PORN, Sexual Exploitation and why people are trying to silence the voice of survivors.
November 14, 2016 Danielle Strickland
I sat down with this global advocate and asked about her latest project, global prostitution, porn, the sex industry and why they hate her AND her latest book Prostitution Narratives… Melinda Tankard Reist is an author, speaker, media commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. She is best known for her work addressing sexualisation, objectification, harms of pornography, sexual exploitation, trafficking and violence against women.
Tasmanian Labor’s agenda for its conference in Queenstown this weekend has promised an opportunity for ‘robust and spirited debate’.
While the decriminalisation of brothels and the legalisation of some illicit drugs are being proposed by two separate branches of the party, the coupling of both proposals is difficult to avoid.
A more cynical person would thank members of the Labor party for at least acknowledging that ‘working’ in brothels requires chemical support in order to dissociate to survive the reality of the sex-trade.
I challenge Young Labor to cite research behind their claim that decriminalising brothels results in further autonomy and protections for ‘sex workers’, and could give them the power to ‘unionise’ and ‘collectively organise’.
If Young Labor had done their homework, they would know that brothels are the means of keeping violence against ‘sex workers’ behind closed doors. Those selling sex in brothels have less negotiating power, are forced to adhere to conditions imposed by the brothel-keeper and any bargaining power becomes increasingly hypothetical, with the sex-buyer dictating with his wallet, which sex acts a woman must perform.
Young Labor’s naive assumption that ‘sex workers’ will unionise independently of third party profiteers, male and female pimps now ‘managers’, drivers and landlords, under the obfuscating title of the ‘operational aspects of sex work’ is staggering.
While it is already legal to buy and sell sex under Tasmanian law, extending this decriminalisation to pimping and other forms of third party profiteering leave those selling sex at high risk of imposed control, including fines for lack of adherence to clothing policy, fines for tardiness, and, most obviously, having a large percentage of their income taken from them. As for other ‘protections’, in a decriminalised brothel in NZ recently, a woman who over-dosed on ‘illicit drugs’ was removed unconscious from the premises in order for the brothel not to come under scrutiny. In fact, in-house knowledge of violent assaults, theft of personal items and money from ‘sex workers’ in decriminalised brothels are rife, but hidden, both by the prostituted who fear losing their livelihoods and scoring a black mark against their name, and the brothel owners themselves.
States with decriminalised legislature are target destinations for sex-traffickers, whereas countries in which buying, pimping and procuring sex is illegal, and those selling sex are completely decriminalised themselves, such as in Sweden, are a turn-off for these same traffickers (*intercepted call via Swedish police). Increased sex-trafficking is evidenced with the international and domestic trafficking of women and girls in both decriminalised New Zealand and NSW.
Putting aside the innate horror of sex-trafficking, an influx of brothel ‘workers’ increases survival competition and women’s livelihoods are substantially reduced. Women are more vulnerable, not less, to endure added sexual violations they otherwise would not.
While it is appreciated that this proposal comes from the ‘rank and file’ of party members, is it also understood that any advice from so called ‘sex worker organisations’ such as Scarlet Alliance, comes not from the ‘rank and file’ of the majority in the sex-trade? These are a minority of those in the sex-trade, often in positions of ‘management’ and/or wholly independent of brothel ‘work’ themselves!
Why take advice from government funded groups in these positions who also minimise the need for exiting strategies for those who want to leave prostitution?
And what ‘union’ worth it’s salt argues for a model of legislation which empowers pimps over ‘workers’?
Perhaps it is understandable that Young Labor has produced an ill conceived policy based on old notions about the politics of prohibition. After all, if high profile human rights organisations such as Amnesty International can be infiltrated by pimps, drafting it’s policy on ‘sex work’ on the basis of brothel-owner Douglas Fox in the UK, brothel owners Escort Ireland, and convicted sex-traffickers such as Alejandra Gil, Mexico, why wouldn’t others?
I encourage a dialogue with Young Labor as it is likely their motivation comes from an ethos of ‘worker’s rights’, but it has been misled by those with a vested interest in opening up opportunities for profiteering from brothel owners and keeping the status quo of pimps over the prostituted. As we know decriminalisation leads to an expansion of the sex-trade from which the majority simply want to get out.
