Francine Sporenda, an independent journalist based in France, recently interviewed me about Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survivor in the Sex Trade, for her website Revolution Feministe. The interview is in French and appears here. (a little taster above). If you are like me, you didn’t give high school French the attention it deserved and as a result can’t read it. So here’s the English version.
Interview of MELINDA TANKARD REIST
By Francine Sporenda
Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. Co-founder of “Collective Shout: For a world free of sexploitation”, Melinda’s books include: Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (2009) and Big Porn Inc.: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry (2011, co-edited with Abigail Bray).
F: Why did you decide to publish these testimonials of survivors of prostitution?
M: We felt the time had come – indeed that it was overdue – to hear the voices of women who had once been in the sex industry and were not glowing in their praise of it. We wanted to provide a space where survivors could bear witness by sharing the reality of commercial sexual exploitation and render visible the harm done to them.
In any discussion of the prostitution industry it is mostly those with vested interests in ‘business as usual’, that we hear from. This billion-dollar industry seeks to persuade everyone that prostitution is a service like any other that allows women to earn vast sums of money, and to travel and enjoy life’s luxuries. Women in sex businesses are presented as ‘escorts, hostesses, strippers, dancers, sex workers’. Prostitution is euphemistically described as ‘compensated dating’ and ‘assisted intercourse’ with women who are ‘erotic entrepreneurs’. There is almost no mention of the damage, violation, suffering, and torment of prostitution on the body and the mind, nor of the deaths, suicides and murders that are common. The reality of the harms of prostitution has to be denied because to know it would interfere with the business of sexual exploitation. So we wanted to re-dress this imbalance and provide a platform for other voices to be heard.
F: Considering the negative impact that being able to purchase women as commodities has on the way men view women, do you think one can be a feminist and be pro-prostitution?
M: No. Being a feminist means to advance the status of women and to address their differential position in the world. Prostitution is not pro-woman or consistent with the humanity and dignity of women. It is an industry built upon the backs of real women and girls. The fact that there are millions of women and girls being used in this industry globally is hardly a sign of feminist success or advancement. It demonstrates we have failed women. The 20 survivors, in very personal accounts in Prostitution Narratives, describe the lack of choices which led them into the industry, vulnerabilities including past and present sexual abuse, poverty, and economic disadvantage, marginalization. They were preyed upon by the industry which used predatory recruitment tactics. ‘Choice’ was so often compliance with the only option available.
As Annabelle wrote in our book:
To say that a woman enters the sex industry by ‘choice’ is a lie. To make a choice you need to have the facts about what you are choosing. I believe all prostituted women are held captive, not just physically as in the case of trafficked women, but by the lies of the sex industry. The industry knows once you’re lured in it’s hard to get out. I don’t believe any woman would choose to emotionally, physically and spiritually cause herself the amount of trauma that the industry left me with.
Jade was prostituted in New Zealand. She describes how she wanted to get out but was given no help.
After five years I wanted out of the sex industry. Twice I tried to go to school…I wanted to be a youth worker. But I couldn’t study due to drugs and sex work. None of the sex work advocacy agencies ever offered a contingency to get me out of the sex industry. They supplied lawyers, health checks, lube, condoms and dams but nothing to help me get out.
As another survivor has written:
Without exiting programmes, without long-term counselling, without a safe place to live, without a real job or route to a job, without knowing prostituted women can keep their children – we are just abandoning those inside the sex trade.
Anyone reading the accounts of brutal violence suffered by our contributors should hesitate to ever associate true feminism with the sex industry again. It is also hardly pro-woman when the sex industry has all the power and money and there is barely any public funding (certainly not here in Australia) to help women who actually want to get out of the industry. A woman who once worked for the peak sex industry body here in Australia was forced to tell the large numbers of women who called seeking assistance to get out of the industry that this was not what the organization was there for – they could help women stay in, not get out.
The goal of a ‘society without prostitution’ (as expressed by the French National Assembly) – a dismantling of the ‘system of prostitution’ – is the only authentic feminist position.
F: Tanja Rahm thinks that “if it had been a crime to buy women for sexual pleasure, then I would have known that what these men were doing was wrong”. Why is it so important for young girls that laws criminalizing prostitution are passed?
M: Tanja expresses it so well. We need to listen carefully. A society which has laws in place such as the Nordic Model (criminalizing the buyers of sex, not the prostituted person) sends a strong signal that this is not legitimate work, that men who think they should be able to buy women and girls will not be given societies stamp of approval. One of the big strengths of the Nordic Model is that it doesn’t just say ‘this is wrong’. It has provisions for financial and other support and reparations to help women make a new life out of the industry. This conveys a message to women and girls –it is wrong for you to be used like this: you are worth more and we will provide what you need for a new life.
The hand of women in the sex industry is strengthened when buyers are at risk of criminal penalty. When prostituted women are free of any legal sanction, but their pimps and customers are not, this puts them in a better position in terms of police assistance, and coming forward to receive public service help if they wish. While prostitution is viewed as work, these kinds of public services aren’t established, because there is seen as no need for them.
The recently passed French law also requires programs to educate young people and raise public awareness that prostitution is linked to the commodification of the body as “a form of violence against women.” This works in concert with the other measures to send an even more powerful message – to the victims of prostitution, to those at risk of entering the industry, to the buyers and society as a whole, that prostitution is an intolerable human rights violation.
