I was asked to speak about sex trafficking at the St. Cloud, Minnesota #WomensWave March on 1/19/19.
Here's a little background/all the things I couldn't say in the speech:
In a large audience of mostly progressive women and men, I did not want to waste a precious and extremely brief, three-minute platform, to talk about an issue as uncontroversial as sex trafficking. Everyone in that audience would agree this is a terrible injustice.
However, I wanted to challenge what I felt the audience might not agree on- commercial sexual exploitation/prostitution, or what some in this crowd would call "sex work."
Though there are some beliefs within the "sex worker's rights" platform that I do agree with, their fundamental premises I cannot. I don't believe prostitution is "work" like any other, I don't believe "stigma" is what causes additional violence to prostituted people (what causes violence are the actual agents of violence- almost always male buyers and traffickers), I don't believe paid coercion can ever be consent, I don't believe prostitution can ever be non-exploitative, and I don't believe in harm-reduction-only "solutions."
I want to make clear that these statements I've made do not stem from a distanced and detached academic analysis. My views have been carefully developed through years of direct experience working with survivors of the sex industry, prostitution, and trafficking, from facilitating a male offenders program, and from the wisdom of many survivor-activists and feminists who know this issue inside-and-out because they have lived it.
At our advocacy center, we use the empowerment model. We do not support paternalistic practices. We do not claim to "rescue" people or ever use such language. If there is any "rescuing" going on, it is our clients who rescue themselves. They are their own s/heroes. Any professional that takes credit for a survivor leaving the life has a savior complex that needs to be addressed. But as much as SWRAs claim all professionals in the field are like this, that is simply not true. (But quick PSA to faith communities: please stop doing this!)
We do employ harm-reduction approaches (e.g., safety planning and handing out condoms and lube), while also fighting for the total abolition of the sex trade. That is because we are not defeatist. We do not believe so little of men that they will forever use women's bodies as masturbation fodder. We will not enable bad behavior by men and agree that "boys will be boys." We will not respond with a shrug and say, "Oh well, sexual abuse has existed for a long time, so we just have to accept it, maybe make sexual violence a little less violent, and move on." No. That is unacceptable. We are either massively burned out or in the wrong line of work if that is our response to sexual abuse in any form.
However, sometimes grief and hopelessness in social justice work "boxes us in" and limits our capacity to creatively envision a world outside of what we see in front of us. When it comes to these issues, it does not have to be one or the other (e.g., harm-reduction or abolition, shame everyone in the sex industry or shame no one).
As an agency, we advocate and emotionally support all people in the sex trade, regardless of where they are at, regardless of if they plan to stay or plan to leave... while still critiquing and working to abolish the sex industry/trade that exploits them. Yes, you can do both. Shame and judgment have historically been reserved towards the exploited, prostituted, and trafficked- but this is victim-blaming, wrong, and 100% misplaced. Those who are prostituted should never be judged or shamed. The blame rightfully belongs on the exploiters who made the choice to exploit. The buyers (rapists) and traffickers (facilitators and profiteers of mass gang rape) have remained invisible and unaccountable for too long. Times up.
So with all that background, here's what I said...
(Intro, name, agency, etc.) Many of us here know that sexual exploitation is a serious issue and is happening in our community. CMSAC serves close to 100 victims of exploitation/trafficking each year, and the number of people we serve only scratches the surface.
No one would argue that trafficking is acceptable, and that’s why we need to talk more about prostitution and pornography, which is what traffickers make their victims do. Society often sugarcoats the reality in which a person in prostitution lives. Regardless of if she has a trafficker or not, whether she was groomed through sexual abuse or groomed by a misogynist culture, whether she is sold on the streets or sold in the nicest hotel room, whether she is paid $1 or $1000…
A fancier environment and all the money in the world does not erase the trauma of being used as a sex object. Prostitution takes place when entitled, mostly white, men bribe access to women’s bodies, especially Black, Native, and other women of color. He pays her to do what he wants, when he wants it, how he wants it. He pays to control her dress, her speech, and her body. All coerced sex, including sex coerced by inequality, survival, or financial struggle, is sexual assault- a violation of human rights. In 2019 and in the #MeToo Era, this should no longer be up for debate.
Agencies like the Central MN Sexual Assault Center and Terebinth Refuge that work with victim/survivors of the sex trade on a daily basis, we do whatever we can to support, advocate, and help strategize with them to reduce harm in whatever small way we can- because some survivors don’t see a way out, some don’t have the resources to leave even when they desperately want to, and some traffickers have convinced them that this is the only thing they are good for.
We are privileged to be able to march today. Many women can’t. They’ve been murdered, battered, violated, silenced, and terrorized.
