“Why do newspaper articles about the sex industry almost always feature a picture of a woman as if prostitution were a buyerless transaction?”
This question was posed by The Economist’s Simon Hedlin in 2015. Hedlin’s comment points to just how effective attempts by the sex industry to obscure the realities of prostitution have been. In an industry fuelled by male demand, the sex buyers have all but disappeared from the equation.
The pro-sex lobby goes to great lengths to reframe the purchase of female flesh by men not as exploitation and abuse, but as an exercise in women’s choice and autonomy. It doesn’t ask why men purchase economically disadvantaged women and girls for sexual exploitation, or examine why male buyers do what they wish with women’s bodies. Instead, we often see clients painted as respectful and simply seeking female companionship.
Radical feminist activist and writer Samantha Berg points out that, “People quibble over what percentage of prostitutes ‘choose’ it while ignoring that 100 per cent of johns choose prostitution.”
It is primarily men buying mainly women and children. According to Detective Inspector Simon Haggstrom of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit, in the 15 years since buying sex has been criminalised in Sweden, in 1999, police have not detected a single woman paying for sex.
While the media tends to depict lonely and often disabled men as looking for companionship through prostitution, or even just someone to talk to, a major international study – “Comparing Sex Buyers with Men Who Don’t Buy Sex” – debunks these myths and finds that over half of the buyers are already married or in de facto relationships. One exited woman in Canada shared her insights on why men in committed intimate relationships purchase sex. Speaking to Sun News Network, she said:
“I spent 15 years servicing men and allowing them to use me any way they saw fit. I’ve had clients confess that the things they paid me to do were things they would never ask their wives, whom they respected, or their ‘child’s mother’ to do.”
The “Comparing Sex Buyers” study reveals that men who pay to sexually exploit women are aware of the harms they do. It found that, “Two thirds of both the sex buyers and the non-sex buyers observed that a majority of women are lured, tricked, or trafficked into prostitution,” and that, “41% … of the sex buyers used women who they knew were controlled by pimps at the time they used her.” This awareness, however, did not stop them: “The knowledge that women have been exploited, coerced, pimped or trafficked failed to deter sex buyers from buying sex.”
While knowledge of harm done to women in prostitution was not a sufficient deterrent for the men surveyed, they did agree that the most effective deterrent to buying sex would be being placed on a sex offender registry, being exposed in public, or having to pay significant fines and go to jail.
Sex buyers tend to regard the women they buy as less than human, and as solely existing for their sexual use and enjoyment. Men who purchase sex are quite open about their belief that their entitlement to sex should take precedence over the wellbeing of the women they buy. Sex buyers express contempt for the prostituted women they use, both in research studies and on customer review websites, where they detail and rank the “services” of the women they buy. Common themes emerge among these candid reviews.
One theme is that sex buyers regard the women they buy as mere objects for sexual gratification. The online Canadian Invisible Men Project, which collates postings made by sex buyers on prostitution review websites, records buyers as making comments about individual women such as, “She’s a sad waste of good girl flesh,” and, “If you want an attractive receptacle for your semen she will do.”
At the same time that buyers appear to despise the women they buy, they require of these women absolute compliance and submission to sex acts demanded of them. Sex buyers have been recorded in The Guardian newspaper as expressing opinions such as, “I don’t want them to get any pleasure. I am paying for it and it is her job to give me pleasure. If she enjoys it I would feel cheated.” In her 2007 book Making Sex Work, Mary Lucille Sullivan writes that:
“The [sex] buyer’s economic power means he determines how the sexual act will be played out. Buyers believe their purchasing power entitles them to demand any type of sex they want.”
The “Comparing Sex Buyers” study crucially finds that, in the system of prostitution, sex buyers are motivated by the opportunity to control and dominate a woman so that they can perform degrading sex acts against her that female partners would refuse. Farley and colleagues recorded statements from buyers such as, “If my fiancee won’t give me anal, I know someone who will,” and, “You get to treat a ho like a ho … you can find a ho for any type of need – slapping, choking, aggressive sex beyond what your girlfriend will do – you won’t do stuff to your girlfriend that will make her lose her self esteem.”
This sense of entitlement to treat prostituted women worse than girlfriends does not change even when buyers realise the women they are buying are unwilling participants. The Invisible Men Project documents sex buyers as expressing opinions such as: “I wish she had loosened up or pretended to be into it more. She grimaced as I came on her which was a turn off … Would recommend for those interested in ethnic girls, big boobs … just wish she’d lighten up a bit.” And: “She had the gagging expression on her face … again she just lay there and complained about it hurting.”
Perhaps worse still, sex buyers are able to recognise signs of trafficking among the women they use, but this awareness appears to be no impediment to their behaviour. The Australian prostitution review website Punter Planet features a posting by a buyer expressing the sentiment that: “the sex … was the best part as Hana was tight and able to take instuctions [sic] well. Her English is non existant [sic] in April but may be better now. Lucky for me i was able to converse in some Korean with her.”
Psychologist Melissa Farley and her colleagues have conducted years of research into men who buy women for prostitution and their motivations. The factors driving men to become “customers” of the sex industry aren’t too different from those leading them to become rapists. Just like rapists, prostitution buyers are disproportionately pornography users, they resent women’s refusal to do things they want them to do (such as sex acts), and they see their sexual behaviour as not particularly harmful of others.
This self-interested, self-centred approach to others and society manifests itself in the worst behaviours of male sexual entitlement, but it is an entitlement shared by most men, even if each individual man doesn’t buy a woman for prostitution or target a woman for rape.
Pornography users might be understood as coming a step closer to this extreme model of male sexual entitlement, which is concerning if we think about the currently high rates of pornography consumption by men all over the world. The expectation that women will comply with men’s desire to re-enact sex acts they’ve seen in pornography, and some men’s willingness to buy women in prostitution if their girlfriends refuse to submit to pornographic sex acts, shows an escalation in the power of male sexual entitlement which is being fuelled by the global sex industry.
More than any group, prostituted women know about the sexual violence against women and girls that is escalating as a result of the global sex industry.
It is a difficult fact to confront that sex buyers are more concerned with the quality of the “sexual service” they receive than the fact that women they pay to exploit are not there by choice and are gravely harmed by being prostituted. As long as men prioritise their perceived right to the bodies of impoverished women and girls over women’s basic human rights in this way, the prostitution industry will continue to thrive. It is only when men are held accountable for their abuse of women in the sex trade that we will see meaningful progress.
