Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

Truth and myths of sex slavery

By Helen Pringle - posted Friday, 11 April 2008

Puangthong Simaplee was 27 when she died. She had been picked up in a police raid on a Surry Hills brothel in September 2001, and was sent to Villawood Detention Centre, where she died three days later, in a pool of her own vomit. She weighed 31kg, about the weight of a 10-year-old girl.

Immigration officials claimed that Puangthong told them that her parents had sold her into sexual slavery in Thailand when she was 12, and that she had been trafficked into Australia on a false Malaysian passport. Her parents, however, said that their daughter left their village to find work, and that she had sent them money and smiling pictures of herself from Australia.

On the basis of these conflicting accounts, Elena Jeffreys, the president of the Scarlet Alliance, argues that Puangthong Simaplee was a lying whore. Jeffreys asserts that Simaplee was not trafficked, but was simply a “sex worker” (“Truth and visas will set Asian sex workers free”, Sydney Morning Herald, April 4).


According to Jeffreys, the popular picture of Ms Simaplee as a sex slave has “capture[d] the Australian imagination”, and has led to moral hysteria and a huge “government-funded rescue industry”. In our imagination, that is, Ms Simaplee sums up the stereotype “of pre-pubescent Asian girls chained to beds in back rooms with barred windows”.

Fortunately for Ms Jeffreys, Puangthong Simaplee cannot defend herself from this calumny.

Puangthong did go by different names, like many prostituted women. “What’s your name?” asks Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. “What do you want it to be?” Julia Roberts replies. And Puangthong did tell different stories about herself to different people. Prostituted women do not get paid for being themselves, for being authentic. A prostituted woman is paid to ask, “What do you want me to be?”, and to act out the answer.

Puangthong Simaplee was brutally honest to herself however. Her body bore the marks of her honesty. After her death, her boyfriend told police, “She had two or three scars that were from one side of the wrist to the other. Some scars were a couple of months old and some scars were a couple of years old.” When the boyfriend asked Puangthong why she harmed herself, she replied, “When I do something wrong I mark it with a scar so I remember what I did wrong” (Elisabeth Wynhausen, “Parents deny selling daughter”, The Australian, June 7, 2003).

Like other prostituted women, Puangthong Simaplee had a lot of wrong done to her. Research done by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW, reported in 2006 found that many of the street sex workers interviewed had higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder than combat veterans. A majority had been sexually abused as children, and most had been assaulted sexually or physically as adults. These findings are consistent with studies done in other countries of the victimisation of prostituted women, and form the basis of the Swedish model approach to prostitution and trafficking (PDF 228KB).

Like Puangthong Simaplee, many prostituted women blame themselves for what has happened to them. John Stuart Mill explained such self-blaming as an attempt to salvage some dignity from an intolerable situation, that is, as an attempt to convince yourself that you retain some power over your circumstances. In The subjection of women, Mill wrote, “to those to whom nothing but servitude is allowed, the free choice of servitude is the only, though a most insufficient, alleviation”. Unlike the modern defenders of the prostitution of women, Mill saw it as an indefensible practice of slavery.


Prostitution and the accompanying evil of trafficking in persons rob women of this power over their circumstances, and rob them of their dignity. In a related context, Kant explained that human beings have dignity, which is an unconditioned and incomparable worth. Creatures with dignity differ greatly from things that have a price in the market. When human beings buy and sell others, they treat them in ways that are at odds with their intrinsic worth and dignity. What makes such actions into practices of slavery is not the sex, but the subordination.

The subordination involved in prostitution and trafficking is not always accomplished through force. The international Trafficking Protocol of 2000 sets out explicitly that the dignity, and autonomy, of women can be traduced by means other than outright force, that is, by “other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation”.

Elena Jeffreys seems to believe that the offence of trafficking is defined by the use of force. Jeffreys asserts that because Ms Simaplee was not abducted by force, she was not trafficked.

This is simply false as a reading of the Trafficking Protocol, and viciously defamatory as a reading of Ms Simaplee’s story.

Puangthong Simaplee’s story is one of vulnerability abused, and of autonomy lost. It is a story of consent not freely given but achieved by exploitation. It is in many ways a typical story of a life that was trafficked and prostituted. To call this the story of a “sex worker” simply adds to the injustice already done to her.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

10 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Helen Pringle is in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. Her research has been widely recognised by awards from Princeton University, the Fulbright Foundation, the Australian Federation of University Women, and the Universities of Adelaide, Wollongong and NSW. Her main fields of expertise are human rights, ethics in public life, and political theory.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Helen Pringle

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Photo of Helen Pringle
Article Tools
Comment 10 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy