Prostitution isn’t the oldest profession. It’s the oldest oppression.
One barrier to fighting both prostitution and sex trafficking is the false notion that there has always been this kind of inequality. In a patriarchy, some women are sexually restricted to childbearing and keeping the ruling race or caste “pure,” while others are sexually exploited for sex only or for producing more workers. But when European colonists arrived among the five hundred or so tribes of North America, they wrote home about their shock that “these savages” didn’t rape, not even their female prisoners. Columbus himself wrote home his complaints when conquered Native women fought against becoming sexual slaves to his crew.
It’s true that patriarchy has existed for five hundred to five thousand years, depending on the part of the world, but at most, that’s five per cent of human history....
In truth, gender roles are elaborate cultural inventions of subject/object, active/passive, that rose up over centuries to allow male control of reproduction by controlling women’s bodies and freedom.
Even in our modern imaginations, gender and prostitution seem to be inevitable parts of human nature. Prostitution can also only be dealt with in only two ways: legal or criminal. Once again, duality conceals the full circle of possibilities, but it was the only choice I’d ever heard.
When I began to travel as a feminist organizer, as I had learned in India, legalization seemed more humane. Otherwise, prostituted women only had a choice between a pimp who protected them from arrest or got them out on bail—then took their earnings and forced them to work—and a literal prison cell. Given a choice between two prisons, eliminating one seemed like a good idea.
I did run into a few enlightened authorities who invented choices in between. For instance, an African American woman judge in night court refused to book a prostitute unless her customer was arrested, too. It was amazing how fast her charges melted away. But mostly, prostituted women agreed that legalization might be better, though some feared their pimps too much to care, others didn’t see much difference since they had to have sex with their arresting officer, and a few said days in prison felt like a rest.
Then I got an emergency call from Johnnie Tillmon of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). The daughter of a black sharecropping family, she had become a fierce organizer arguing to increase the level of welfare payments, especially for single mothers. She was raising small children, and, as she pointed out, it would cost the state infinitely more if she stopped doing it at home; yet payments were so slight that the end of each month brought Kool-Aid and potatoes. For Ms. magazine, she also wrote a lethal analysis of the welfare system as a gigantic jealous husband who looked under your bed for other men’s shoes, controlled your life with endless paper work, doled out an inadequate allowance. On the phone, she explained that Nevada, the only state in which prostitution was legal, had come up with a double-whammy. Since prostitution was being described by a powerful combination of academics, pimps and some prostituted women themselves as “sex work,” a job like any other, women were being told that either they tried it or lost their welfare payments, unemployment checks or other benefits meant for the jobless. The state was saving money and creating a tourist attraction at the same time.
It took two days of protest marches on the strip outside Las Vegas hotels by the full membership of the NWRO, outrageous speeches about “body invasion” by my speaking partner Flo Kennedy, celebrities who attracted national press, and general disruption of carefree atmosphere cultivated for tourists.
It also took a surrealistic few hours marching outside the Mustang Ranch, the first legal brothel of Nevada, looking at the occasional woman who peered out at us curiously while women peered out at us from the window of a house trailer.... In the end, media attention forced the state to withdraw its threat.
Women’s movements around the world have been fighting the criminal and global sex trafficking industry for as long as I can remember. In Germany, I heard that the same pressure had been put on women recipients of unemployment and other government programs. There, prostitution was called “hospitality work.” There must not have been many takers in that prosperous country....
In 2008, I went back to Nevada and its county of legalized prostitution with an experienced activist who thought she could gain entry into one of the new brothels. No such luck. Because it is legal, illegally trafficked women from other countries had probably been taken there to be “broken in,”; the owner, a man with a gun in his belt, was being cautious. He was also said to be the single biggest contributor to the campaigns of judges in the state of Nevada, and he refused us even a drink at an empty bar.
Since this brothel, too, consisted of many house trailers lined up behind a high storm fence, we went to its farthest side where there was a restaurant and saloon run by a woman who had been living there for years. She told us that she saw the owner buying cartons of Ramen Noodles at a shopping centre, so she knew that’s what he fed “his girls.” She, too, bought soup and threw individual cartons over the fence. “I know those girls don’t get enough to eat,” she said, “and this way, he won’t know.”
So much for better conditions that are supposed to come with being legal.
Edited, and excerpted with permission from Rupa Publications. The book will be out early next month.