Reprinted with permission.
Caitlin Roper is an activist and campaigns manager for grassroots campaigning movement Collective Shout: For a world free of sexploitation. This article is adapted from her chapter in Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist.
Life & Faith: Prostitution Narratives
Simon Smart, Melinda Tankard Reist, Natasha Moore SEPTEMBER 1, 2016
Prostitution is a global industry that generates more than $186 billion worldwide and has more than 13 million “employees”. But these numbers tell you nothing about the people involved in the sex industry – the circumstances that led them to a life of prostitution, the experiences they have in the industry, and the struggle to leave.
A new book changes this. Prostitution Narratives shines a light on the reality of the sex industry through the true stories of women who escaped a life of prostitution.
But it’s done more than raise awareness of the issues and trauma faced by these women. As survivors of the sex industry, the book’s contributors have come to realise that they are part of a global movement of women against prostitution.
“The personal has become political,” Melinda Tankard Reist, one of the editors of the book and a long-time advocate for women and girls, says. “They’ve found strength in turning something devastating into something powerful.”
In this episode of Life & Faith, Melinda talks about how vital it is to hear the voices of women from within the sex industry, to understand that truth and reality of the work they do.
US book reviewer Marilyn Brady, who writes at ‘Me, You, and Books’ has written a review which perfectly describes the impact we had hoped our book would have on those willing to give its contents a fair hearing – a re-consideration of the dominant, accepted (and often un-examined) viewpoint on the prostitution industry.
Prostitution Narratives: Stories in Survival in the Sex Trade, edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist. Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex, 2016. 238 pages.
A powerful collection of stories written by women from various countries who survived their time in prostitution and are willing to talk about its violence, drug usage, and overall dehumanizing impact.
Australians Caroline Norma and Melinda Reist, a scholar and an activist, both have expertise about sexual violence. They know what prostitution looks like for those involved and have collected twenty stories and three articles to present their viewpoint and expose the seamy underside of the prostitution industry in developed nations.. Their purpose is to share stories that sharply contradict the rosy accounts of prostitution as ordinary work: stories spread by those who profit from it. In deliberate imitation of the American slave narratives, Norma and Reist believe that if the public faces the reality of prostitution, the practice can be ended. Reading their book, I see their point. I gained a troubling new awareness of the damage it does not only to the women who rent the use of their bodies, but also to the larger society in which prostitution is allowed to be practiced. I credit Prostitution Narratives for pushing me to think about prostitution differently.
Previously I had not realized the extent to which prostitution, like rape, is about violence. Women are used as objects, not simply for sexuality, but to absorb the physical abuse that angry men think they are entitled to use against them. Even if men do not hit or bite or choke, the female body is not meant to withstand penetration by a dozen or more men per night. I also had not considered the psychological cost of repeated sex with men who do not value women. As the stories repeatedly asserted, the way for woman to endure being a prostitute is to distance herself from what is happening to her body. Legal or illegal drugs may help her, but they take a toll on her, compounding the damage from sex itself. In addition, once caught up in prostitution it is very difficult to get out psychologically or practically.
Debates about prostitution and possible ways to end it allow all of us to distance ourselves into thinking about the practice as essentially harmless. Reading the stories of women who have lived through it changes that immediately. Even if we have no reliable statistics about the numbers of women who have been harmed, identifying with the victims gives us a seldom considered perspective and raises questions about why it is allowed even as an illegal, but tolerated practice.
After reading Prostitution Narratives, I began to consider the various ways in which prostitution is integral to how we as a society think. Those of us in “free” societies can be attracted to the libertarian view that men are free and entitled to do what they have the money to do. Men, perhaps, but not women. Prostitution exhibits the problem with that view. Nowhere else is entitlement of men over women taken to the extreme of his ability to buy time alone with a woman to abuse and harm her. Even boxing, proposed as a parallel example, is regulated to establish some measure of equality between the combatants.
Prostitution has long existed, of course, as a means for powerful men to exercise their dominance over those most powerless. Today the practice has been democratized, offering all men that privilege. Some prostitutes, like those working for the “DC Madam”, have created individual solutions to lessen the abuse through the wealth and visibility of the men who come to them. But as we know from other groups seeking paths out of oppression, success for a few does not guarantee survival of the whole group.
Proponents of prostitution try to normalize its practices, emphasizing the happy prostitutes and describing it as “sex work.” They claim that to attack it is to deny women their “autonomy.” But, like much else in our capitalist world, being a prostitute is hardly a free choice. Proponents offer the hope that if prostitution were decriminalized the abuses, which they admit exist, could be regulated or negotiated away. As the book points out, in parts of Australia which have experimented with decriminalization, brothels are still brothels.
In their book Norma and Reist support the Nordic Model for dealing with prostitution. In it men who use prostitutes would be arrested and punished but the actual prostitutes would not. At least this would represent a move away from the idea that the women are to blame for “offering” themselves, and that they deserve what they get. But I am unsure that any legal measures would suffice, unless we as societies stop assuming that male domination is their birthright and women, some women at least, are disposable.
I didn’t mean to express the rage that Prostitution Narratives inspired in me rather than focusing on the book itself. This rage and my new thought about prostitution are perhaps the best evidence of the power of this book. I strong recommend it to all readers, whatever you think you understand about prostitution.
‘Trauma is a shadow in my life’: Prostitution survivor Rae Story interviews other survivors
The idea that the body can just go on revolt and refuse to engage in prostitution is something that I could empathize with; towards the end of my experiences I began to feel physically sick whenever I was with a punter. I willed myself to overcome it so that I didn’t have to leave prostitution, and fall into poverty and uncertainty. Alisa eventually was left by her abuser after she became physically and emotionally drained; ergo he had exhausted his ‘use’ for her. Laura began to hate facing the punters and felt her long term depression exacerbated by extreme anxiety. She fears having to return to prostitution should she lose the social security that currently supports her. Rebecca lived intermittently in homeless shelters for a time before settling down, but she has subsequently never worked. She says, “Trauma is a shadow in my life.”…
I think history will be unkind to those who happily snubbed out the narratives of those women who do not and cannot succumb to the proselytizing of the empowerment ideologues. Who are often specifically and willfully targeted, abused, subjected to mind games and silenced. Because those women’s lives have been blighted by prostitution and its concomitant abuses and now, after reflection and consideration, wish for the sex industry to be unable to expand. Indeed, to even be cut off at the oxygen.
Prostitution Narratives comes to Perth, WA, October 14, 6 pm at the social enterprise Halo café. I’ll say a few words, but even better you will hear from book contributors Simone Watson and Alice (‘Charlotte’ in the book). Our local Collective Shout activist extraordinaire Caitlin Roper will also speak to her chapter on the men who purchase women for sex. Please come and support us! Share the invitation.
When news of a murdered woman hits the headlines in Australia, people sit up and take notice. Unless that woman happens to be a sex worker. Invisible Women tells the stories of 65 murdered sex workers – all of whom are somebody’s mother, daughter, wife or sister – whose identities have been erased. Why do we see some lives as less valuable than others, and what price do we all pay for this disgraceful lack of care? These amazing stories of incredible women are both deeply moving and shocking in their insight and clarity. And definitely way overdue.
I read Invisible Women on a flight to New Zealand a couple of weeks ago. (One advantage of spending a lot of time in the air is uninterrupted reading time). It was a grueling read. What first hit me was the table of contents – so many names of women whose lives – and their end – are acknowledged and recorded in this book. And an even longer list of names in the Index of Victims: Missing and Murdered Since 1970.
Invisible Women is a forensic work, giving names to the dead, situating them as women who had families, children, personalities, who laughed and struggled. The works lifts them out of and above the dismissing common responses that they were ‘just prostitutes who deserved what came to them’ (One Queensland journalist described dead women in his state as the ‘bottom feeders’ of the sex industry).
The authors unpack vulnerabilities, backgrounds of poverty, family breakdown, addiction, marginalization, sexual abuse, domestic violence, homelessness and mental health issues which contributed to the women ending up in the sex industry. The drivers that “keep street-based sex workers enslaved to a lifestyle they don’t want, but can’t find a way out of.”
This is a road for women who may have fallen through the cracks of our society, Women who, as children, found themselves in the confusing world of foster care; a world where, far too often, paedophiles are circling, ready to groom, persuade and abuse those least equipped to tell, or to fight back. Women who don’t remember the first time they were sexually assaulted. They were too young. And it happened so often, accompanies by words of love – or threats of punishment and pain. Those women know sex means nothing now; it’s a tool, a weapon, a way to get what they need to survive. Other women … made excuses the first time their partner hit them, when he controlled their money, when he isolated them from their friends, from their family. Women who, as children, lost a parent, a sibling, a friend and who stayed too quiet, bottling up their sadness until one day they were introduced to a drug that – for the first time in their young lives – took their pain away…Women with no money, no networks of family or friends, very poor job prospects…Sometimes it is about mental illness and the scarcity of support…It is these women: the homeless, mentally ill, abused, assaulted, drug-dependent members of society who are most at risk of having to become street-based sex workers. They are the women society has discarded, de-funded, disowned. It beggars belief that when they are injured or killed, people proclaim that it is their own fault, that they put themselves at risk.
Wykes and Fox point out that the average age of starting out as a street-based sex worker is 13. They cite studies showing that “80 percent of street-based sex workers have experienced some form of violence in the last six months of working…Sometimes the violence leaves a woman so badly injured she is unable to work for days or weeks. Women are abducted for days at a time and held as sex slaves before being released.” And of course crimes against women in prostitution are rarely reported. They are accessible, easy prey, that they have gone missing may not even be noticed. The authors note the case of ‘Jenny’ and ‘Susan, whose badly decomposing bodies were found in a bedroom in a Sydney apartment in 2008. Nobody seemed to know anything about them or their murders – despite the fact they died a brutal death in an apartment share with 11 others.
I’m with the authors in that we need funding of outreach programs and safe houses “to help deal with the complex, and incredibly difficult task of helping to affect change” in the lives of women in the industry.
(Tickets to our session have told out however you can add it to a ‘wish list’ in case tickets become available through cancellation).
And here’s the Canberra Writers Festival session – MTR on sex trade violence
PODCAST: Survivors speak out in new book about the sex industry
MTR, along with Prostitution Narratives contributors Simone and Charlotte, were interviewed by the inimitable Meghan Murphy at Feminist Current about our new book.
As prostitution and the legislation that surrounds it has become an increasingly heated debate, the voices of women who survived the industry have grown louder and stronger.
This year, a new book containing testimonies written by survivors was published by Spinifex Press. Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, bust myths, reveals the trauma experienced by those who are used and abused by johns, and raises hope, as we hear from women who turned the personal into the political, and are fighting back. This week, I spoke with co-editor, Melinda Tankard Reist, and two survivors who shared their stories in the book, Simone Watson and Charlotte, over Skype. Listen to the podcast:
Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade was edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard-Reist and is now available in Canada, the US, and Mexico from IPG Books.
Simone Watson shared her story in our new book Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the sex trade. Here she challenges the dominant narrative on ‘sex work’ in a powerful piece on Feminist Current.
In the spirit of the popular “sex workers are underrepresented” stance, repeated by liberal media and prostitution advocates, ad nauseum, Daily Life has published yet another article repeating the myth. The author, Kate Iselin, aside from being a self-described “sex worker” and published writer, is also “furious.”
This time, the article targets the Melbourne Writers Festival for not having a “sex worker” on the panel, “Invisible Women” — a panel about prostitution featuring Melinda Tankard Reist, Meagan Tyler, and Ruth Wykes.
Pro-sex trade voices are so ubiquitous that even calling prostituted children “sex workers” has become entrenched in the media and public psyche.
“Sex workers” are so far from being ignored that when writers who expose the dark side of the sex trade appear on a panel to talk about their work and research, a “sex worker voice” is published in Daily Life opposing it.
The pro-sex trade are so far from being ignored that Amnesty International is pressuring their membership of some four million people (and just about every so-called leftist I come in contact with) to support the full decriminalization of the sex trade.
Prostitution survivors constantly hear “Prostitution is just ‘sex work’ — a job like any other? Anyone who says different is just a pearl-clutcher,” from both the media and the public.
What Iselin really means is not that “sex workers” are being ignored, but that her particular voice and the voices of those who unequivocally support the full decriminalization of prostitution are not on this particular panel.
But why must every discussion of prostitution include the voices of those who support the trade? Would a panel of socialists arguing against capitalism be expected to include a billionaire to represent pro-corporation voices? Would a panel of environmentalists arguing against fracking need to invite an oil worker on stage to discuss the fact that they personally support the industry?
Scarlet Alliance, a pro-decriminalization lobby group, were, in fact, offered an entire session at the Melbourne Writers Festival but they declined. I guess unless there is an opportunity to attempt to discredit feminist authors, “sex worker voices” aren’t really worth their time. By comparison, as a prostitution survivor featured in the book, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade, the festival declined to have me on the “Invisible Women” panel and I wanted to be there.
Arguing this is not the first time a festival has ignored “sex workers,” Iselin points to the 2014 Festival of Dangerous Ideas, which didn’t have a self-identified “sex worker” on its panel, “Women for Sale.” In order to remedy this, pro-prostitution journalist Elizabeth Pisani invited a “sex worker” to take her place on stage during the panel. This orchestrated stunt provided the audience with the voice of Scarlet Alliance’s then-“Migrant Project Manager,” Jules Kim. (According to Scarlet Alliance’s website, “The Migration Project” is focused on “migrant sex workers” –also known as trafficked women…) Kim is now the CEO of the organization, replacing Janelle Fawkes who, like Kim, calls herself a “sex worker,” despite the fact there is no evidence that either, in fact, sell sex. (I don’t doubt that some members of the government-funded group, Scarlet Alliance, sell sex, or used to, but the media and the public need to be wise to the fact that many members do not and never have, despite the fact that the organization claims to be “run by sex workers, for sex workers.”) In other words, the push for “sex worker voices” is not about accurately representing marginalized voices — it’s about political maneuvering and creating a scene wherein the audience is made to accept arguments made in favour of decriminalization, unchallenged, because a so-called “sex worker” says so.
Iselin is not “furious” about there not being a “sex worker” on the “Invisible Women” panel, she is merely furious that feminists, Tankard Reist and Tyler are, and will be speaking to the harms of prostitution, rather than working to neutralize and normalize it.
Iselin is clever enough to pay some politically correct lip-service to the survivor testimonies in Prostitution Narratives, going so far as to say she thinks our stories should be “believed, trusted and amplified.” But I wonder if Iselin would have a go at the festival because they declined to include me on the panel?
You see it is, in fact, the voices of prostituted and formerly prostituted women who are speaking out against Iselin and Scarlet Alliance’s agenda to expand the sex-trade that are actually “excluded, stigmatized, and marginalized.” Voices like Iselin’s and the Scarlet Alliance are not. In the U.S., for example, a lengthy article published in New York Times Magazine purported to ask the question, “Should prostitution be a crime,” but featured almost solely self-described “sex workers” from the organization, Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), yet another pro-decriminalization lobby group.
Iselin is “furious” that our survivor voices were included in a book and that a feminist publisher and two editors were brave enough to publish our testimonies. And believe me, in this pro-sex trade climate it is incredibly brave — those who don’t support the rights of men to buy women to use as their personal sex toys are repeatedly vilified and discredited by pro-sex trade voices who want to push their agenda at any cost.
Iselin’s piece is manipulative and disingenuous. She says she doesn’t doubt the veracity of our testimonies, but dismisses us, taking aim instead at the women who actually did listen to survivors and amplify our voices, claiming they are just headline grabbers. By reducing Tankard Reist and Tyler’s exhaustive research, intelligence, and courage to “tragedy porn” or some evil “anti-sex worker” agenda, she erases the realities and voices of survivors as well.
The actual stories of prostituted women are not “tragedy porn.” It is truly callous to claim to support a group of people who have suffered torture, abuse, and degradation, then imply we are just a few who happened to have been dealt a rough hand and don’t represent the majority, when, in fact, we do. Research shows that prostituted women suffer from PTSD at the same rates as combat veterans, and most have suffered ongoing sexual, verbal, physical, and psychological abuse.
Iselin may have paid survivor testimonies lip service, but because she goes on to paint us as sad but nonetheless unreliable dimwits who simply fell under the spell of dodgy anti-sex worker advocates, her efforts at displaying empathy fail.
The message Iselin sends is that voices of survivors and advocates who oppose the system of prostitution shouldn’t be “believed, trusted and amplified” after all. In fact, unless we highlight and include pro-industry voices, we are, apparently, unreliable narrators and our work is illegitimate. While certainly everyone has a right to an opinion, it doesn’t mean that all opinions must be heard at all times. The promotion of prostitution gets more than enough air time throughout the world, through media, pop culture, and in leftist and liberal discourse. The idea that Iselin’s perspective is “ignored” is nothing more than a tactical lie. Like so many liberal media outlets, Daily Life fell for this too. Quelle surprise.
Simone Watson is an Indigenous woman living in Western Australia, and the Director of NorMAC (Nordic Model in Australia Coalition). She is a prostitution survivor and a contributor to the book Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist. (Reprinted with permission).
It’s in the Ignorance: Paying for Sex
…The prostitute is dependent, for her trade, on this very performance. Even if the punter actually knows that she is unlikely to be enjoying it, he nonetheless wishes her to perform the enjoyment all the same. Both, one imagines, because he is capable of a superficial postponing of reality in order to get his sexual fix, but also because the idea that she would perform for him out of need, gives him a feeling of self importance that he would not experience in mutual interaction.
The punters who are made the most out of by women who say they love the Game, however, are those who want her to pretend she is enjoying it, and want to pretend that to themselves too. Make no mistake, if they want to buy sex, they will, no question. However it suits some punter’s fragile and dissonant selves to recalibrate the interaction in their mind as intimacy. He will look out for superficial signals that the women he is renting will have the capacity to fancy and desire him, or at the very least, offer an all encompassing nurturing of his needs. Of course, anyone with half a shred of wisdom would understand that it is not possible to know what a prostitute really feels about him whilst he fucks her, as it is her job to keep this from him. To protect him from any uncomfortable truths lurking behind the red curtains…Full piece here
Manufacturing Consent: The Sex Industry Nobbles Australia’s Future Policy Makers
Caroline Norma lectures in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.
The Australian National University is the country’s only institution listed in the top twenty-ranked universities internationally, according to the QS World University Rankings. Its new vice chancellor is a Nobel laureate who publicly promotes the ANU as an “elite” Australian tertiary institution akin to Harvard.
ANU graduates, even more than graduates of Australia’s other G8 universities, have the world at their feet. Australia’s diplomatic and public services draw on them disproportionately, and Australia’s political and journalistic class is filled with their numbers.
