Leadership: September 29, 2004


The U.S. Department of Defense is considering making it illegal for troops to buy sex from prostitutes. On the face of it, this sounds ludicrous. As long as there have been soldiers, there has been a lot of sex involved. But the Pentagon is having serious public relations problems with media stories of troops consorting with women coerced into prostitution. In fact, there is more of that going on now. But blame can be placed mainly on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and growing prosperity in foreign countries where American troops are stationed. 

South Korea, for example, was long regarded as a sexual playground for young troops. When South Korea was poor, even the relatively low pay of American soldiers enabled substantial amounts of money to go to entertainment with the local girls. Even when on field exercise in some remote part of the country, a few girls would often come out of an isolated village to make, for them, some big money, by spending a few hours with the GIs. But as South Korea became more prosperous, South Korean girls were able to get better paying jobs. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was nothing to prevent ambitious Russian girls to come to South Korea (and other places where there were GIs, like Western Europe, Japan and the Persian Gulf) and make some money by replacing the South Korean prostitutes now working in factories and offices (or catering to the more lucrative prostitution business with Korean men.). Many girls from the Philippines also went to South Korea, although most of them did not work as prostitutes. Filipinas were favored as hostesses because they spoke passable English. In fact, many of the Russian and Filipino girls working in the red light districts were not prostitutes, but dancers or hostesses. The bars in the red light district made most of their money from selling beer and booze, not sex. But there was a lot of sex, and in many parts of South Korea, local, or Russian, gangsters held prostitutes in virtual slavery. This had been rare in the past, and the police eventually caught up with anyone crossing the line into slavery. Treating the women badly was not good for business in the long run. The Russian and Korean gangsters, unlike the men and women running the bars and brothels, did not think in the long term.

While there were always young women who were badly exploited, most of them knew exactly what they were getting into. Information on how the sex business worked in South Korean, or other nations, red light districts, spread fast. But the Russian mobsters were a particularly brutal lot, and when they were heavy handed, it made for great headlines. This has been the case all over the world, from East Asia, to the Persian Gulf to Western Europe and North America. This Summer, for example, South Korea sought to expel all Russian women who were working as prostitutes. But many of the more enterprising girls simply went underground or otherwise stayed in business. 

This is the problem the military will have with trying to outlaw prostitution. The boys and girls will always find each other. In some locations, where prostitution has been outlawed, the horny troops and enterprising women work out routines that avoid prosecution, but still allow the business to be done. Over the centuries, commanders have tried to at least control the prostitution, if only to prevent the activity from reducing the combat ability of the troops. However, dealing with the prostitution problem was never considered a major chore. It was on the same level with too much drunkenness, and not as serious a problem as poor training or living conditions for the troops. Moreover, many nations take a dim view of prostitution (while others do not), and even admitting that the troops are paying for sex while off duty can do damage to a commanders career. In light of that, American military commanders are making these usual moves, and outlawing prostitution. After a while (months, years), when it becomes obvious that this solution is causing more problems than it is solving, the rules will be changed again. In the meantime, the troops will spend a lot of time, energy and money getting around the new regulations. 




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