F: Jacqueline Lynne says that when she worked at a drop in center for prostituted women in Canada, most of the women in the room were of native ancestry. In Europe, most prostituted women come now from Nigeria and other African countries, from China, etc. Is there a fundamental link between racism and prostitution and how does racism plays out in pornography?
Here in Australia my co-editor Caroline Norma has written powerfully about the ‘asianisation’ of the sex industry and the expansion of ‘Asian-only’ brothels. Our newspapers are full of ads eroticizing Asian women as young, petite, fresh, compliant, willing to provide anything a man wants. They know their place (unlike white western women, being the inference). The eroticization of Asian women combined with the recycling of stereotypes about their desire to ‘please’ and their nymph–like qualities, illustrate how the industry exploits race for profit. Of course racist stereotypes abound in the marketing of women from other ethnicities. The racializing of bodies is particularly apparent in pornography, where we see a contempt for people of colour. Black women are insatiable ‘ghetto hos’, who gets what’s coming to them for being ‘mouthy’. They are popular in Gonzo genres where they are made to endure body punishing sex acts. Latino women are ‘sluts’, etc. At a time when racist epithets are more generally frowned on, they are alive and well in the sex industry.
F: “Any man that walks into a brothel has no respect for women” claims Jacqueline Gwynne in the book. Would you agree with this statement, and why?
Again, it is important to listen to those ‘on the ground’ who saw first-hand the behavior of men. I agree with it because I believe what the contributors have written and acknowledge their lived experience.
F: Caitlin Roper states that we are seeing now an increase in male sexual entitlement due to neo-liberalism and the global sex industry. Is it also your opinion?
M: Of course. Neo-liberalism has benefited the proliferation and globalization of prostitution and pornography because Governments generally support what is profitable – and from which it derives benefits from taxes and other charges – and have thus taken a ‘hands-off’ approach to the sex industry, allowing a free-market approach to reign.
Boys are being trained to think that women exist for their use and pleasure. They are learning early, from pop culture, media, advertising, music, violent hypersexualized video games and the sex industry, that they have a right to do what they want. The sex industry has moved into mainstream popular culture so boys imbibe its messages from the day they are born. Hardcore porn eroticizing violence against women is a click away, with boys as young as 9 and 10 absorbing a message that violence is sexy. In a piece that has become the most read ever published on the ABC Religion and Ethics website, I documented the sexual attitudes and behaviours girls are having to put up with. The sex industry – and its multiple manifestations in mainstream culture – endangers all women and girls everywhere.
‘A form of political gaslighting that pathologizes dissenters’: Sex trade survivor Rae Story
Rae Story worked in prostitution for a decade, primarily in the UK but also in other countries such as Australia and New Zealand. She exited prostitution last year and has subsequently written critically on the contemporary, libertarian push for full decriminalization and the concomitant project of sex industry sanitization and legitimization. Find more of her work at In Permanent Opposition. Rae tweets @raycstory.
When you read this extract from the interview I am sure you will want to read the whole thing.
FS: You’ve discussed the way in which the pro-prostitution lobby has strategically presented itself as progressive and the underdog, while defending regressive values and working to silence survivors. Can you tell us more about this behaviour and these strategies?
RS: Well as I described earlier, there is a tone to this debate that reframes those who engage in prostitution as having an “identity,” like an ethnicity or sexuality, so fighting for decriminalization becomes a human cause — an issue of civil rights — rather than being about the rights of commerce. It’s effective because those who disagree with them can then be labeled “bigots” or “SWERFS” (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists). Quite what self-identified “sex workers” imagine they are being excluded from, I don’t know… In fact, prostitution is a material reality that relates to circumstance and to gender and economic inequality not personal politics. The desire for full decriminalization is about the right of businesses to expand without state intervention or consideration for the collective.
The term “sex worker” is a political term, not a mere descriptor. It is used to legitimize the sex industry as a morally-neutral business and is akin to referring to those exploited by the sweatshop industry as “textile workers.” Added to which, it collapses the differences between different kinds of “sex trading.” So, those who run brothels can call themselves “sex workers” and put themselves on the same turf as those who actually have to deal with smelly old men’s dicks for a living. Even pornographers and glamour photographers can lay claim to the title.
The superficial usage of the language of civil rights and the use of the “sex worker” concept is a form of political engineering. Pro-decriminalization activists with even a vague relationship to the industry can be called a “sex worker” and ensure their opinion be considered of higher value on that basis. Someone else who has relationship with the sex industry who disagrees with them must be undermined in some fashion in order to discredit their opposition. This is where I think it gets sinister. Whenever I have been confronted by a pro-industry advocate, the veracity of my testimony has been rather nebulously questioned or I have been called an outright liar. Another tactic is to deploy the “I’m sorry you had a bad experience” method to imply that any negative feelings I have are isolated anomalies. The most insidious was the accusation that any mental health problems I suffer from are a result of personal failings or weakness and are not endemic to the industry.
This is a form of political gaslighting that pathologizes dissenters. The most grievous example of this was the method used to pathologize slaves who attempted to escape — their slavery was considered inherent to their personhood and trying to escape this personhood was considered an illness.
The people who employ these tactics are not progressives in theory, nor are they, generally, in practice.