We as feminists can honor these women by speaking up in solidarity and telling the truth even when it’s not comfortable or popular: prostitution is not a “choice” that women enthusiastically make, porn is filmed violence no matter how much people like using it, the enormity of sex trafficking is not a surprise when men feel sex is a right they are owed… and in a world where rapists and batterers almost always walk free. Prostitution is not a “job.” This is not paid “work” - it is paid rape and we need to stop adopting euphemisms to make the systematic sexual assault against women more palatable.
If you believe women’s lives are important enough to work to abolish these exploitative industries once and for all, I ask you to join CMSAC to end it. Advocate with us for survivors, take power away from the pimps, and change the systems that normalize abuse and sexism.
Womanist sister, Audre Lorde, said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
"In a “savior” narrative, rescuing men who raid brothels, bust down doors, beat the “bad guys,” or slay the dragon are central. Rescuing a trafficking victim (or a princess locked in a tower) is less about the victim and more about men showcasing their manhood and warrior prowess. Conversely, women are portrayed as weak, helpless, and in desperate need of men to save and protect them...
Victim/survivors, and all women, deserve more than short-lived, feel-good acts of chivalry or performative rescue missions. We need men to radically step out of their comfort zone and use their existing relationships and platforms to promote resistance and build long-term solutions..."
See post on CBE International's blog HERE.
The following is a letter I read to the participants in our court-ordered accountability class for male offenders who have been convicted of soliciting a person for commercial sex.
This letter is read at the beginning of the eight-hour session, followed by letters throughout the day that have been written by survivors, to the "johns," on the impact of the men's choice to sexually exploit women.
I am very glad you are here. I’m not just saying that, I truly mean it. This class today has the potential to change your life. We wouldn’t spend eight hours of our personal time with you on a Saturday if we didn’t believe in you and your capacity for change.
I can assume most of you are coming into this class with a lot of shame because your secret was exposed and your pictures were posted in the paper.
Hopefully, through this class, your guilt will transition from a place of feeling bad only because you got caught, to a place that drives you to be better, because you now have the full knowledge of what you have done to another human being and will have no desire to inflict such deep hurt again.
Shame comes from internal and external sources. When shame speaks, it tells you that you are worthless, incapable of loving and being loved, a bad person, and will never be able to change. I will tell you now that none of those messages are true about you.
Guilt, on the other hand, is an important emotion. When you feel guilt, it means you have violated your values and morals. Hopefully you know at your core that it was wrong to use a woman for your consumption and disposal, and that women deserve better than that- to be treated with dignity, respect, and humanity.
Guilt is what motivates us to change and make right what was wrong. Guilt can drive us to be better.
By now, you have probably discovered that your choices do not only impact you. They impact the women you purchased, your partner, your children, your friends, your employers, co-workers, the entire community, and people who you don’t know and will never meet.
Our culture feeds you the lie that pornography, prostitution, and the sex industry are harmless and people choose to do this. We’re going to share the unsanitized truth with you today.
The differences between rape and exploiting someone in the sex trade are insignificant. Buying a human being’s body in this way is both sexual violence and slavery. However, it is more socially acceptable because as a man, you have been conditioned to believe that a certain class of women should be available to serve you whenever you want, however you want. This is what we call “entitlement.”
I guarantee you will have some deeply-held beliefs and attitudes challenged today. The content today is likely to be uncomfortable for you, and that’s okay. This is how we grow. If you feel uncomfortable simply listening to women's experiences, imagine living them. Tap into the discomfort you feel and use it as a first step in making a positive change.
I know what discomfort feels like. I work with the women you have abused and purchased. I listen to the degrading things you say and do to them day after day. As advocates and counselors, we carry these stories with us.
You don’t get to see what we see. You only see the facade that you pay to be displayed for you. You pay for her to smile and act as if she enjoys whatever vile fantasy your project onto her body.
You may have already discovered that some women are more convincing actresses than others. She doesn’t like this. And deep down you know that too, because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t see the need to pay her in the first place. Your payment is the form of coercion.
Never confuse or call what you did to her, "sex." That was not sex, it was masturbation. Her body is simply the method you used. And it's not "harmless." It's not "a good time." And it sure as hell is not "okay."
You don’t see the pain, the tears, the bruises, the emotional scars, the fear, the rage, the destruction, the feeling of hopelessness, or the lifelong trauma inflicted by your hands. You also don’t see how brilliant, thoughtful, passionate, intelligent, opinionated, empathetic, strong, skilled, humorous, and resilient these women are. They are amazing people. But none of that mattered to you. The only thing that mattered to you was getting off. In that moment, you didn't care about anyone but yourself.
Many of the survivors we work with deal with Post-Traumatic Stress all their lives. They have nightmares, they can’t sleep, they are terrified, they feel they have lost control, they feel unsafe, they are constantly hyper-vigilant and plagued with anxiety, they have trouble forming healthy relationships, they develop mental health issues, they try to numb and cope through substances, and they live with endless shame because of what you have done.