One hopes in the predicted ‘spirited debate’ fiction does not obscure fact, although it seems unlikely. Meanwhile, hundreds of women are trafficked into decriminalised NSW, and a ‘sex worker’ bound and raped in legalised Victoria is remunerated with a phone and money that was stolen from her wallet (rape as theft?)- cases which the Scarlet Alliance vehemently ignore . One wonders which ‘sex workers’ are considered, by them, to be worth fighting for.
Young Labor’s challenge should be to fight the global humanitarian crisis of the 21st century, not cater to the mutli-billion dollar sex-trade and further cement in to the GDP money taxed off the sexually exploited.
*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
• Andrew Minney in Comments HERE: … The correct approach to male violence is obvious. To identify it and to repudiate it. The commercialization of exploitation is absolutely the antithesis of Labor principles. Please lead the way forward for a better, safer, respectful future for women and girls by condemning the men who harm them.
Rape, humiliation and sick fantasies: Baby-faced ex-prostitute whose clients paid her to ‘act like a little girl’ reveals what REALLY goes on inside Australia’s sex industry
By Belinda Grant Geary For Daily Mail Australia
A former sex worker has lifted the lid on the secret world of prostitution and claims violence, child sex fantasies and rape are commonplace for the women who sell their bodies in the industry.
Alice started working as a prostitute in Queensland at the age of 22 when she lost her job and could not find employment while she studied a law degree.
But the 28-year-old said she learned to use her body at a much younger age after being sexually assaulted at the tender age of five.
Alice said the profession slowly stripped her of her humanity and has spoken out against the industry that allowed her to be verbally abused, beaten, degraded and raped in the hopes she can stop other women being lured into prostitution.
Alice said her descent into the world of sex work started when she would trade sexual favours for cash, mobile phone credit or alcohol as a teenager.
‘People, including myself, had been using my body to make money since I was five so [prostitution] wasn’t a new idea to me and wasn’t something that shocked me,’ she told Daily Mail Australia. Read more
I was honoured to be invited to deliver the biennial Bishop Manning lecture hosted by the Catholic Commission for Employment Relations at the Kirribilli Club recently. Bob Hawke and Noel Pearson preceeded me and I was the first woman to be asked. I spoke to our new book Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the sex trade to support my thesis that sex was not work. The Commission has published this summary:
Tankard Reist challenges Bishop Manning audience
This biennial Bishop Manning Lecture was delivered on Tuesday night by author, commentator and advocate for women and girls, Melinda Tankard Reist.
We host the Bishop Manning Lecture as a way of acknowledging and celebrating workplaces that champion justice, human dignity, productivity and fairness. It is also an opportunity to honour the work of a Church leader who has in his life, borne witness to the pursuit of fairness in workplaces wherever they might be.
Bishop Manning is known for his commitment to these and many other important social justice issues including Aboriginal people, migrants, refugees, women and families. He has been described as having a passion for the “battlers” and a genuine interest in people no matter who they are. And of course, behind all these achievements, he is a humble man of God and a good shepherd.
Our lecture series focuses on principles of the common good, community, human dignity, justice and their practical application in society. But we are not afraid to have uncomfortable conversations.
Melinda Tankard Reist is best known for her work addressing sexualisation, objectification, harms of pornography, sexual exploitation, trafficking and violence against women.
Ms Tankard Reist delivered a powerful lecture that sought to demolish the claim that prostitution is ‘just work’, a ‘job like any other’.
Step by step, the 2016 Bishop Manning lecturer went through confronting characteristics that define the industry in great detail. Ms Tankard Reist challenged our audience with stories of violence against women, health impacts and criminal trafficking.
We were asked to consider the heavily gendered nature of the sex industry. Without men, argued Ms Tankard Reist, without male demand and entitlement, there would be no prostitution industry.
Ms Tankard Reist argued that the global experiences of women show that even where the sex industry enjoys the legalisation and protection of the government, the violence, degradation, abuse, and trauma are common experiences.
Ms Tankard Reist also rang alarm bells about sexual trafficking here in Australia citing Australian Federal Police commander Glen McEwen who told the NSW state inquiry into the regulation of brothels that the AFP’s investigations into sexual servitude were just the tip of the iceberg, that the problem is ‘wide and vast’.
