music: Madonna - La Isla Bonita
I try to keep off the subject of politics because I enjoy a very varied group of friends and, as I know no one who’s in the market for a new political identity or ideology, I see no reason to bring politics to the table. Politics define our country, culture, heritage, and through these things, whether we like it or not, politics define us.
This makes sense to anyone with the smallest grasp on sociology, but the power of this influence was never clearer to me than after I finished a book that touched, in part, on the socio-political nightmare of the archipelago where I grew up.
“Tom DeLay made me a nymphomaniac.”
This isn’t the best introduction to a new therapist, but I’d ditched Dix and had no time for pleasantries with Dr. Ortíz y López—there should so
be a rule for immigrants from Spain and her former colonies to ditch the clunky last names, shouldn’t there? Not only is there not one, but the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services basically forces immigrants who come from these countries to keep their cumbersome last name traditions, so a bride can’t simply drop her last name and take her husband’s but has to add the dreaded “of” between her maiden name and that of her husband. As if! A rose by any other name would smell a sweet. So too would my heritage remain what it is without the totally uncool mishmash of surnames trailing after my first name like rusty cans. Thus from here on out, Dr. Ortíz y López will be known as O.
“You refer to DeLay, the former congressman,” O replied, moving carefully over the words, as though he was still digesting my statement.
“Yes!” I said, flinging my over-sized purse down on a chair and ripping off my sunglasses. “It was him and the former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and long before them, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—all of them, and more, like a domino effect going back decades, culminating in a high-voltage sex Olympics.”
“And how have you come to this conclusion?”
“Can I read something to you?” I asked him, turning and opening my bag and pulling out the book.
,” he mused, looking at the title.
“Yes, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and The Dark Side of The New Global Economy
,” I flipped it open to one of the pages I had marked: “‘Pacific islands hold an understandable allure for city dwellers dreaming of balmy, uncrowded paradise. But the images of sun, sand, slide harps, and crystal waters usually belie a Third World backwardness and low-intensity squalor common, almost by default, to such places.’”
O was silent, waiting for me to tie it together. Or fling myself on the ground and start speaking in tongues so he could have me committed.
“This book,” I started taking a breath, “it details three case studies of modern-day slavery, gonzo style, and devotes an entire chapter to the Northern Marianas, where I grew up. It’s funny, in a review
opined this chapter was reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s The Rum Diary
, a creative nonfiction work that exposed the insanity of Puerto Rico of the late 50s, Puerto Rico being another U.S. commonwealth.”
O nodded. He was still waiting for a conclusion. But I could not give it to him any more than I could give it to you now. You have to go back, far back, to understand the root of the issue. Because it doesn’t start with a lobbyist or a congressman. It doesn’t even start with the United States.
“What do you know of the Northern Mariana Islands, doctor?”
“I cannot say I know much,” he confessed. It hardly surprised me. Unless you’re a WWII Pacific stage veteran or trivia junky, the unassuming dots on your map west of the Philippines have no reason to mean anything to you.
So let me tell you a story. During that race for the Spice Islands between Spain and Portugal, Ferdinand Magellan “discovered” the archipelago. Skirmishes with the unruly locals who were fond of thieving from the intruders led the expedition to dub these islands “the Isles of the Thieves.” It wasn’t until Spain claimed them formally nearly 150 years later that they were named for then Spanish Queen Mariana of Austria.
Post-Magellan, the islands were the possession of the crown until Spain sold them to Germany in 1899. After WWI, when a defeated Germany was stripped of all overseas possessions, the Marianas were turned over to the League of Nations to be administered by Japan. Less than two decades later, Japan annexed the islands and withdrew from the League of Nations. By the time war cast another shadow over the Pacific, some 29,692 Japanese military personnel were already stationed on Saipan, the main island of the archipelago.
Located at a strategic position, the United States wasted no time taking over. On June 15, 1944, they assaulted, leading to one of the most brutal and decisive battles of the Pacific stage of WWII. American forces eventually gained control and a year later a B-29 named Enola Gay took off from the island of Tinian and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
At war’s end, the islands were devastated. They, along with other islands in the region, (collectively known as Micronesia), became the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands in the care of the US, which had no idea what to do with them. (Kissinger, in fact, while discussing the fate of the islands then, quipped, “We’re only talking about 90 thousand people—who gives a damn?”)
