An Ancient and Global Tragedy

The evening was sultry, and a hot, smoggy haze created halos around the Bangkok streetlights. On the left, glaring lights illuminated the outdoor stalls of vendors who hawked a dazzling array of consumer goods—leathers, luggage, clothing, jewelry....On the right a different kind of merchandise was visible through the dim doorways of bars and strip shows. Scantily clad, heavily made-up young Asian women danced alone on raised platforms, their impassive faces a mask of boredom. It was painful to look at them. This merchandise also had vendors—we were in the infamous sex tourist district called Patpong.

Thus pulled into this seamy world that demands an incalculable human cost and often proves fatal, Rita Nakashima Brock and Susan Thistlethwaite’s book Casting Stones informs us about the global sex industry with a focus on Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, and the United States. The authors analyze each country, detailing its history, military, religion, laws, economy, psychology, and cultural perceptions toward the female body. Race and international status play a part in this global tragedy. All of these offer clues as to why sexual exploitation of women and children thrives as an industry.

Casting Stones is well-organized in two parts: a systematic analysis of prostitution and a liberation perspective about how we can change the subcultures that view the female as product. The core argument is that male dominance as a societal building block is a necessary, though not a solitary, cause for sexual exploitation. Particularly persuasive are analyses of the military and historical religious perspectives.

Militaries indoctrinate recruits through social isolation and diminished personal accountability. Deprived of emotional support, the soldier is placed in a hierarchical, homosocial, tense regime, which enhances its power through sleep deprivation, intense physical activity, and loss of personal identity. This vacuum is filled by obedience to authority, punishment for deviation, and group loyalty. Militaries are hypermasculine societies that encourage exaggerated masculinity and qualities that project control, domination, strength.

"Men in male-dominant societies are taught to expect that women will and ought to serve their sexual needs, and that sexual access to women is their right. Prostitution and rape are the institutions that enable men to exercise that entitlement outside their relations with ‘respectable’ women who are supposed to regulate male access to their sexual services even within marriage.... Soldiers are placed under intense pressures to meet the expectations of peers and officers, including pressures to perform sexually. [A military’s] psychological methods encourage strategies of dissociation, especially from bodily and emotional feelings." Such dissociation intensifies hypermasculinity which expresses itself through violence. The relationship between the military and the sexual exploitation of women is ancient and global: rape camps in Bosnia, slave brothels forced to follow Greek troops, biblical references.

ORGANIZED RELIGION, particularly Buddhism and Christianity, is discussed as part of the problem. While the authors emphasize that religions can and must be part of the solution, they question what it is about patriarchal societies that enculturate men to exploit women. The period of first millennium B.C.E. profiles how militaristic empires influenced these faiths’ roots. Both religions "project earthbound sexuality onto women, [while] men...represent a spiritually more transcendent...existence....[T]he male body symbolizes potency and power, capacities related to dominion and conquest as religious values." Later, Axial Age thinkers emphasized dissociation between spirit and body. Dualism is the groundwork for this ancient mind set about gender and sexuality that encourages female sexual exploitation today.

Writing hard truths well, Brock and Thistlethwaite cover disease, international trafficking in women, class, and the International Monetary Fund. The authors present an integrated voice that holds each person in a prostitute’s life—abusive father, pimp, brothel manager, vice cop, lawyer, judge, john, pornographer—accountable for his or her complicity in the exploitation of women. They consider the moral agency of the prostitute and examine her responsibility for her decisions.

Casting Stones is dense with facts and experience, and still thoughtfully told by these feminist theologians. Intermittently, run-on sentences confuse and need re-reading. Occasional use of nouns as verbs irritates. Brock, writer of Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, and Thistlethwaite, author of Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies From the Underside, inform with a calm that belies the tension they feel walking through Patpong and other sex-industry capitals. The reader is numbed by the industry’s pervasiveness, as well as how it scars the lives it markets.

But change is happening. New laws that decriminalize the selling of sex ease harassment of sex workers. Enforcement of laws against domestic violence and child abuse allow less harm to come to women and children. Compassion and solidarity with the exploited can offer hope. We are invited to participate in the evolution of this change.

EUGENIE de ROSIER is a free-lance author, theologian, and activist living in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States. Rita Nakashima Brock and Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1996., now available from

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"An Ancient and Global Tragedy"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines