How did you become involved in supporting the abolition of prostitution?
I must admit my opposition to pornstitution was largely academic at first, not felt in my gut to be wrong until I read anti-pornography/anti-prostitution feminist books, especially radical feminist books, like Gloria Steinem’s Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Joan Smith’s Misogynies – I read all these at twelve years old. Another book I read at the same age, Patrick Roscoe’s Birthmarks, is a collection of semi-autobiographical stories about prostitution, child sexual abuse, homelessness, trauma re-enactment, and so on – that is what really hit me in the gut/tear ducts. Before that, I was pro-porn, from about eight to twelve, consuming romance novels (from garage sales and the library) and porn – first sneaking looks at my dad’s friends’ porn, then seeking out mostly televised pornography on pay per view channels (we had a descrambler). I started to want to enter the industry – as a ‘stripper,’ ‘escort,’ ‘porn star,’ and so on. I found it extraordinarily appealing; it molded my sexuality, what I thought sex was, what got women off, etc. For example, in spite of masturbating clitorally/vulvally via usually humping bunched up fabric, I thought I should be masturbating via insertion and tried to, mostly unsuccessfully. That sex meant a man thrusting his penis into a woman, not, oh, through doing things I did during masturbation with a partner.
I remember, as a teen, being told by a pro-porn woman, as if it also explained why I became anti-porn, that seeing pornography as a child was child abuse, as if an adult had to have shown it to me, and not that I would have found it appealing on my own. I think she did this to tell herself it was rare, and not the norm, and to pathologise the experience of children viewing pornography: that we are being victimized by specific men in our lives, and not pornographers generally. But this does not speak to the reality of children’s exposure to pornography. Most boys find it on their own, or in groups of other boys. And girls, usually through male peers. Even before the internet, this was how children usually first found pornography.
How do you think the internet has changed this?
I think the internet has changed both how early, how often, and how children see pornography. I think being first exposed to pornography through men by one on one ‘grooming’ children into sexual abuse is much rarer. Now the internet and ‘mild’ pornographic culture at large is how children are groomed. And pornography was always frequently how boys are trained to sexually abuse girls, but boys are seeing it even younger, and boys who sexually abuse are becoming younger, and now it is a signal of not being abused themselves as much as it is about being exposed to pornography. Indeed, about a quarter of the reported sexual abuse of kids is done by boys, not adults. When it comes to unreported sexual abuse, there is some evidence that number is even higher. The average age the college-aged men of today have seen pornography is ten, and plenty of kids see it from a younger age.
Do you think pornographers know this?
Yes. All this talk about pornography being ‘for adults only’ is utterly ridiculous crap, and pornographers know it. Defenders of pornography seem to enjoy sticking their fingers in their ears on this, but pornographers use it to market, for example, the prevalence of pseudo child porn and the genre of ‘virginity porn.’ They also use the appeal of ‘for adults only’. It becomes something seen as forbidden for kids to see, making them want to see it all the more, and think themselves ‘grown up,’ ‘mature,’ ‘worldly,’ being privy to an adult, sexy world that prudish control freak moms and uptight dads want to keep from them. Never mind those ‘uptight dads’ are consuming porn themselves, often of pornography portraying young women as being their daughters’ ages – if not are their daughters’ ages – and sometimes are their daughters.
Can you explain how pornography plays into other forms of prostitution? Why do you think these forms of prostitution are seen as different when there are many similarities?
Different forms of sexual exploitation are spoken of as if they are inherently different. As if prostitution, pornography, strip clubs and other legal prostitution, reproductive prostitution (‘surrogacy’), mail order brides are all different, and have little if anything in common. I believe it was Sam Berg who introduced the term pornstitution to make clear that pornography is technologized prostitution and propaganda for the prostitution industry generally.
Conversely, they are all defended under the same banner – freedom of choice. But underlying all of these institutions is not women’s free will, or women’s unfettered sexuality, or even women bravely enterprising on their bodies or services in a free market, that their defenders would have you believe. It’s male entitlement. While I do think pornography is largely supply driven – being the main propaganda wing for creating demand, prostitution as a whole is created and sustained by males – teenagers to seniors, rich and poor, right and left, of all races and virtually all nationalities – and their desires and choices to have access on demand to, to put it bluntly, women’s bodies, especially our innards, to masturbate on/in. Looking at other patriarchal institutions also exposes this, like marriage, religion, law, science and medicine (especially medicalized birth). They all reinforce women’s role – as decided by them – as fuckholes, breeders, or usually both. Although right wing and/or white men are more implicated in creating and maintaining this, all men benefit, and men of all backgrounds and statuses use women and children in prostitution. And left wing men, especially Western ones, have also begun in the last couple of decades in earnest to defend prostitution. Empathy, support and advocacy for people in prostitution, namely in abolition and exiting, is ‘old fashioned’ and ‘removes agency’.
In what ways do you believe the Western left has changed how they analyse and justify prostitution?
Women’s arousal, orgasms, and enjoyment is one. So utterly beyond why prostitution exists – pimps and johns don’t give two shits either way – that discussing prostitution in these terms is intellectual pornography designed to distract and make privileged women feel good with what men subject our sisters to anyway, and maybe engage in it themselves out of ‘free choice.’ Usually though, these same women, while maybe dabbling in stripping or light BDSM, would never engage in brothel or other less glamorous forms of prostitution, yet they defend the whole industry and encourage other women to plunge in. A great way of exposing this rebranding of the prostitution industry was created, to my knowledge, by a man. Seiya Morita, a Japanese pro-feminist, calls the prostitution industry the ejaculation industry. It exists, at base, to facilitate men’s erections and ejaculations.
The use of choice, freedom, empowerment and other rhetoric transformed from feminist concepts of justice, liberation, and autonomy to defend that which any consistently structuralist feminism stands in opposition to (anarcha-feminists, socialist feminists, etc that have bought the pomo/liberal line when it comes to sexuality, take note) is another. Superexploitation suddenly no longer exists when it comes to the prostitution industry, let alone surrogacy. Rape, used freely as metaphor by white boys who don’t live in fear of it, becomes verboten in discussions of these industries except as an aberration due to criminalization and evil, prudish feminists. And women prostituted in brothels owned by the Catholic church either didn’t exist, or had it great, right? Discussing how women used as surrogates and mail order brides is prostitution too is classist, racist, too crass. And certainly, considering them trafficked is the ultimate no no.
The use of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ to mean choice and freedom within the dictates of capitalist patriarchy utterly fails poor women, indigenous women and women of colour in particular. It keeps women locked in our sex class status (as breeders and fuckholes), and reinforces that there needs be a class of women who are utterly, inescapably seen as existing only to take the penetrations and other aggressions of men: that that is what some women are for and what men are entitled to. Right wing women are told that ‘those women’ are somehow alien to them, nothing like the ‘good women,’ that they are why men are behaving badly, while protecting those good women from those basically good men’s sexual needs. Or, that that is what we’d be if men didn’t keep another kind of restriction on us, such as marriage, the policing eye of a father. Or, indeed, is what us prudes, dykes, mothers need to become, when they decide to play up the prostituted woman as the ultimate in female liberation.
The Western, male left likes to pretend they are oh, so different from the right. And vice versa. Both are our saviours, they proclaim. Both are concerned for women, and want us free (the left, particularly Western) and safe (the right). Freedom or safety is the proffered promise that never comes, even usually for individual women. Both sides john around as much as the other. Both sides pimp. Both sides either forbid or mandate abortion, depending on what suits their desires as the ruling class better. Both sides offer deals – many men, or one. Both sides mandate piv [penis in vagina], while pretending they don’t. It’s just a question of when. Both sides lie through their teeth.
What about the Nordic countries, and what left parties have done to change prostitution laws?
I’d say you got me there, but those changes were spearheaded by women. And contrary to what the left over in North America and Europe would have us believe, was indeed done by left parties. Often, centrist and right parties actively opposed it. This tells us, the left is a hell of a lot better in Sweden, Iceland, and Norway than it is on my side of the pond. Did the women stop letting their men define what is leftist? I know the young people there are more likely to support the law than older men. Amongst women and young men, the criminalization of pimps and johns and decriminalisation of prostituted women has huge majority support. Out of all the state approaches we have, it is definitely the only one approaching justice.
How do you respond to those who criticize the Nordic model, for example those who say it’s unnecessarily punitive?
Detractors of the Nordic model expect nothing short of perfection from it, which is ludicrous, and not something demanded from other laws. Laws outlawing marital rape, or sexual harassment, or assault, or hate speech, or pollution aren’t perfect. Does that mean we should throw them out? I’m an anarchist, and it pisses me off to see such an uneven critique of law. Apparently, where money and men’s boners collide is where women shouldn’t have a reasonable assurance of protection and men should not be criminalized for their violative, entitled behaviour. This is also the same response I have to those against the state apparatus generally. I’m against it too, but guess what? I don’t think women should have no right to take their husband-rapists to court. I don’t think hate speech should be offered the protection of law or other power over the oppressed groups it targets.
Would you say there is a convergence between the current left, male entitlement, and the approach to prostitution law?
Of course. They see the law through the eyes of johns, if not are johns themselves. Johns should have the freedom to rent women’s bodies and turn their bodies, sexuality, emotion into labour, a performance for them? Women in prostitution should have the freedom to be commodified, to perform, to comply to sex as defined and demanded by the customer? Suddenly, ‘enthusiastic consent’ is a need for money? And this is freedom, and just! What the ever-loving-hell?! Just imagine this response by anarchists and other far leftists to other laws. Parents and male partners should have the freedom to beat their kids and partners, and kids, women, and gay men (and let’s face it, due to big things called structural oppression and internalised oppression this will be the way it plays out) who want to get beat should be able to safely contract for being beaten by adults and/or males. Well, this is already the argument by BDSMers, usually minus kids, but you get my drift. Pollution shouldn’t be criminalized because polluters want to do it, and some people consent to being exposed. Corporations should be considered people because they want to be to express their freedom and rights – and some employees even agree! If employees want to work for pennies an hour, or have no safety precautions, who are we to deny them their freedom! If poor people want to sell their kidneys, who are we to deny them their agency! How dare we criminalize the buying of kidneys and turn good people into criminals. I could go on.
If we accept that consent is not compliance, but free agreement based in desire, then consent cannot be bought. And prostitution is not a relation based on mutual consent. And sex without consent is… You guessed it. Rape. Ergo, it is inherently wrong.
Getting back to your earlier question, another common view of the law is that it is so punitive – that it locks men up willy-nilly. But not one man, in Sweden, as of last year, had been sentenced to prison over this law. And despite claims, nor are young adult children being charged with being pimps for living with their prostituting moms. So, really, that’s another reason I wish the detractors would shut it. Because it is simply false.
And it is about male entitlement, because despite biased readings of research, a detailed look at the breakdowns of statistics in a Norwegian study of women in prostitution prior to and again after changing to the Swedish model reveals far less rape, far less physical violence (except for hair pulling and biting), and no instances of police committing violence in the 2012 data. (http://feministcurrent.com/7038/new-research-shows-violence-decreases-under-nordic-model-why-the-radio-silence).
Pornstitution is often defended as something distinct from, and even unrelated to, trafficking, or as something that is only a small part of trafficking. How do you address this?
This ties in with what I was discussing earlier – the links between these seemingly disparate industries. It is a common cognitive dissonance to act as though trafficking, pornography, prostitution, and surrogacy have little to nothing in common. Often this relies on a rare boogeyman of what trafficking is – only the worst case scenario of organized crime kidnapping young people and holding them with threat of torture and death. Some demand only that which is proven in court as trafficking be considered such. Or create a false division between child and adult trafficking, only considering the first to be ‘really bad.’ Or say child trafficking, or child prostitution, isn’t specific enough, because those teenage girls totally know what they are doing. ‘Sex positive’ women would do well to read those ones especially. The amount of men who will admit to finding the pimping and other rape of teen girls to not be so bad or not bad at all when anonymous, is astonishing. A lot of those men rape teen girls themselves, both in and outside of prostitution. Or create a false equivalence to trafficking for rape and trafficking that doesn’t involve rape. I will readily admit that labour trafficking of women does usually involve rape and other sexual violence, and this is something not addressed enough, including by us (radical feminists, abolitionists, and others).
But why labour trafficking involving rape is worse than labour trafficking without is also why prostitution trafficking is on a different level from other trafficking, and part of why so much attention goes to it by us. When one’s very insides are invaded, that has a particular meaning. For women especially: extra vulnerability to internal injury, STIs, pregnancy. It is often said that rape for men is what rape is for women, plus emasculation or some other unwittingly male supremacist difference. But really, rape for women and girls is what men face when they are raped, plus men’s sense of themselves is violated by rape, it is admitted – masculinity is at odds with being the victim and not the perpetrator. What is not said is that our femininity is confirmed by rape. Our lesser status is made and confirmed through rape, as I also explained before.
Probably the most important thing to debunk about trafficking is what it actually means and what it usually is. The above boogeyman of trafficking enables people to say trafficking is rare. It is anything but.
Do you use the definition of trafficking set out by the United Nations?
Yes, I think it is a useful, comprehensive definition. And I’m glad they took CATW’s (Coalition Against Trafficking in Women) lead on it.
‘…the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation… of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.’ (http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/what-is-human-trafficking.html)
This very obviously applies to prostitution. What I emphasized are the parts the prostitution lobby willfully ignores. Especially ‘the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability.’ Testimony by exited women shows that pornographers, for example, routinely lie to women about what a scene involves. Strip club managers lie as a matter of course about how much the women earn. And if a woman is poor, and reluctant to enter the industry or to do a specific act within it, is that not a vulnerability being exploited? In a money society, money itself is power. Maleness is power. Whiteness is power. Adulthood is power. Citizenship and being from the first world are power. And their opposites are not, and are vulnerable. If an authority figure (and pimps and authority figures are often interchangeable – cops, judges, business owners, husband – and pimps are often authority figures in themselves) uses their power to induce another to prostitute, that is an abuse of power. Additionally, child prostitution is inherently considered trafficking. And trafficking does not require (also as the prostitution lobby claims) transfer across state borders. Nor does it need the involvement of recognized organized crime. I’d venture that most trafficking is within a given border. For example, in the Americas, indigenous women are trafficked from one part of a nation state to another, or they don’t change geographic location at all. A woman can come to the trafficker, for example based on an ad, or only one can benefit from it, and it can still be trafficking. Receipt of persons and recruitment do not require travel.
You mentioned mail order brides and surrogacy earlier. Can you explain how these are forms of trafficking?
When I’ve been discussing prostitution here, especially in relation to trafficking, most of what I’ve said applies to mail order brides and surrogacy, and was said with these industries in mind.
Surrogacy not only explicitly sexually exploits women, for example, uses our sexual organs, but it is reproductive prostitution: the goal is to create a life within a woman to take it from her. When she enters a contract, she has no rights over the fetus. It is owned by the purchasers. This exploitation and slavery is not just of her and her uterus, it is of the resulting child that is birthed by her and removed. She is breeding property for eight to ten months, and her child is, from conception, owned by the purchasers. It too is inherently trafficking. And this is important, so important, to discuss as reproductive prostitution and trafficking. Even a lot of anti-prostitution advocates don’t even think of surrogacy. But it is an even more overt symbol and reality of male control over women’s sexuality and bodies. It controls our very reproduction, and declares not just access, but the very life created from our wombs as a male right and male property, through new avenues of ownership.
In mail order brides, the man is not just renting services (as arguments in favour of prostitution go) but buying permanent sexual access to her. It is not even ownership for an hour or two, but for as long as he wants – years, decades. Ownership is not hyperbole; historically, marriage itself has been a man and his moveable (meaning, human) and unmovable property, and currently, laws are in place that punish mail order brides who leave before a certain number of years with deportation – including Canada. And the men who get mail order brides have even more misogynist, privilege denying attitudes than the average john. They don’t just rent the right to have an orgasm or two in or on another. They own their wives. The transaction, being one man instead of many men in many series of transactions, never ends.
What else can you add about mail order brides and surrogacy being trafficking?