Located 6,000 miles west of Los Angeles, 3,700 miles west of Hawaii, and having too small a workforce, the islands were difficult to develop, much less be made self-sufficient. Soon, they were almost entirely dependent on the US to keep them afloat with monetary aid, SPAM and other non-perishable goods. They became the ultimate charity case.
In the mid 60s, the UN admitted the islands were so remote as to be almost impossible to manage. E. J. Kahn wrote that a visitor was “likely to be struck less by their innate tropical beauty than by the shabbiness of their man-made establishments.” By the 70s, the United States was encouraging them to determine their political status: did they want independence? Did they want to be federalized completely?
The island of Guam, also in the archipelago of the Mariana Islands chose to defect and become federalized. The rest of the island chain chose to do things their way and become a commonwealth, which means they are technically ruled by the US and must abide by the Constitution, but are exempt from all manner of taxes and duties and have retained control of their immigration, wage laws, and land ownership laws as specified in the Covenant, a nifty document drafted up while the US was still feeling pretty guilty about practically destroying the archipelago’s ecosystem and frail infrastructure.
In fairness to all those involved, the labor, immigration and wage provisions were largely an effort to assist in the development of the islands: in allowing for foreign laborers from Asia to come and work, they were massively increasing the otherwise tiny and unskilled workforce native to the islands. The idea was that this effort would result in the rebuilding of an infrastructure and assist the islands in embracing modernity and thus moving into the future.
That was the idea, anyway. Things don’t always go as planned. Seeing an opportunity in what could only be described as the perfect environment for businesses, a lot of retailers began to move their factories to the islands. In the Marianas, they could pay people relatively little—$3.05 an hour is the current
minimum wage—and not be forced to deal with any quotas or duties. And tags on garments could say “Made in the USA,” because technically, it is the USA—what’s not to love?
By the late 90s, the islands were the now-disgraced former congressman Tom Delay’s so-called “perfect petri dish of capitalism,” his own little “Galapagos island.” He and Jack Abramoff were up to their eyeballs in moves to protect the islands from full federalization that would raise wages and endanger the excellent business environment. Congressmen came and went on fact-finding junkets during this time and into the 00s, seldom doing more than golfing, partying and getting lapdances (The New York Times said it best when they titled a piece about it “The Came, They Saw, They Golfed.” Yes).
The islands were rolling in cash. Life was good. For 20 percent of the population, anyway. The other 80 percent, comprised of foreign workers, slaved away day in and day out, making what most of us would call a pittance.
People who argue that it’s better to earn $3.05 an hour than, say, a dollar a day are right. This is not in question. If that’s the argument, they’ve failed to understand the most basic principles of democracy. See, it’s not really about money, it’s about rights. If you have a place and over three-fourths of the people who live there are foreign and therefore not eligible to vote or really effect any kind of change in their benefit, you do not really have a democracy. These people—mostly women—hardly know the language, they don’t have any idea about rights, they don’t understand the law, they don’t know anything. Put simply, they’re second-class citizens.
In the ideal world it could work. We could host guest workers and treat them with dignity and be treated with dignity as a host country and all live like shiny, happy people holding hands.
Sadly, our world is far from ideal. And so in the 00s, the Northern Mariana Islands were ground zero for forced labor in the United States of America and its outlying islands and territories. Workers were locked in their barracks at night, women were forced to make a choice between abortions and deportations, wages were garnished for things employers were legally responsible for—the works.
And so many women left the garment industry and took to the streets. Sex work, which had been somewhat prevalent already, what with all the congressmen visiting and what-have-you, exploded. At one point you could get a blowjob in the Garapan district of Saipan for US$6.00. Thus the islands formerly known as the Isles of Thieves, the petri dish, ground zero for forced labor became the Sex Islands.
Growing up there, you don’t notice. You have a bunch of kids your age, all sons and daughters of diplomats or business people, and you more or less live in a bubble full of your little kid drama. It’s not until your hormones kick in and you move out of your peer group that you realize just how warped the female-to-male ratio is. I’m not kidding you. Even the CIA Factbook recognizes the Northern Marianas as having the highest female-to-male sex ratio in the world.
Maybe it wouldn’t be such a huge issue if all the women were like you. But they aren’t. They’re exotic, and they’re desperate. No liberated, corn-fed American woman can compete with an army of Chinese, Thai, Malay, Russian, Vietnamese and Filipina girls who are willing to do anything you ask to ensure their own survival.
