Published in The Portland Alliance, July 2006
"I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is, I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute."
Rebecca West, 1913
The above quote by Rebecca West has recently been debated among quote collectors and feminists. It seems many people have been passing along a version that cuts off the last three words, “or a prostitute,” mostly without knowing the full quotation ever contained them. Such Orwellian rewritings of a historic quotation concern me, and as an activist working with prostituted women I can tell you there’s nothing they consider more disrespectful than when academic eggheads elide the ugly, violent truths about their lives.
When men, media, madams, and other moneymakers muse with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink about "the workers of the sex" it's not remarkable or difficult to understand from a beneficiary point of view. The issue I’d like to raise here is how almost all mainstream feminist writers and commentators have remained silent regarding the lives of the world's estimated 35 million prostituted women, most of them brownskinned girls from the global South sold and coerced into literal sexual slavery.
Globalization, racism and sexism have combined to make 2005 the first year that the market for female bodies enslaved more people than African slavery did 150 years ago. Instead of railing against the increasing exploitation of females internationally, mainstream American feminists have mostly chosen to ignore the severe and tragic harms of prostitution. Why the wall of silence regarding men’s legitimized sense of entitlement to demand sex anytime, any way they want it, from mostly minority and poverty-stricken women?
For all of the times that privileged white feminists have been accused of abandoning non-white women, the refusal to honestly listen to the 92 percent of the world's prostitutes who say they want out of prostitution, but can't leave, is the greatest abandonment yet.
Every week millions across the U.S. read a hundred alternative weeklies and the majority have entire sections dedicated to the prostitution industry in them. Yet I have never seen one well-known feminist writer discuss, question, or look into this phenomenon as a feminist journalist might be expected to do. In 26 years of writing The Nation column "Subject to Debate" Katha Pollitt has never once written about prostitution. Feminist magazine Bitch has been around for ten years and not once has an article on the prostitution industry section in weeklies been a featured topic. I've seen feminists old and young weigh in on the Showtime lesbian series The L Word and the HBO polygamy series Big Love but I haven’t yet seen one feminist commentary on HBO’s Cathouse, a reality TV show set in a Nevada whorehouse.
Why are The L Word and Big Love widely critiqued but feminist media critics remain silent on Cathouse as the series goes into its next season?
In an unrecorded meeting on economics at Harvard University attended by a handful of academics, Harvard president Larry Summers said one stupid sentence about biology possibly being a reason there aren't more female economists. The response by feminist bloggers and media pundits was overwhelming, but the weekly prostitution pages in every issue of The Village Voice and the pull-out escort magazine in each weekly issue of The Boston Phoenix has gone utterly unnoticed by feminists.
What's going on here? Censorship of feminism is what's going on, both of the overt kind that happens because men control all media and of the more covert kind that happens because men control all media. The most male-approved progressive feminists, and hence the most published ones, are the ones who read The Village Voice or local equivalent and studiously avoid turning just a few more pages to count the number of Asian women whose bodies are displayed for men’s masturbatory renting, or comparing the high number of male-to-female transgender bodies to the lack of ads for female-to-male transgender bodies.
From reading Katha Pollitt's informal writing on the Internet I know she does not believe prostitution is good for women, but her self-imposed silence continues to avoid making men's use of prostituted women a subject to debate. When anti-war male writers Robert Jensen and Stan Goff have been published in leftist media outlets which refuse to publish their anti-pornography writings, surely feminist writers intuit their diminished publishing chances for daring to speak their true minds about men reducing a whole caste of women to disposable sex toys. Now would be a good time to write that reminder about renewing your subscription to The Portland Alliance.
It's maddening to see smart women who understand the handmaids in Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale were horribly oppressed sex slaves turn around and willfully ignore Atwood's depiction of the whorehouse Jezebels showing prostitution is just another form of Gilead sex slavery. At the same time, I'm a young feminist writer so I'm empathetic to their dilemma. They can't look at prostitution and say it's good for women because that's obviously untrue, but they also can't say prostitution enslaves and kills women in ungodly numbers because it makes them unpopular with men in the lefty circles where they live and work. It's a tough choice to make; be candid with your opinion or clam up and be published by editors whose paychecks are often built on prostitution advertising. When even The Nation has accepted advertising from Bendricks, a prostitution tour operator that sends men to Thailand and Costa Rica to have sex with 15-year-old girls (the legal age of entry into Costa Rican prostitution), what's a feminist writer to do?
Widespread sexual violence against women is caused by the continued acceptance of men's sense of entitlement to sex from women. That's what the very word "sexism" means, being discriminated against and objectified because of sex, being made into objects for men to sexually (ab)use without regard to women's humanity. Men who rape believe that men have a right to use women's bodies any time, any way, however they want. Sexual harassment at work and on the street stems from a culture that accepts men's right to define and control female sexuality. Anti-choice forces believe they can deny women abortions by dint of the sexual use of a woman’s body by an impregnating man.
Until more feminists can defy men who profit monetarily or emotionally from renting women’s reproductive organs, significant advancements in women's rights can't happen. Rejecting prostitution is consistent with the feminist belief that men do not have a right to control women’s sexuality ever, but too many feminist women still can't say so while standing tall and without apologizing for believing it.
S.M.Berg is not afraid to choose prostituted women over prostitute-using men, and is a big fan of the Swedish model - decriminalizing prostitutes but not pimps and johns.
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