How ‘sex work’ killed the victim

Image: Sarah Hylton/Al Jazeera
Screen shot from Sarah Hylton’s piece in Al Jazeera

The girls want to learn — that much is clear. If there is one message that comes across from Al Jazeera’s article, “Educating girls in South Sudan,” (sponsored by the International Women’s Media Foundation) and written by photographer Sara Hylton, is that the girls from the Unity State of South Sudan want to pursue their education.

The stories of the girls are striking. Mary, 12-years-old, is the daughter of farmers and dreams of becoming a doctor. Ajok also wants to become a doctor. She is 16 and has two sisters, but at the moment Ajok is the only one able to go to school. Melanie, 14, wants to be a photographer. Viola, Susan, and Diana are enrolled in a technical school studying mechanical engineering. Jehan was studying economics before she became pregnant and was forced to drop out.

The list of hardships they face in their efforts to get an education is long. Conflict in their region is rife, as is poverty and hunger.

“Coming to school is very difficult because of hunger. No breakfast, no lunch, and only sometimes supper,” says Abul, 15.

There is also the displacement, early marriage, and sexual abuse. Many have lost their parents and have to fend for themselves. The girls have to travel long distances to get to school. According to Gladis, one of their teachers, when the girls get their periods the can’t afford sanitary pads so end up missing school for days. Even when these girls can access education, they face stigma: “If they’ve gone to school they are spoiled for marriage, not as pure,” Gladis explains.

Despite all this, the resolve and determination the girls have to attaining an education is inspiring. Susan has trouble doing her homework because nobody in her family is educated. Nonetheless, her dream is to one day become the Minister of Education in her country. “We feel very proud as women,” say Viola, Susan, and Diana.

Which is why I was perplexed when I read the caption Hylton included next to a picture of 14-year-old Jessica:

“Jessica has multiple personality disorder. She is cared for and receives an education with approximately 50 other vulnerable girls at a shelter in Juba. According to the founder of the shelter, sex work is normalized among young girls, who make less than a dollar per customer. Her goal is to teach girls that ‘the body, is the one that stays’ and to teach them alternative ways of generating an income.”

The paragraph made no sense to me. It took me some time to pinpoint what was it about it that left me confounded. At first I wondered if the term “sex work” was simply the language used by the founder of the shelter. But given that Hylton uses the term in two other places in the article, I assume that it was her own choice of language.

Underneath another photo, Hylton writes:

“Girls play on a trampoline at the shelter in Juba. The orphanage houses about 50 girls, many of whom were abducted for domestic work, sexually abused, or forced into sex work before being taken in by the orphanage.”

Sentences like this are what happen when we export the Western narrative of “sex work” and try to universalize it as the default way of speaking about the sex trade. Where did this language came from?

Dorchen A. Leidholdt, co-founder of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), says the term originated with Priscilla Alexander, a spokesperson for COYOTE. She writes, “Priscilla Alexander argued, with a straight face, that her four years at Bennington College qualified her to claim that label.” COYOTE stands for Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics and is an organization that claims to be the global voice of “sex workers,” yet at one point, out of the 300,000 members it claimed to have, only 3 per cent were actually prostituted women.

So the term of “sex work” became popularized by a woman who had no lived experience in the sex industry (Alexander has said “I never have literally worked as a prostitute… although I was stigmatized as a whore at one time”), yet it has become so normalized that Al Jazeera and the International Women’s Media Foundation think it’s acceptable to apply the label “sex work” to 14-year-old orphaned girls who need the “less than a dollar” that sex buyers pay them to feed themselves.

Many well-intentioned people use the term “sex work” and “sex worker” because they assume that it is politically correct and offers dignity to prostituted women and girls. They assume that by describing prostitution through the language of labour, they are being respectful and properly progressive. They all seem to forget that labour rights (i.e. work) entail certain standards and demand responsibilities from workers.

If the girls in Unity are sex workers instead of vulnerable children, does that mean that any of the men who pay to access their bodies could demand a refund on his “less than a dollar” if he believes the sex act was not performed to his liking?

Let’s not be squeamish: What exactly are we saying when we call a 14-year-old living in abject poverty a “sex worker?”

At what point do we see girls, living in poverty and being paid by men less than a single dollar for sexual access to their bodies, as “sex workers” instead of vulnerable, abused children?

Swedish journalist Kajsa Ekis Ekman thinks that to understand the shift from discussing prostitution as exploitation to instead calling it “sex work,” we must look at the political ideology behind it. In her book, Being and Being Bought, Ekman argues that the narrative of “sex work” is a symbiosis of the neoliberal Right and the postmodernist Left. After the Cold War and following the fall of communism, the left responded to the almost-global domination of capitalism, Ekman says, by “masking their loss as a triumph.” Instead of addressing injustices head on, some branches of the left (including within feminism) chose to redefine the status quo itself as both subversive and marginalized. “The postmodern Left and the neoliberal Right have entered into a tacit pact,” Ekman explains. “The Right gains power, and in exchange, the postmodern Left saves face,” by essentially hiding that power with their words:

“… The neoliberal Right uses language that explains prostitution as a free choice on the free market.The postmodern Left, which loves language games and shuns political action, has an excuse not to fight the sex industry by claiming to listen to the voices of marginalized people.”

