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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 14, 2005

'Girls' risks glamorizing sex industry, officials say

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer


Directed by Brent Owens 10 p.m. Aug. 27 ET/PT HBO Rated TVMA

Honolulu's transgender prostitutes are the focus on a new documentary to air on HBO this month.

"Downtown Girls: The Hookers of Honolulu," directed by Brent Owens and scheduled to air Aug. 27, examines the life of transgender prostitutes in the downtown and Waikiki areas.

According to the network, the documentary follows four male-born prostitutes, with candid interviews and hidden-camera footage of their encounters with clients.

But agencies that work with prostitutes are worried that this 53-minute documentary may glamorize an industry that is by no means glamorous.

"I think it's very exploitive," said Monoiki Ah Nee, an HIV counselor and tester with the Life Foundation and former sex worker, who said he knows some of the prostitutes involved in the film. "I think it may over-glamorize (the industry). There's a lot of (prostitution) going on, and that's really scary ... There's a huge hidden population of 'sex workers' people don't know about."

According to Sisters Offering Support, a Honolulu nonprofit organization dedicated to helping prostitutes get out of the business, their clients report being beaten, raped, burned and even thrown from moving vehicles. Prostitutes have a high risk of suicide, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

This is the third documentary on prostitution Owens has done for HBO. "Downtown Girls: The Hookers of Honolulu" is expected to be much like his previous work: raw.

What sets this documentary apart from his others, however, is the focus on Hawai'i's transgender community, which has long been part of Island culture and history.

According to HBO, Owens, who narrates the film, was in Hawai'i over the past year and a half, interviewing transgender prostitutes and filming them making deals on the street. What makes his documentaries so compelling, the network says, is the access Owens gets into these people's lives.

But tourism officials are concerned that this documentary may hurt Hawai'i's image as a safe and pristine destination, especially at a time when visitors numbers are breaking records.

"Anything like this airing on a national basis is not good," said state tourism liaison Marsha Weinert, who did not know about this documentary until contacted by a reporter. "It concerns me that a documentary like this would be aired ... It will put all kinds of ideas in people's minds. We have worked very closely with the (Honolulu) Police Department on such issues, and it's unfortunate that something like this would be aired."

Weinert feels confident, though, that the documentary won't shatter Hawai'i's reputation as a safe city. Visitor arrivals for June reached a new high, up 5.5 percent over the same period last year, according to the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. Total visitor expenditures to date were $1 billion.

"Well, certainly something like this can't help," said Rex Johnson, president and chief executive of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority. "It's not the kind of thing we'd like aired about Honolulu ... But we've worked for 50 years to build a solid destination brand, and I don't expect this will affect tourism a whole bunch. But again, it's not fun seeing it on TV because there are people who will say, 'Gee, if that kind of thing is going on in Honolulu, I won't go there. Will there be masses of them? I don't think so."

The Hawai'i Film Office was also unaware about this documentary. Owens did not contact the film office or request permits, said Honolulu film commissioner Walea Constantinau.

Prostitution is illegal in Hawai'i. The law states that "A person commits the offense of prostitution if the person engages in, or agrees or offers to engage in sexual conduct with another person for a fee."

A person convicted of prostitution can receive up to 30 days in jail or probation and/or community service and/or a $500 fine, as determined by the courts. The fine increases to $1,000 for offenders caught in any Weed & Seed district.

"Honolulu is no different than any other urban center," Johnson said. "We have some of the same problems that are known all around the United States and the world. But this sure doesn't help us."

Correction: Brent Owens obtained a permit to film "Downtown Girls: The Hookers of Honolulu." A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that no permit was requested.