I really cannot stress enough how much I think mail order brides and surrogacy are trafficking and slavery. The agencies behind these are nothing more than glorified pimps, and the so-called ‘good people’ renting wombs and buying babies are johns. And despite claims to the contrary of women just filled with love and a sense of social service to family that they donate eggs and/or wombs in surrogacy, almost all surrogacy is paid for. Much of what men get in prostitution can also be garnered outside of direct financial transaction (but still often using male privilege, the cultural definition of sex, etc), but surrogacy is rarely done altruistically. And even then, is based on appealing to women’s gender training as kind, compassionate, giving, etc and involves sacrifice and change that men couldn’t possibly approach (to paraphrase Andrea Dworkin on the involvement of an ovum alone, it is like comparing shedding a tear to donating an eye). This utter uniqueness of what is turned into commodity or gift is a difference it has with most other prostitution. The idea that one can buy a child from before the time it is even conceived is also another difference. Indeed, even in altruistic surrogacy, if the mother changes her mind, the courts usually side with the buyers. And it is utterly appalling to me how that and surrogacy itself is legitimized. It’s not even seen as prostitution, let alone slavery. Even when white Westerners are paying poor Indian women cents an hour to gestate, birth, and sell their offspring.
Mail order brides is a huge industry – when I researched this four years ago, there were well over 500 companies, and 10,000 internet sites selling women as wives from about 130 countries. Those who offer these women are pimps, and the men buying are johns. They are the MRAs amongst MRAs – the worst of the worst. They want women who know their place, not just women who pretend for fifteen minutes or an hour or evening that they ‘know their place’, but women who can never forget it. And they will make sure of it, by getting ‘naturally’ submissive non-Western women, particularly Asian and former-USSR women, although African and Latin American women are ordered too. Nothing like adding neocolonialism, eh. And the women are getting younger, from mid-twenties to mid-thirties to early twenties as the average age range. The agencies also don’t always hide that they are brokering in long term prostitution, promising penetrative access. They know their audience – Western men pissed off at dreaded mean feminists like us who don’t even perform femininity. The men buying are terrified of being emasculated; that women wanting sensitivity and consideration of our needs and desires from them means they are no longer men, something johns generally also have to a lesser degree. To make this even worse, the women pay the pimps to be considered and wed, including travel fees, according to the UN itself in a report on trafficking. Mail order brides are also sometimes pimped out by their husbands. The men want submissive, gentle, honey-tongued, open-thighed, cleaning women who will never displease them, never show any will. Ever.
What legal or societal changes would help to abolish prostitution?
Aside from the Nordic model, and its exit programs, a guaranteed minimum income, especially for women and children, is an absolute must as long as we have a money system. It is obscene that we have to work to survive. And capitalism depends utterly on both women’s unpaid labour and surplus labour – more people than there is or could be jobs. This is beyond a complaint about menial labour like fast food – including those jobs societies are at a permanent 5-15% unemployment rate. And this is beyond a call for below poverty rate welfare. Everyone needs to be guaranteed a liveable income. And yes, I am saying that prostituted people are one of the particular groups who are entitled to live decently simply for getting up day after day, and they shouldn’t have to prove they are too disabled, traumatized, etc too work.
Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon’s anti-pornography civil rights ordinance, I think, is one of the most important legal reforms we can make. It allows a woman harmed in or through pornography to sue. Hitting them in their profits is where it hurts, more than prison can. They can’t hide behind a lie of being ‘victimized’ when they are sued. (You can find great instances of this ordinance and explanations of it on nostatusquo.com.) Defenders of pornstitution often say how empowered women in prostitution are, but real power would be the ability to get pornography and other documents of their prostitution off the internet and marketplace. I also invite activists to be creative in targeting the profitability of the prostitution industry.
The watering down of feminism to mean postmodernism, liberalism, or libertarianism would have to be stopped to be able to make a dent in men’s demand and women’s defense of it. The abandoning of a structuralist analysis of male supremacy, female oppression, capitalism, racism, etc when it comes to sexuality generally, and prostitution and compulsory piv and heterosexuality in particular will have to be grabbed up again. And those who don’t want to need to get the hell out of the way.