The nub of Ms Tankard Reist’s primary message is that mainstreaming prostitution gives permission to men to believe that buying women is legitimate. Any form of prostitution undermines all women’s safety and dignity by entrenching the commodification of women and by sending a message to men and boys that they have a right to be sexually serviced anytime. There is a deep connection here between the sexualisation of women and girls and the attitude of men.
How should we respond? Tankard Reist is an abolitionist and envisions ‘a world without prostitution’. To achieve that she believes an important part of the solution is the Nordic Model, a framework for addressing demand for prostitution.
As Ms Tankard Reist stated on Tuesday night:
“The Nordic Model completely decriminalises women whose bodies are bought. It provides exit services for women to escape prostitution and make a new life. And it criminalises those men who buy women, and the pimps who sell them.
In 1999 Sweden changed the law to decriminalise women and criminalise the buyers, to tackle demand as the basis of the prostitution system. The Nordic model offers high quality services for those in prostitution: housing, legal advice, addiction services, long-term emotional and psychological support, education and training, childcare, and addresses all factors that drive people into prostitution (for example, minimum wage levels).
Norway, Northern Ireland, Canada, South Korea, Iceland and mostly recently France, have introduced a version of the Nordic Model“.
Ms Tankard-Reist also champions the importance of exit services for women who feel trapped in the industry and education to teach children about boundaries, self-respect and self-worth.
“Identify the girls who are at risk and mentor them, inspire them, value them. Teach them about good relationships, and how to spot someone who is trying to exploit them. Show them how to get help. Catholic agencies are specially placed to be able to discern risk factors in teenage girls. And of course we need to do more to educate boys about healthy sexuality and respect for women.”
Our lecturer wanted to make it clear that women mostly enter the industry because of vulnerabilities and lack of choice. She concluded by speaking to Catholic Social Teaching
“… the exploitation of prostitution does injury to the dignity of the person (woman) who is prostituted by reducing that person to a thing to be used for the ends of another.
Abolitionists are also calling on governments to structure society and the economy on this basis, so that we can build a world without prostitution.
We want justice for women who have been trapped in prostitution, for women hurt by prostitution.
Justice for women who are living in poverty, giving them the dignity of a proper job that they can enjoy and develop their professional skills.
Laws and social policies affirming the dignity of every woman.”
Three sex industry survivors will share their stories at the Brisbane and Perth launches of Prostitution Narratives on October 6 and October 14. Alice and Ally-Marie will speak at the Brisbane launch this Thursday and Alice and Simone Watson at the Perth launch the following Friday at which contributor Caitlin Roper, who contributed a chapter on the Johns will also speak along with Dr Abigail Bray who will officially launch the book. Please register your interest on the FB events pages and share with friends.
Hear from two sex trade survivors and book contributors Simone Watson and Alice (‘Charlotte’) along with local Collective Shout activist Caitlin Roper who will speak about her chapter on the Johns and punters who buy women for sex.
The latest affront in an ongoing campaign of intimidation and harassment of Prostitution Narratives contributors and survivors
Prostitution Narratives: Stories of survival in the sex trade was released by Spinifex Press in April. Since then, all connected with the book have been subjected to abuse, insults, vilification and threats. Our survivors have been endured torrents of verbal aggression, forced to run a gauntlet of sex industry representatives at book launches and book related events around the country. While testifying to the violence they lived with in the industry, they now confront intimidation outside it. We have had to line up security at a number of events. I was provided a security escort out of the ACMI venue at the Melbourne Writers Festival two weeks ago due to a protest organised by the Australian Sex Party (consider this – protesting two books, between them documenting the lives of 85 women, 65 of them murdered). The worst demonstration of the industry’s determination to protect its vested interests was on show in Townsville last month, when the local prostitution lobby forced the domestic violence service to cancel the conference room booking for our launch, then turned up at the new venue to harass and disrupt our event. I’ve seen a lot in more than two decades of activism, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Well known former head of Scarlet Alliance, Elena Jeffreys, approached our youngest and most recently exited survivor Alice (‘Charlotte’ in the book) and tried to re-recruit her into the industry. Brisbane writer Jas Rawlinson has written this account.
Sex industry survivor told to ‘give sex work another go’
By Jas Rawlinson
For 28-year-old trafficking survivor Alice, the last thing she expected when publicly sharing her story was to be encouraged by a prominent sex-industry figure into returning to a life that had almost killed her.