It makes me think of Nancy Etcoff’s book, Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
, only it’s not really about beauty, it’s less graceful than that. The income disparity sets the stakes higher.
This kind of competition calls for meta-evolution among all participants, of both self and game. Which makes me wonder—did I become so sexually aggressive as a result of the constant competition? Did my obsession with developing skills in seduction, allure and sex originate with the need to continuously improve my “product” so as not to fall out of the running? Is this really just Darwin at work?
Imagine Sex And The Island
with all male protagonists, sitting in a bar instead of a deli, talking crudely about the girls who love them, making incredible nicknames. The show wouldn’t last a week in the US. But that’s how it is out there. It doesn’t matter if you’re a loser and have no game, no ambition, no job, no assets, none of the things that make a man desirable in the US. In the Marianas, if you have a penis and a blue passport, you are god.
“Three or four blowjobs into Saipan, most white men’s reactions to the island evolve from, ‘Gee, this is wrong’ to ‘Well, it’s complicated,’” writes Bowe in his book. “I sat in on countless and endless conversations comparing the sexual merits of Thais versus Filipinas, Russians versus Chinese, replete with body parts and the likening of women to various breeds of dog and sex acts to animal behavior. Were people so bored by the smallness of island life that they had nothing else to talk about or do? I asked a friend of mine—a white guy from the mainland whom I’ll call Fred—about this…. He laughed at my confusion. What was it about Saipan that made everyone, particularly the men, obsess, dream, and talk about sex all the time? He grinned and barked like an old man, ‘It’s kulcha!’ It took me a year to get what he was talking about. During that time, I met a Bangladeshi who, in his own words, spelled out the same patently obvious thing: Saipan’s primary appeal wasn’t that you could exploit poor Asians. It was that you could fuck them. What was wrong with Saipan if not a sort of ravenous celebration of enhanced sexual power? Did I see it now? The Bangladeshi asked. ‘It’s not really about dollarland. It’s all about sexland.’”
O said nothing. I studied his face’s symmetry—the perfect symmetry of youth, before everything starts to bulge and sag. His skin is taught and tan, his lips full. I turned to look ahead, at the wall, the boring landscapes.
“In mid-April of last year,” I mused, turning to him again, “some evolutionary biologists in Germany showed that some sexually reproducing mites had evolved from asexual mites. This is a big deal, right, because we’ve been saying for over 100 years that evolution doesn’t retrace its steps and once a species goes beyond a trait, the genes that dictate how this works are scrapped and there’s no going back to previous drafts. These mites, though, that had once developed in unfertlized eggs and produced only sterile males were found to have taken up sex again, in what many consider the first reversal from asexuality to sexuality in the animal kingdom.”
“You’re full of different sets of data,” O said. It sounded like a diagnosis. You are full of stupid trivia. Not negative or positive. Just, you know, obvious. Like, hey, you’re a schizophrenic. It’s OK, that’s who you are.
“I mention the mite thing,” I hurried to add so as to avoid a possible ADD diagnosis, “because the evolutionary biologist heading the team who made the discovery, Katja Domes, when asked what caused the return to sex, immediately zeroed in on the environment. If plenty of resources are available to a species, asexual reproduction becomes preferable. But if the environment is harsher, with more predators and scarcer resources, sex becomes the choice mode of reproduction.”
Such a harsh life, Domes told LiveScience
, “may also be an explanation for the origin of sex in the first place.”
“It just seems so appropriate for the oppressive, abusive environment of the islands. It all comes back to the sociopolitical situation. Birthed of colonization and reared by unchecked capitalism. So in closing, I’m not really the embodiment of Venus. I’m just a product of my environment like everyone else.”
“Does this bother you?” O looked at me with slight amusement.
“Doesn’t everyone wanna be special?”
“Yes, I suppose we do…”
“So,” I interject, looking at him. “How’s that for an introduction? Is this what you had in mind?”
I wrote the author of the book about it, he said: “I think especially after being raised on this island, it’s very hard to go into the world of functioning. Life is less sexy. Less sensual. More practical. Here, your girl or boyfriend is halfway dressed all day long. To take those clothes off and have sex takes 15 seconds. Sex is always closer. There is less to achieve, less reason to be in the race. There [in the mainland], it’s all about the race. The payoff for being efficient is much greater than here, so efficiency, rather than, say, pleasure, becomes the dominant ideology. At least, until the ice caps melt.”