While, even among the ANU cohort, there are students facing poverty and discrimination, it’s safe to say ANU students are likely victims of these hardships at lesser rates than other young people in Australia.
Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade (Spinifex Press) has been launched at packed-out events in Melbourne, Gold Coast and Toowoomba. Next up: Adelaide July 31. My co-editor Caroline Norma and I will address the event along with four sex industry survivors. We hope Adelaide friends can join us for this special event – especially to support the brave women who are speaking out about the realities of life in the industry they’ve now left.
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.
International lawyers, Ruth Nordstrom and Rebecca Ahlstrand, are globally recognized legal experts on the Nordic model of prostitution regulation, first established in Sweden. They have been in Australia meeting with MPs in four states advocating for the Nordic Model to be adopted here. Ruth is President and Senior Legal Counsel of Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyers with experience in the Administrative Court of Uppsala Sweden and the Swedish Ministry of Justice. Rebecca is Legal Counsel for Scandinavian Human Rights Lawyer specializing in international human rights, humanitarian law, asylum law and medical law. I interviewed them while they were here.
Welcome to Australia and thanks for being here. For those not familiar with the Nordic Model, could you give a brief description of how it works? How did the Swedish criminal code come to include prostitution in its provisions?
The Swedish Sex Purchase Act came into force in 1999 and the law criminalizes the buyer, but not the seller of sex. The Swedish law on prostitution states the following: ‘A person who obtains a casual sexual relation in return for payment, shall be sentenced for purchase of sexual service to a fine or imprisonment for at most one year.’ When this law was passed it introduced a new way of thinking as it shifted focus from the seller to the buyer. There were several objectives to this, firstly to make a clear statement that women are not commodities to be sold or bought, but that women are equal to men. Secondly it was a way to reduce the demand for prostitution. Simply put, if there is no demand, prostitution will automatically be reduced. Just the fact that a buyer can get caught and have a letter from the police sent home to his family has been found to have a deterring effect on sex buyers.
Can you describe the effort it took to see the law passed? What had to happen for it to succeed and how long did it take?
The law was part of a larger Government Bill concerning violence against women. The Bill included many different proposals in different sectors and prostitution was amongst these. Already in the 70s the issue of criminalizing prostitution was raised and a big inquiry was made into the issue of prostitution. A proposal was presented in the beginning of the 80s, but the proposal only included suggestions on social measures and some legal amendments to reduce prostitution.
Already at that time, however, the inquiry found that men buying women for sexual pleasure was not compatible with the principles of individual freedom and gender equality. In a society where a man can buy a woman, respect for women is also lost. A new inquiry was made in 1993 and in a Government report from 1995 it was proposed that both selling and buying sexual services should be criminalized. However, this proposal was heavily criticized because of the criminalization of the prostitute and was never implemented. A new proposal, where only the person who purchases sexual services was criminalized, based on the inquiry from 1993, was the one that ultimately was implemented.
A few surveys were made before the implementation of the Sex Purchase Act, and they showed that more than 70 percent of the population in Sweden was against the new law. However, this changed radically in a short time as the new law had an interesting impact on attitudes – all surveys after the implementation, the latest one held in 2014, have shown that more than 70 percent of the population is now for the ban on buying sex. Among women the support is as high as 85 percent and a large majority of young people also favor the ban. It took many years, around 25 years to find a solution in Sweden, but now many countries are following Sweden’s example, the latest country being France.
France adopted the Nordic approach after a few years of debating the issue. Many countries in the world are waking up to the fact that the sex industry and trafficking in human beings are growing global problems connected with serious organized crime and have to be counteracted in different ways. A law that criminalizes buyers and helps reduce demand is one of the important steps to stop violence against women.
Did Swedish politicians expect at that time that this legislative model would be taken up by the number of countries who have since adopted it? Can you describe your feelings after the law was recently adopted in France?
When the Sex Purchase Act was implemented in Sweden in 1999, it was a signal and an important statement to other countries in the world, but few could by then foresee how far the legislative model would reach. Year 2014, the Council of Europe Report on Prostitution, Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in Europe, recommended all other European Member states to seriously consider adopting the Swedish/Nordic model, which of course was a very important step forward.
When France had finally adopted the new law to criminalize sex purchase, we spoke with the Swedish “Angel in the Red Light District” who started to shout for joy. We often hear that it is only right wing/conservatives that would support any limits on the sex industry. That is a myth and not based on facts. In France, two Socialist MP’s, Maud Olivier and Bruno Le Roux were the two leading figures in this process and the Socialist were also supported by the Greens. In Sweden, the legislative model was introduced by the Social democrats, but today it has broad support within all the major political parties.
What are you doing at present to see the model taken up in other countries?
We are currently part of several EU projects concerning education and promotion of the Nordic model on prostitution and trafficking to other countries in Europe. Through the EU projects, representatives from several other EU countries participate and we will also arrange judicial training and release projects focused on reducing the demand for sexual services.
We often hear from those with vested interests that the Swedish model ‘doesn’t’ work’ and drives prostitution underground. How effective has the model been in reducing crime, trafficking, and protecting women?
When the law was introduced street prostitution was very soon reduced by half. The following years there was a steady increase in street prostitution in Sweden’s neighboring countries, Norway and Denmark, but not in Sweden. Prostitution can never be completely underground, but if the buyers can find prostitutes, so can the police and social workers.
In the comparing research that has been made in the Nordic countries, there is nothing to suggest that there is a larger underground prostitution industry in Sweden compared to other countries, quite the contrary. The estimated number of women trafficked for sexual purposes in Sweden and Finland a while back showed that Sweden had an estimate of 2-400 women who had been trafficked, while Finland, where prostitution is legal, the number was significantly higher with 15-17 000 women. Finland has a much smaller population than Sweden, which makes this number even more serious.
We strongly believe that prostituted women are in a stronger position when it’s illegal to buy sexual services, because this makes the man a criminal. Women who have worked in Germany before and after legalization, and who also worked in Sweden have stated that their experience is that men grew more violent to them as prostitutes after the legalization, because they felt entitled to having sex.
They found men to be less violent in Sweden. When the buyer is criminalized, it will give the prostitute a stronger position because the buyer knows he is committing a crime and the prostitute will have the police and the social authorities on her side. Through the European police cooperation, Interpol, undercover work and interviews with victims of human trafficking, there have been indications that criminal groups consider Sweden as a less attractive country for trafficking because it is riskier and less profitable.
