Thailand: Empowering words

New dictionary hopes to help redefine the world’s oldest profession

ONSIRI PRAVATTIYAGUL

While most of us never challenge or even consider the role of linguistics in our daily lives, Empower, a charity offering support for sex industry workers, has braved the norm and created the Bad Girls Dictionary, in which typical meanings of words are reworked in a new light. For the creators of the new book, the real definition of a word involves “not just its meaning, but also the context in which it is used”. Written in the first person, the text works to present old ideas in a new prejudice-free light.

To paint a clearer picture of the radical dictionary, let’s take a look at a couple words.

Prostitute n Prefer sex worker. The name others call our profession. Politicians blaming each other for corruption and vote selling also use it, enhancing its negative association. In Thailand, the abbreviation “P” is commonly used to refer to women who have regular STD checks, and researchers use it in statistical analysis. When we hear prostitute or “P” it has the negative connotation of something underground and subversive.

Journalist n Our regular customers; our good friends and supporters; people who like making money from Empower stories; however, sometimes after a story runs, the police crack down, and the women blame Empower.

Fat adj Fat old men, etc. Many fat old men are very respectful, kind, entertaining, generous and polite customers. We’re not prejudiced.

Bush Policy exp During 2003, after Bush’s policy failed to make any impact on the global problems of drugs, arms and terrorism George W. Bush had a new idea. He mistakenly deduced that migrant sex workers were moved by the same channels that drugs, guns and Osama were. Therefore he used us as a scapegoat in unrelated issues.

Along with its colourful entries, the book also includes a sassy 20-FAQ section which is highly recommended for anyone interested in the sex industry. It includes questions such as, “If a customer offers to pay more money, will women agree not to use condom?”

And the given answer, “If you ask this, we understand you believe we are stupid and greedy women who will do anything for money even risk our lives. Would a paratrooper not use a parachute if offered more money?”

So now you’ve got the idea. There’s also an entry on Thaksin, but we won’t spoil the surprise.

Co-written by former sex worker and Empower coordinator Pornpit Pukmai, former nurse Liz Cameron, Empower founder Chantawipa Apisuk and designed by artist and activist Chumpon Apisuk, the Bad Girls Dictionary encompasses words that possess political, social, cultural, historical and educational aspects that directly and indirectly relate to the sex-worker industry. The entries were gathered from sex workers around the country. The dictionary aims to create understanding between two different two culturally divided groups – sex workers and non-sex workers.

“Typical dictionaries only offer definitions of words. They don’t provide any attitude or thought behind them. Our dictionary wants to convey the definitions in a wider context,” said Chantawipa.

“Our dictionary might be viewed as a ‘peasant’ text because traditionally only high class people have produced such reference material. Instead, this one is made for and by people who are regarded to be at the bottom of society. We think of it as an anthropological study,” said Chumpon.

The Bad Girls Dictionary is also an opportunity for sex industry workers to tell their story, in their own words. “The right to define, create and adapt words and languages is often seen as the right of academics alone. They invent a term and push its acceptance, even though the very people it refers to wouldn’t acknowledge or identify with the term in any way. [As sex workers] we have our own understanding of the vibrant living language we use in our daily lives,” reads the dictionary’s introduction.

The idea of the book stemmed from the frustration Pornpit often feels at conferences she regularly attends on behalf of Empower.

“When I go to conferences as a representative, I sometimes run into hurtful, misleading and incorrect interpretations of words. So I want to correct those misconceptions in our community. It’s also a good way to present the realities of the injustices we are forced to face in our industry,” she said.

Pornpit also recognises the power of words. She notes that by employing certain vocabularies, the authorities can instil subtle yet controlling policies that propagate prejudiced attitudes. This in turn can effect every aspect of society, including the sex industry.

“Words are sometimes constructed to rid us of our rights. For example the term “commercial sex worker, or CSW” has been translated in Thai as ying archeep piset (irregular career female), which speaks volumes about prejudicial linguistics. Unaids recognised the unfairness and committed to stop using the term in all of its communications and documents in 1997, but its usage prevails because no punishments for disobeying the directive have been defined,” she said.

The book project started two years ago, and involved much communication between the writers and the sex worker communities around the country. It sparked many dialogues and called for lengthy debates over which words should be included.

“The dictionary has really been a communal effort. Many definitions were decided upon though consensus, which requires the involvement of a lot of people. It’s been such a joyful process that we almost wished it didn’t have to end! Words kept pouring in even after the manuscript hit the printing machine,” said Cameron.

The Bad Girls Dictionary offers both Thai and English translations, but they are not literal versions of one another. Both language entries were derived independently, thus avoiding the trappings of direct translation, the writers said.

Even though the dictionary is earnest and refreshing, Chantawipa accepts that a minority audience might misinterpret it. She is, however, undaunted by the challenge.

“We’re exercising our basic right of expression. It might be a subject that has traditionally been taboo, but we’re confident that people will find it interesting. And we’re introducing a new way of researching and reporting,” she said.

Wider exposure and a general release are far from their minds since they know that regular channels of distribution will not be satisfactory for the eccentric publication.

“We’re selling it by ourselves. I don’t think any publisher will be sympathetic to our cause. It caters to a niche market, and we’re happy to keep it within that community. If it reaches a wider audience, there is the danger that people who don’t really understand the industry [but don’t really oppose either] might become shocked and turn against it,” said Chantawipa.

The four creators agree that if the response is strong enough, a second edition could easily eventuate, as there are many more words waiting to be explained, developed, debunked and deconstructed. There might also be a market for other occupations such as taxi driving. Another project in the pipeline is “Dear PM”, a compilation of letters and petitions that Empower has submitted to the prime ministers over its 23-year history.

The creators have confessed to enjoying nothing more than adjusting people’s attitudes towards sex workers, and they hope to establish a platform to develop a greater diversity of opinion through the education of society about the industry.

“I think people could be a lot more understanding and open minded if they read more books like this one. Hopefully, they’ll realise that every single word uttered can profoundly affect other human beings,” said Pornpit.

The ‘Bad Girls Dictionary’is available for 200 baht at http://www.empowerfoundation.org . Call 02-526-8311 for more information.

http://www.bangkokpost.com/Outlook/14May2008_out001.php

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