Tag Archives: women’s rights

What the War on Sex Workers Doesn’t Do

Laurie and Debbie say:

cross-posted on Feministe

Melissa Gira Grant has an excellent article in Reason this week, laying out exactly what’s wrong with the war on “sex trafficking,” which is conducted largely by women who identify as feminists, and how and why it is really a war on sex workers. The last paragraph of the article is especially powerful:

If we are going to call attacks on reproductive and sexual rights a “war on women,” then let’s talk about a war on women that has actual prisoners and a body count. It’s a war on the women engaged in sex work, waged by women who will not hesitate to use their opponents’ corpses as political props but refuse to listen to them while they are still alive and still here to fight.

Grant unflinchingly sets out what “feminists” are doing in the name of fighting sex trafficking, and how unwilling the leaders of this movement are to support actual sex workers.

Let’s be clear at the outset. Grant is not, and we are not, supporting actual trafficking, sex work involving minors, or anyone being forced into sex work against their will. The pressures on women (particularly, as Grant notes, minority women and trans women) to go into sex work are complex; alternatives can be very difficult to find.

Some activists view calling the cops to “rescue” people from the sex trade as the model of a successful human rights intervention. They don’t count their victories by the number of people they help; they count them by arrests.

…Feminists once offered a powerful critique of the criminal justice system, but that argument has faded as they have found power within it. Not surprisingly, they have found conservative allies along the way.

In redefining sex work as an issue of bad men doing bad things to enslaved young women, anti-prostitution activists have recast themselves as liberators instead of scolds, while simultaneously making their message more attractive to the social conservatives who have at times distrusted them. The conservative Heritage Foundation has taken up the cause of “fighting sex trafficking,” though mostly as a way to beat up on the Obama administration and the United Nations for not adopting even more punitive policy. …

None of this is new; in fact, the historical pattern has often been documented. Grant sets it out clearly and unambiguously as yet another front in the war on women.

Anti-sex-trafficking “feminism” is respectable. It allows feminists to get a foothold in the halls of power, to be listened to by the kind of people who spend the rest of their time waging the war on women, to be funded by Warren Buffett, to see laws they argue for pass.

Not that respectability has ever gotten women or any other marginalized group anything we really need or want ….

Anti-sex-trafficking “feminism” is a way to reify and strengthen race, class, and cisgender values, because it essentially says “I would never voluntarily have sex for money, therefore any woman who has sex for money must be a victim, a moral failure, or both.” Thus, the women who hold this position get to have their penetration and eat it too: the sex they have is fine, but the sex prostitutes have is disgusting and deserves to be illegal.

Anti-sex-trafficking “feminism” is anti-woman. The anti-trafficking activists refuse to listen to sex workers tell their stories:

Oversimplified portrayals of trafficking can have devastating consequences for those who are trafficked. “When I am vacating prior convictions for survivors,” says [Melissa] Broudo [of the Urban Justice Center], “I view it as a legal hurdle if it’s someone who isn’t a cisgender [nontransgender] female minor at the time. And it shouldn’t be that way.” Broudo concedes that “you need people to understand that trafficking exists.” But she adds that “awareness isn’t enough, and awareness campaigns can have negative consequences. … People think we need to arrest more people, and that’s incredibly detrimental. And unfortunately, when there is more money and a mandate for arrests, that will often result in sex workers who may or may not have been forced into sex work being arrested.”

Sex-worker activists have long voiced this concern, not to protect the sex industry (as anti-prostitution campaigners claim) but to protect themselves from the violence of arrest and the violence that results from widespread social stigma and discrimination. Defenders of sex workers’ rights want to stop those arrests, while the feminists who should be their natural allies are pushing for more.

Another aspect of the anti-women nature of the movement is clarified particularly by Gira’s anecdote about Gloria Steinem:

Gloria Steinem held court in the brothels of India as part of a humanitarian junket sponsored by … Warren Buffett’s money: $1 billion… Steinem came away from her visit with an astounding proposal: What would really benefit the women who worked there—whom she described to the Calcutta Telegraph as “prostituted,” characterizing their condition as “slavery”—would be to end sexual health services and peer education programs in brothels, programs that have been recognized by the United States Agency for International Development as best-practices HIV/AIDS interventions. Steinem described the women leading those health and education programs as “traffickers” and those who support them “the trafficking lobby.”