The French law includes provision of “exit routes” through programs and support for those women who wish to leave the system, with the development of reparation and other remedies for victims of prostitution and trafficking. How essential are these programs in your view? Are you surprised that Australia has no publicly funded exit programs?
We think it’s great that France has incorporated this in the law. It’s not enough to just criminalize sex buyers, it is crucial to create opportunities for the women in prostitution to get away from the industry. Many of the girls are broken, abused, alcohol or drug addicted and suffer from a very low self-esteem. In Sweden the County Administrative Board in Stockholm was commissioned by the Government to develop an aid program for the rehabilitation of victims of trafficking and prostitution.
The mission was to strengthen and develop support with respect to the exposed situation, trauma, vulnerability and potential threats. The goal was to identify measures that were needed to ensure the person’s future through education and work, and to reduce the risk of ending up in prostitution again or of re-trafficking. Every country needs to have an action plan against trafficking which also includes funding of exit programs. Considering the great human rights abuses within human trafficking and the sex industry, it is very surprising that Australia has no publicly funded exit programs. During our visits and hearing in the Australian parliaments, we strongly recommended this.
The French law also mandates programs in educating young people and in raising public awareness that prostitution is linked to the commodification of the body as “a form of violence against women.” Is this a measure you hope would be included in passage of legislation in other countries in future?
Education on these issues is crucial and has a reducing effect on demand. The French law is very interesting in this regard. We definitely think other countries should take a close look and follow the French example. Young people are vulnerable, and there are many examples of young girls being groomed and lured into prostitution and abuse through the Internet. Education is a way to teach young people of the risks of prostitution and the abuse and violence that are associated with it. Every young person has the right to know that they are valuable and priceless and that women and their bodies are not commodities that could be bought and sold.
You have been visiting Australia and speaking with MPs here. How have they responded? Do you think Australia has a long way to go before there is political will to see the Nordic model adopted here or are you more hopeful?
Some politicians have been very positive, but we have also met some opposition. The knowledge about the Nordic Model is generally low and there are myths and rumors circulating that are not correct and therefore it is very important to bring the actual facts. There is a crystal clear link between prostitution and trafficking for sexual purposes. Millions of people are suffering; most of them are women and children. It is a global issue and we need a global strategy to combat trafficking and the exploitation of victims.
The Nordic model has proved to be an important tool to prevent and counteract the establishment of human trafficking and organized crime. Attitudes can change fast and we believe we are witnessing a trend toward the Nordic approach in Europe and other countries and we think Australia needs keep up with the rest of the world.
ANZ lit blog interview with Caroline Norma and MTR
I was a bit taken aback by the publicity email about this book; and it seems I am not alone. The authors and publisher are not finding it easy to get media and public recognition of the significance of the book.
Legislative reforms intended to decriminalise ‘victimless crimes’ and movies like Pretty Woman have changed the narrative around ‘the oldest profession.’ But what if it’s not just another kind of work? What if it involves horrific damage to women? I interviewed the editors to find out more about their purposes in bringing these stories to publication:
Tell us a bit about yourselves:
Caroline Norma PhD is a lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, and a member of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA). She is also the author of The Japanese Comfort Women and Sexual Slavery during the China and Pacific Wars (Bloomsbury Academic, London and New York, 2016).
Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is the 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 with Abigail Bray).
How did you come to be interested in this issue?
Both of us have been involved in feminist anti-violence against women, campaigning for two decades or more. We see prostitution as a form of violence against women, and so our campaigning forms a part of broader efforts. MTR is a founder of Collective Shout, and this organisation campaigns in particular against sexploitation, so anti-prostitution campaigning fits well into that agenda. CN does research and activism on prostitution, and has done for 20 years since completing an internship with a women’s organisation in the Philippines at age 19.
How long did it take to write the book? Was that what you expected when you set out to do it?
The book was put together over a year, which was quicker than expected because survivors submitted their pieces quickly and to a high quality, which we also didn’t necessarily expect. In many cases, survivors come from very disadvantaged backgrounds, and the task of writing about their experiences in prostitution is extremely difficult and re-traumatising. But, to their credit, all of the contributors were extremely easy to work with, and that’s why the book came out very quickly.
How did you negotiate processes for research? (I’m thinking here of trust and confidentiality in interviews about intimate issues; perhaps about defensiveness).
Yes, we gave this a lot of thought before commencing the project. We offered contributors the option to have their pieces written from oral interviews or ghost-written, but no-one took up this option. Around half did, however, take the option of using pseudonyms. We had a number of survivors tell us how difficult it was for them to write their pieces, and one contributor said she had to dissociate in order to write it. We suspect this might have been the case for others too. We’ve put efforts into organising launch and conference events where survivors can come along (they don’t have to declare themselves contributors) and perhaps meet other survivors, or at least see that their book is having an impact, and being received sympathetically. We’ve found that political organising in favour of survivors goes a long way to assisting them in overcoming the hardship of PTSD and dissociation. Around one third of contributors were already active politically in the struggle against prostitution, so their involvement was perhaps less traumatic.
What hurdles did you face?
Actually, the compilation of the book was relatively problem free. Instead we are facing hurdles in terms of media and public recognition of the significance of the book, given its unprecedented collation of the experiences of women who have been prostituted and have criticisms of the sex industry, and especially because many of these women are Australian. The political situation in Australia mostly sees prostitution as ‘work’, and therefore a book about prostitution as a form of violence against women is difficult for the public to understand. For many years the public has been led to believe that women in the sex industry enjoy their situation.
Was it difficult to find a publisher?
No, in fact, the publisher (Spinifex Press) was fully involved in the initial idea of the book and its organisation from start to finish. Spinifex has a long history of facilitating projects like this one.
Who do you expect your audience to be?
We’re hoping the book will be passed onto politicians and policymakers so it has the effect of changing laws in Australia toward the Nordic Model (i.e., a model of legislation that criminalises the customers of the sex industry), but in the meantime we expect that survivors of prostitution will be a readership, plus feminists and others concerned with violence-against-women issues. We hope women’s sector organisations, like Domestic Violence services, might read the book and understand the role of prostitution in relation to other forms of violence against women.
What do you hope (realistically) your book will achieve? What do you say to people who say that it’s impossible to stamp out “the oldest profession” and that it’s better to legalise it than to move the industry underground?