Attending the recent Townsville book launch of Prostitution Narratives, a collection of autobiographical stories from survivors of sex-industry abuse (edited by Dr Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist), Alice says that she and another fellow survivor were bullied and disrespected by members of sex industry group RESPECT.
“Some of the women deliberately chose to sit with their backs to me while I was speaking, and as another survivor spoke, they continually called out over the top of her,” said Alice (known as ‘Charlotte’ in Prostitution Narratives).
At the end of her speech, Alice says she was singled out by Scarlet Alliance representative Elena Jeffreys, and encouraged to return to prostitution.
“She said to me: ‘’I'll admit the Queensland girls have it really rough up here, but I’d really encourage you to give sex work another go down in New South Wales where the [working] conditions are a lot better.’
“I couldn’t believe that not even 10 minutes after speaking about the trauma I went through – and have been left with as a result of working in the industry – here was this person suggesting I go back!”, Alice said.
“I thought it was completely disrespectful towards me – she doesn’t know anything about where I am now in life. I have no need to go back and never would.”
In a series of tweets, Alice shared her disgust at being encouraged to return to prostitution
Women’s rights activist and Prostitution Narratives co-editor Ms Tankard Reist, was also shocked.
“That was definitely the worst element of the day, it surprised even me,” she said. “To see Alice told to just ‘give it another go’ after she had just described the multiple levels of trauma she had been through was deeply disturbing.”
Alice, who was sold to pedophile rings by her own father at just five years old, and had suffered serious trauma from her time in the Australian sex industry as a young woman, says the ‘immature behaviour’ of the sex industry group was extremely disappointing.
“I am just disappointed that they aren’t interested in listening to what anyone with an opposing view has to say, and concurrently, that they want to silence our voices so no-one else can hear us either.”
Initially the event had been scheduled to take place at a northern Queensland Domestic Violence centre, however, the location was changed after members of RESPECT approached the service expressing disappointment with the centre for allowing the book launch to be held in their venue – even though it is used by a diverse number of other groups.
Several attendees, including Ms Tankard Reist, and Collective Shout Coordinator Angela Burrows, revealed that the venue was warned against providing their space to the ex-industry survivors.
“Members of RESPECT told the Domestic Violence service that their group ‘could not be held responsible for the actions of some of their more radical members, should they allow us to use the space,” said Ms Burrows.
Ms Tankard Reist said it was ‘ironic’ that the lobby group would react in this way toward a service that aims to support women fleeing abuse.
Forced to change venues at the last minute, the survivors and event coordinators attempted to go ahead with the book launch at a new location.
“Because we had to move the venue, we ended up jammed into a corner of a bar, with a live band right next door, where people could barely hear us. It was terrible for the survivors to have to tell their stories in this kind of environment,” says Ms Tankard Reist.
However, despite the less than ideal location, the women’s rights activist said it was the ongoing intimidation and bullying from sex worker activists that was most disturbing.
“At one point Elena Jeffreys got up on a stool and stood over us, just raining down abuse; booing, hissing, calling out…”
Despite claiming to support current and former sex workers voices, various Australian sex-worker groups have in recent months, made several attempts to de-platform trafficking and sex-trade survivor events.
In April, pro-sex industry activists targeted survivors at ‘The world’s oldest oppression’ conference held at RMIT University, where panel speakers included Irish prostitution survivor and author Rachel Moran.
Ms Tankard Reist says it is horrible the way survivors of trafficking and sexual abuse are treated, given that such groups claim to support former sex worker voices.
“This is really just part of a broader campaign against prostitution survivors,” she said.
For survivors such as Alice, sharing her story of abuse and survival was not an easy decision to make, but one that she felt important.
“Speaking at the Townsville book launch was honestly one of the hardest things I have ever done. I was shaking the whole time but I am very proud that I didn’t let anyone stop me from speaking about my truth and my experiences,” she said.
“This was not the first time people have tried to silence me and it will not be the last either. But I am stronger than that, and I am not going to be quiet and go away.
“I will continue to speak out and pull back the glamorous and glitzy facade the sex industry likes to maintain, because it is an important message.
“There are people out there who want to hear what survivors like me have to say.”
Note: Several attempts were made to contact Ms Jules Kim (Scarlet Alliance CEO) and Ms Elena Jeffreys for comment, however no response was given.
“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
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