underground, COSWAS claims, estimating that 60 percent of formerly licensed prostitutes continued working in the sex trade — but in far more dangerous conditions, with no health checks, fewer protections from violence, and the threat of arrest, fines or jail time if they cannot pay.

Taiwan statistics on this issue are hard to come by, but COSWAS says many women travel from other regions to work in Taipei where there is more work, massage parlors have continued in the southern regions of Taiwan, and there are still licensed prostitutes in cities such as Taichung.

Like many other women in Taiwan, Bailan (the subject of the Dec. 8 film “Old Chicks: Bailan and Her Girls”) found herself having to help shoulder the family burden of medical bills, and became a prostitute at the age of 13. Initially, this was to pay off bills her father had accrued from a car accident, but then it became the only trade she knew. She was licensed in Wanhua district, where she worked for 20 years.
After the prostitute license ban in 1997, Bailan was forced out of work. She began to sell betel nuts, but the proceeds did not cover her bills. The stress provoked a stroke, the symptoms of which continue to limit her balance and coordination. She was not mentally or physical able to conduct an interview, and is currently being nursed by COSWAS.

The film “Sister Guan” presents the story of an average, middle-class Taiwanese woman who had everything she needed as a child. Her father’s death when she was sixteen, however, compelled her to engage in sex work in an attempt to pay for medical bills her mother had accrued from becoming blind.

“In Memory of Ms. Guan” highlights the life of Ms. Guan Shiu-chin and her impact on the movement in Taiwan, as “she was our leader, she started COSWAS,” said Jia Jia, a COSWAS staff member. In the documentary, Guan presents a strong and outspoken character. At a COSWAS action held after the 1997 ban, a Taiwanese bystander shouts at her, “You have no strength, no dignity.”

“I do not beg from you, I do not steal from you, why am I less than you?” she responds.

The films are being screened free of charge at two locations in Taipei until Dec. 16. For more information, visit http://www.coswas.org.