The book has two outcomes in terms of real-world action. Firstly, it forms a basis for survivors to meet each other and join in political organisation against prostitution. Survivor groups are beginning to form in Australia, and the book plays a part in that. Secondly, the book can be used by activists, women’s organisations and political lobbyists to show politicians and policymakers that all is not fine in the Australian sex industry, and prostitution is not necessarily experienced as a form of work by women in the industry. We don’t expect the book to change Australian legislation straight away, but we do think it’s a step in the history of abolitionism in Australia that will eventually bring about policy change. To those who say criminalising the industry and its customers will push prostitution ‘underground’, we say that the hand of women in the sex industry is strengthened when these people 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.
What about your own personal journey? What impact did it have on you personally to listen to these stories?
Reading and hearing the stories is a privilege, we feel grateful the contributors trusted us with their words. Everyone was very open and honest about their experiences, it was a very unique experience to be able to read them. Of course the details of prostitution are horrific, but we feel it’s important to hear about these details to break away from the ‘happy hooker’ stereotype of prostitution.
This is a courageous book. It exposes the suffering, degradation and physical torture of women in a way that most of us don’t want to think about. It could be a game-changer.
Editors: Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist
Title: Prostitution Narratives, Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade
Genevieve, 33, was sexually abused by men when she was between the ages of 2 and 16 in New South Wales. Bred by her father specifically to be abused, she has suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), dissociation, flashbacks, and an eating disorder. Many times she wanted to end her life. Last year she almost succeeded.
Charlotte, 27, has also suffered for years as a result of childhood abuse for more than ten years, beginning when she was 2, at the hands of her father, uncle, family friend and strangers in Queensland. She has endured PTSD, dissociative disorder, eating disorders, anxiety and depression. More than once she has made attempts on her life.
Ally Marie, 44, was sexually abused throughout her childhood by men in her adoptive parent’s church. She has spent years in and out of mental hospitals in New Zealand and Western Australia; she abused drugs and alcohol to numb her pain and also struggled with suicidal thoughts.
What these three women have in common – in addition to histories of sexual abuse – is a deep grief and profound horror that another victim of abuse, a 20-year-old Belgian woman, was killed by lethal injection after medical professionals determined this was a suitable treatment to end her suffering. (Her death took place last year, but the Dutch Euthanasia Commission has only recently released its report.)
The young woman had been sexually abused between the ages of 5 and 15. She suffered PTSD, severe anorexia, chronic depression, hallucinations, suicidal mood swings, self-harming tendencies and obsessive compulsive behaviours. Her psychiatrist declared that there was no prospect of recovery. Doctors believed the woman to be “fully competent with no major depression or mood disorders affecting her thinking” that she wanted death – which makes no sense, given her many diagnoses.
“I’m horrified,” says the mother-of-one Genevieve from Queensland, who I met recently.
“It’s abominable. She was only 20! No 20-year-old with sound mind says ‘I choose euthanasia over living’. Yes, it’s a failure of the medical profession. It’s also a failure of humanity. The decision to kill her says to the rest of us: there is no hope, your life doesn’t matter! You are beyond repair, we have nothing to offer you. It tells us we are leeches who should be eradicated.”
A nursing graduate hoping to work in acute mental health care for young adults, Genevieve has first-hand experience of how difficult it is for survivors to get the specialist trauma care they need. She pays $200 a fortnight to access the specialist medical help she needs through the private health system, which she can’t get through public services. She says survivors are made to feel like burdens:
“Instead of finding alternatives and offering real hope, this decision says ‘let’s just eradicate this person, it will cost less’. Doctors don’t have to deal with what caused this person to become like this in the first place. If society says ‘This is OK’, it becomes acceptable. There is no longer a deterrent to ending your life. Our suffering makes us feel isolated and lonely. It’s taboo to talk about what happened to you. We are made to feel we are too hard. But we need to hear there is hope, keep going, things will get better. We need people who will come alongside and say ‘We can do life together’. We need a community, a network, so we don’t feel like an island.”
Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie feel strongly that the 20-year-old lacked these necessary supports. And like many others on the long journey of recover from abuse, they know that if euthanasia – the medicalised killing of another person – had been legally available, they themselves may not have been with us today to stand as survivors. If their community and the medical profession had offered death as a compassionate resolution to their suffering, they may well have stepped from suicidal ideation into death.
I know Charlotte as a contributor to Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade – so many child abuse survivors end up in the prostitution industry. She was distressed when reading about the end of life of another abuse victim. While the intensity of suffering echoed her own wounds, she says she has been encouraged to live, not die, helped through regular therapy, the support of loving friends, her teaching studies and her dog. As she writes about overcoming a desire to end it all:
“the knowledge that I came so close to dying fills me with sorrow. I am very lucky and grateful to still be here today. There are so many beautiful and wonderful things in life that I would have missed out on, and it is those moments which make recovery that little bit easier … No one should ever be made to feel as though suicide is an option.”
Ally Marie also recalls a childhood destroyed by sexual, physical and emotional abuse. She has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals much of her life. “Had someone given me a needle back then to end it all I would have gratefully accepted,” says Ally Marie, who now has nine children as well as running her own business helping women reach their goals.
“Thank God they didn’t. Thank God I am alive to share my story. Because now I am grateful as I look at my beautiful family I created, as I look around at the lives I can change with my story … What happened to this girl is murderous. Who are you to anticipate what her future holds? I was this young girl but I found my way and pulled through.”
The Belgian woman is not an isolated case. Among psychiatric patients receiving euthanasia in the Netherlands, most are women. A study published this year showed that PTSD and anxiety were prominent in such cases between 2011 and 2014. Four women were cognitively impaired, some had eating disorders, others prolonged grief. More than half were lonely and isolated. In one case, the report says, “The patient indicated that she had had a life without love and therefore had no right to exist.”
Sydney academic Katrina George has analysed criminological data from around the world to show that euthanasia of women is overwhelmingly at the hands of men. Patterns of assisted death in women reflect that of violence against women. The data simply doesn’t support the tidy theory of autonomy, choice and control put forward by euthanasia advocates.
Two of the most heartbreaking cases reveal how the cause of euthanasia becomes more important than the lives of women. A young Indian woman, Aruna Shanbaug, was brutally sexually assaulted 40 years ago and died last year. She became the inspiration for euthanasia laws, rather than for a campaign to fight violence against women, “a cause much more bitter than passive euthanasia.”