Another vitally important, ongoing action is the naming and shaming of johns. These men love their anonymity and the fact that their family and the public do not know what they do. I’d even include adult pornography consumers in this (as it is a removed form of johning). Both johns that are detected by police and ones that aren’t need to be publically called out. And I invite women (and profeminist men) to be creative in how they find out who they are and how they let people know what their father/husband/neighbour does. Online john/punter boards are where many are, and they feel free when anonymous to admit to horrific things, and freely express the most misogynist beliefs you’d come across this side of a serial killer. Fake escort ads to record replies is another means. Even the johns who may seem okay in front of the women in prostitution who see them regularly, will let loose in the anonymous, male-bonding space of the internet. So publish what they say, where they live, what they have done, their photos, etc. Poster it in their neighbourhoods, put it online. Newspapers could also publish the arrests of johns. They could be added to sex offender registries. Naming and shaming has been shown in research on johns to be the biggest deterrents, along with prison http://www.prostitutionresearch.com/pdfs/Farleyetal2011ComparingSexBuyers.pdf).
We will also need to not just make nicer, but eliminate gender. Getting rid of masculinity and femininity is a prerequisite for ending prostitution, as it is built from what men have constructed as men and women’s true nature to hide the fact that they decided to pimp out women to each other to help consolidate patriarchy. The ideology of gender is the foundation of justifications of prostitution: that some women like it, that men need it, that men must, that women have power over men through it, that scratch a victimized woman and you’ll find a whore. Whores do not exist outside of a patriarchal framing of women’s femaleness and sexuality. Appealing to men’s masculinity in order to say ‘don’t be a john’ is doomed to recreate some of the conditions that enable prostitution: that being a man means something different from being a woman beyond roles in reproduction, and that being a good man is not simply being a good human, but being masculine, a real man. (In order for a quality to be masculine, it cannot be feminine. Otherwise, it is just a quality.) This is not to say that reproductive differences would disappear, or that shared sex-based experiences wouldn’t matter for solidarity, spaces, etc. and wouldn’t inform experience, but that ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ exist in a feedback loop, they create each other. What is bad about masculinity and femininity will be abandoned, and what is worth saving about either will be transformed, open to and encouraged in all, and simply be called aspects of personhood.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m organizing a radical feminist conference for the summer of this year. I hope to get blogging (demonista.wordpress.com) again. To continue learning and building my community with women on online feminist discussion groups. To start volunteering again at a shelter for abused women and their children. I will also continue to organize around austerity, poverty, male violence, etc. And, as is often the case, I will be on Facebook. I hope especially to do more work around male violence against women and the oppression of animals.
Recommended websites/further reading:
I’ve limited myself to collective blogs:
- Breast Cancer Behind Bars by Sue Allen
- #NoClause6 | Sex workers protest in Northern Ireland
- Take Off The Cape: Why Using The Word “Rescue” Is Harmful To Anti-Trafficking Efforts
- In the Booth with Ruth – Tiki Black, Singer/Songwriter
- Director Adam Lawrence, Producer Ramfis Myrthil & Actor Don DiPaolo Discuss Their Short Film ‘Love and the Small Print’
- In the Booth with Ruth – Tracey Helton, Writer
- Burgundy Leggings by Tracey Helton
- CFP: Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting 2015 – (De)Sexualisation & (De)Pornification of Space: Spatialisation, Politicisation and Regulation of Sex, Sexuality, Sex Work & Pornography
- Breast Cancer Behind Bars by Sue Allen
- Chong Kim, a Survivor of Sex Trafficking, Talks About Eden, The Newly Released Film Based On Her Life
- ‘Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden’ - Dr Jay Levy Discusses His New Book
- In the Booth with Ruth - Lise Bouvet, PhD Researcher in Gender Studies
- Ruth Jacobs
- ‘No Human Involved’: Filmmaker PJ Starr Discusses Her Documentary Telling Marcia Powell’s Story
- Interview With True Crime Writer, William Lobban, On His Bestselling Autobiography 'The Glasgow Curse' Plus eBook Giveaway