Finally, anti-sex-trafficking “feminism,” while claiming to target men, actually takes attention away from men and men’s crimes against women:

A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago conducted by the Chicago Reporter revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers, with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. … Since the [Illinois Safe Children’s] Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

The energy that should be spent fighting rape culture, drawing the lines that show why incidents like the one in Steubenville are not “isolated” and not “boys will be boys,” changing the way we think and talk about rape, reproductive justice, abortion, employment rights, and child care (to name just a few topics) is instead being spent putting women into jail. The energy that should be spent listening to people in the sex trade, learning what they need, helping them make themselves safer, combating racism and classism in sex work is instead being turned against sex workers.

To be a feminist, one should actually care about the lives of women.

Vagina Drama, and Why It Matters

Laurie and Debbie say:

Everyone is probably aware that Michigan Democratic State Senator Lisa Brown had a one-day gag order imposed upon her for using the word “vagina”  in a comment about state abortion clinic regulations. What she said was, “I’m flattered you’re all so interested in my vagina, but no means no.”

This has led to all kinds of political responses, from a reading of The Vagina Monologues (by Eve Ensler) starring Brown on the steps of the Michigan capitol building to a tongue-in-cheek proposal by Dahlia Lithwick recommending a law “providing that any women who seeks to use the word vagina in a floor debate be required to wait 72 hours after consulting with her physician before she may say it. It will also require her physician to certify in writing that said woman was not improperly coerced into saying the word vagina against her will.”

The leader in the fight to silence Brown, Rep. Mike Callton, R-Nashville, said, “What she said was offensive. It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.” Our experience is that men who say “I would not say that in mixed company” are often the ones who say “cunt” in unmixed company, and in front of women, act like we don’t have bodies, unless they’re trying to get into the parts they won’t mention.

“Cunt” is a word a lot of people have trouble with, because in the United States (except in some radical circles), it is used almost exclusively as a negative description of women–not our bodily parts but all of us. “Pussy,” on the other hand, is used as a negative description of men. “Vagina” is effectively never used as a slur. It’s a formal, medical word, perhaps the only one that can be used without a lot of sexual innuendo.  And it makes lots of people uncomfortable. (This paragraph edited based on the comments, which have more information about different word use in Australia.)

Kayt Sukel, an author who writes about neuroscience and sexuality, has given lectures around the country on the issue. And there’s one word, she finds, that never fails to make some in her audience squeamish.

“There’s just something about the word ‘vagina’ that startles people — I don’t know what it is,” says Sukel. “People sit back a little bit. Sometimes they start giggling. I end up using euphemisms just to make them more comfortable, and more receptive to what I am saying. And we don’t seem to have the same problems with the word ‘penis.'”

We’ve seen the history of public use of medical terms in the media played out in our lifetimes. “Anus,” and a host of other sexual words, became acceptable because of the serious talk about safer sex required by the AIDS epidemic.  “Penis” made an extra jump to the national news when Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband’s in 1993. Eve Ensler gets the credit for bringing “vagina” into common usage in the media.

Of course there was a time when no one would say any of these words in a legislative setting. Brown probably, at least to some extent, meant to be shocking. She probably expected some reaction. But she wasn’t just criticized, or asked to behave differently, she was actually, legally silenced from saying anything in her official capacity for 24 hours. And the implication is clear that if she continues, they (the men/Republicans in the Michigan legislature) can do this for longer.

It’s not about the word. It’s not even about vaginas. It’s about men (and, horrifyingly, women) who believe that their right to legislate women’s bodies extends to their right to legislate our mouths, our minds, and our very existence. It’s about who gets to decide what words are dirty and which dirty words can be said where.

Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Penis. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Pussy. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina. Cunt. Vagina. Vagina. Vagina.

Oh, and by the way, Representative Callton? We’d like you better if you were a penis instead of a dick.