Nathan Verhelst was born as Nancy, a Belgian girl unwanted by her mother (“If only you had been a boy”) and sexually abused by her brothers from the age of twelve. Later in life, as a transsexual, Nathan underwent hormone therapy, a mastectomy, and failed surgery to construct a penis. He was euthanised at his own request in 2013. “I did not want to be a monster … I had happy times, but the balance is on the wrong side,” he said in an interview hours before his death. “I was the girl that nobody wanted.” His close friend Marisol later said, “If his family didn’t hurt him so much, he wouldn’t have wanted [euthanasia]. I don’t like the idea that you give your life because other people broke your life.”
If death is sought/offered to escape the pain of sexual abuse, incest, rejection, loneliness, what kind of choice is that?
Reforms to allow euthanasia in Tasmania, South Australia and Victoria are likely to be debated this year, and Senator Leyonhjelm and the Greens want to give the Territories the power to legalise euthanasia. While suicide itself has long been legal throughout Australia – attempted suicide attracts no penalty or consequence – they want medical killing legalised.
Troubled teenagers will not be eligible (though Philip Nitschke continues to promote his suicide bag for them) but patients with “intolerable” psychological conditions might be. Already, Australian teens and young adults are increasingly taking their own lives with the drug recommended by Nitschke’s euthanasia groups.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, the laws were originally very strict and limiting. But over time they have relaxed to include those people without a terminally ill condition: teens; children; babies; abused, lonely, isolated women.
It is no stretch to imagine that a young woman with PTSD, a survivor of sexual abuse, might qualify for euthanasia in Australia in the future especially in an environment of over-stretched and under-funded mental health systems.
Aside from system failures, we need to look more closely at our own attitudes. There is a subtle discrimination in favour of able-bodied people – ableism – so well described by Shakira Hussein. The able-bodied cannot imagine living with a permanent physical or psychological disability.
The response from the online blogs and forums of people recovering from abuse and PTSD challenge these attitudes. Most have condemning the killing of this young woman. Like Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie, they have shared how glad they are not to have been tempted with a death-inducing injection:
“I’m still alive and I can think and feel and love and do all the things I thought I’d never be able to.” (Jenn Selby)
“As someone who suffered severe depression throughout almost two decades (on and off), but who is now free from it through learned insights and changes to core beliefs, and has the tools to prevent myself ever getting to that place of no hope again, I find it very alarming that people are condoning assisted suicide for sufferers of mental illness. I believe it is an illness that is curable, therefore helping someone end their life before they may have found the tools, insight, help they need to help themselves out of the hole, is tragic. While it may have taken me 17 years to get to where I am today, and while I used to believe I would continue to suffer through, and have to manage my depression, for the rest of my life, I am now in a very different place. There were a number of times that I got so low, for so long, that I wanted to end things, but taking the next step to actually do that yourself is a big step. If society’s perception was that it’s normal to end the suffering, and they could assist me in doing so, easily and painlessly, then I probably would have taken that option and wouldn’t be here today. Which would mean I would have missed out on another 50 – 60 years (hopefully) of life, free from that level of debilitating depression. That would be a tragedy.” (Alison – posted privately on Facebook; quoted with permission)
“In my wildest dreams I never imagined that I could recover from a significant PTSD diagnosis. It took years and a chance meeting with a psychiatrist who was able to offer me the therapy I needed but had been unable to access before that time. In my 20s, any option was a good option to break free of the exhausting battle. I remember feeling deflated that I woke up in ICU, a failure even in trying to end my life. In my 40s, I thank God for not having been offered help to end my life and always encouragement that others depended on me to live and live well. Now, I have beautiful children, an incredibly patient and loving husband and LIFE. Once, I never thought I could say that. I have life and am more than my damaged mind. I am terribly sad that this young woman, whose living hell I am not trying to minimise, did not have the opportunity to know that there was more.” (Gabrielle – on the Women’s Bioethics Alliance Facebook page)
“At my worst, I remember feeling an almost ‘logical’ desire to commit suicide … Now I see that thinking as one of the tricks that PTSD plays on you, that you start to think suffering is the only path and death doesn’t seem so bad … For three decades this option would have been a gift to me, not a punishment. I’m immensely grateful that this was not an option because I’m starting to enjoy living.” (“RuthieJujube”)
“PTSD is not a ‘mental illness’ we are born with. You take a perfectly healthy person/child and expose them to unspeakable horror and they develop PTSD. We were each born healthy and we owe it to ourselves to find the way back to our core self – before we were hurt. Call me whatever but I still have hope for each and every one of us. We deserve it. Suicide lets them win … What heals PTSD sufferers is connection, safety, and community.
“The world needs PTSD survivors. Yes, I contend that it needs us. Think about a world where people could be traumatized and then get help to end their lives as a solution to the deep wounds and costs of that trauma. That’s not good for society as a whole … Many movements to end traumatic things on this planet were started, if not led, by people who had survived trauma and were forever changed by it … But by making it legal for doctors to help we would be sanctioning it as a society and saying ‘this is ok’ and we can’t afford the deep cost of sending that message. It’s not just about adults who have been traumatized, but kids too. They need to grow up in a world where we will fight to protect them, not send the unintentional message that their life is not worth living if they are shaken to the core by trauma. We need to send the message that their life matters, period.” (“Justmehere“)
The suffering of women and children is perpetrated in a culture which too often overlooks the violence against them. The State, rather than dealing with the offences, properly punishing abuses, providing every care for survivors, instead may offer them an individual way out of a problem it has helped tacitly to facilitate. It becomes a personal rather than a collective problem. How is it that so many men can continue to abuse so many little girls in a global avalanche of sexual abuse? How is this not everyone’s problem?
Is death the best we can offer? Genevieve, Charlotte and Ally Marie and the many others like them need to hear: Stay here with us. We will help you, not with a needle, but with everything you need to become well.
Antoinette Jones – Principal – Mitcham Girls High School
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Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Ruby Who? is the sweet and innocent story of a little girl’s adventure in re-discovering her identity. Ruby wishes for so many things and dreams of being like others. Will she end up forgetting how to just be herself?
Defiant Birth challenges widespread medical, and often social aversion to less than perfect pregnancies or genetically different babies. It also features women with disabilities who were discouraged from becoming pregnant at all.