That shame should not be theirs. Your actions created the lifelong burden that survivors are forced to carry. Let me remind you that this was all preventable, had you made a non-exploitative choice.
You may realize the women that are prostituted may refer to you “Johns.” Do you know why they call you “John?” John is probably the most generic, common name out there. This is symbolic of how they see you--generic, common, and like every other man they’ve ever met.
Survivors see a world where men, all men, are only capable of merciless sadism- because that has been their experience time and time again. Can you blame her for thinking that? Every time you abuse her, you reinforce this message and continue to shape her worldview.
Throughout the day, you will be hearing directly from the women we have served who have been trafficked in this area. These women have written very raw and personal letters to you. We will read these letters throughout the day. Though we can’t convey their voice or emotion behind what they wrote, you will find that most of these letters are a plea- begging you to stop taking pleasure from their pain.
But this is really a plea on behalf of all women. This is personal to every one of us. Why? Because all women live in this world- a world that says we are not human and we are sellable commodities and sex objects. A world that says you can get away with rape with impunity. That for just the right price, or just enough coercion acceptable under the law- meaning acceptable to other men- you feel entitled to use us.
It hurts all women… simply to know that your degradation and humiliation of us, your sexual cruelty brutalized on our bodies, are central to your arousal.
It hurts for me to simply be up here knowing that you believe this about women. If men can justify hurting one woman, or one group of women who you deem unworthy of your respect, than you can justify hurting any woman.
Your personal closeness, intimacy, care, proximity, or relationships to particular women does not protect them. So, you may not be able to justify hurting women you claim you care about, but guess who can? All the other men in this room. They don’t care about your wife, your sister, your best friend, your daughter, or any other woman who means the most to you because she isn’t “theirs.” The woman you care most about means nothing to the other men in this room.
The group of particular women you want to protect are the same group other men want to exploit. The group of women you want to exploit are the same group of women that other men want to protect. So, this really means all women are unprotected, all women are exploitable, and you can force any woman to be your whore if you just say the word.
When the worth of a woman is determined by individual men, this subjective standard means no woman will ever universally be respected. The justifications you use are the same justifications other men use. Your circumstances are not unique, special, or more complex. You are not more “deserving” of a human sex toy because of any pain, loneliness, or hurt you have experienced. We are not your emotional outlet in which you get to discharge. We are not for your entertainment or escape. Women are not your property, not your possession, not your punching bag, and not a canvas to display a pathetic and fragile idea of manhood that stomps on others to feel powerful.
You are all responsible for this. But you no longer need to play a role in her pain. You can be part of the solution.
If you hadn’t realized it already, you will find that there is a cost to consuming porn and there is a cost to exploiting women in the sex industry. The cost I’m talking about is not the monetary price you pay. The cost I’m talking about is women’s lives.
Today you get to decide: is it really worth it to you? Are your few moments of selfish pleasure worth destroying another human life?
What you gain from today is entirely up to you. It is up to you to look up, break the denial, truly listen, and engage both your heart and mind with our speakers and the testimonies of the women who have been deliberately silenced.
We’re not buying the lies and ultimately, we hope you decide today that you won’t either.
You are a person who has all the potential to become someone you admire, someone you are proud of, and someone of character and integrity.
You have the opportunity to make a decision for yourself and only you can decide what kind of person you want to become from here on.
Today, if you so choose, you can begin a journey towards truth, empathy, reconciliation, and reconnection to the humanity of others and the humanity in yourself.
That is why today, we’re not going to define you by what you did. You decide your future, and what kind of man you want to become...
"We must allow this grief, pain, and anger to incite a righteous battle for freedom and liberation. Anger towards injustice is not wrong. It is very, very right. God places this fire in us—not to consume us, but as a driving force for good."
See post on CBE International's blog HERE.
"General “equality movements” appeal more to privileged groups because the specific systemic oppression that privileges those very groups is not critiqued. Instead, root causes are ignored and only surface-level issues are addressed. Dismantling the entire social order of our culture is no small task. And it can’t be done when we don’t name the system that inflicts these injustices.
That system is patriarchy. And feminists aren’t afraid to name it.
Women have been overlooked all our lives. Our achievements, ideas, and accomplishments have been historically attributed to men. So, women need to be seen, women need to be heard, and women need to be named."
See post on CBE International's blog HERE.
"Pornography and all forms of sexist violence will continue to prevail until the church purges itself of deeply patriarchal values and practices. In identifying the root cause (patriarchy), we also find the solution. If the harm of patriarchy is acknowledged, the damage reconciled, and the system dismantled, the church can begin to heal. There is no other way.
Whether in the church, the world, or the porn industry, women are constantly reminded of their supposed “place.” The messaging of objectification is more subtle in the church, and it’s often wrapped neatly in spiritual language. But women don’t need to be naked and videotaped to be objectified."
See post on CBE International's blog HERE.