This betrayal in principles leaves us with the situation depicted in the Al Jazeera article. Is there any circumstance where both the neoliberal Right and the postmodern Left won’t try to mask vulnerability in order to avoid addressing systemic oppression? Why such aversion towards acknowledging vulnerability?

Simply put, it is because under the narrative of “sex work” there can be no vulnerable person. To speak of vulnerability is to admit flaws in a system — to challenge the myth that the status quo is working well. To avoid having to do that, it’s best to distort the words that are pivotal to describing oppression: “victim” and “vulnerable.” After all, if there are no victims, there can be no perpetrators.

This masking of power and oppression is described by Ekman as twofold. First, we demonize the word “victim” to the point that it becomes synonymous with passivity, feebleness, and apathy. Victim, as a word, is thereby no longer a power dynamic (victim-perpetrator), but a personal characteristic. “We are told that the victim is by definition weak, passive, and helpless,” Ekman writes. The caricature is so unsympathetic that nobody would ever want to be labeled as such and to apply it to a situation of abuse or exploitation becomes an insult in itself.

This logic has lead to an attempt to abolish the word “victim” itself. Any action (“she cursed at her pimp”) or indeed inaction (“she turned her head to the side and waited for it to end”) becomes that magic word: “agency.” The dichotomy is blatantly false because, as anyone who has work in violence prevention knows, we don’t need to have a gun pointed at our heads 24 hours a day for violence to be real. Violence and oppression are far more insidious than the ridiculous stereotype that assumes that if we can’t see the oppression, then it must not be real.

Under the façade of empowerment and progressivism lies a pernicious victim-blaming mentality, though, because its underlying message is that “victimhood is for the feeble; those who are capable and self-aware don’t become victims,” says Ekman. Another rhetorical coup by patriarchy!

Perhaps the most damning aspect of this rejection of vulnerability is the creation of the myth of the invulnerable person. The “invulnerable person” cannot be a victim, no matter the circumstances, ever. No one, regardless of the oppression they face, can be positioned as subjugated… which is rather convenient for a system of oppression. The invulnerable person becomes exalted instead for their strength. “This is the neoliberal version of the old myth of the strong slave, the hardened working-class woman, the black ‘superwoman’, the thick-skinned colonized woman who doesn’t feel the whippings and beatings,” Ekman writes.

In this case, the “invulnerable person” is a teenage girl living in a shelter for fellow orphaned girls in South Sudan who must somehow learn “alternative ways of earning income” because under the Western exportation of the concept of “sex work,” the responsibility to find a way out of her own oppression is placed on her shoulders. The invulnerable person is represented by all the girls in Hylton’s article who desperately want an education but who are given the identity of “sex worker” using an Anglo-Saxon lens that resorts to rhetorical gymnastics instead of pointing out the evident rape, sexual abuse, and exploitation.

Achal Arop is 17-years-old. Her message, quoted by Hylton, is resounding and clear:

“The most horrible thing to hear is that all the girls are raped… If I stand all the girls will also stand.. Girls are the ones who suffered the most.”

Achal’s analysis is powerful and urgent. She doesn’t hesitate to call violence by its name — she knows what it is. No euphemisms to mask power. No need to obscure the material realities of being born a girl under patriarchy. In her quote, I am grateful to read a feminist analysis that doesn’t hold back. Why don’t we let the girls teach us? They are clearly more brave and honest than so many “neutral” reporters.

Raquel Rosario Sanchez
Raquel Rosario Sanchez

Raquel Rosario Sanchez is a writer from the Dominican Republic. Her utmost priority in her work and as a feminist is to end violence against girls and women. Her work has appeared in several print and digital publications both in English and Spanish, including: Feminist Current, El Grillo, La Replica, Tribuna Feminista, El Caribe and La Marea. You can follow her @8rosariosanchez where she rambles about feminism, politics, and poetry.

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  • lagattamontral

    This is also an odd twerk in labour and migration history. The horrible exploitation experienced by migrant workers is simply a “migration strategy”. Suppose that also includes so-called “sex-workers”. I experienced this morphing of language as a shift to the right, when I’d been looking at “superexploitation” of workers who were racialised or discriminated as women.

  • Meghan Murphy

    Uh no. The trauma is definitely still there.

  • esuth

    Can you name any other lines of work where a woman is 20 times more likely to be murdered than the national average?

  • Rachel

    It’s hard enough to “drift in and out” of any actual chosen career, let alone the situation of being in the sex trade (note sex trade is not a career). “You’re only as mentally and emotionally traumatised as you allow yourself to be” – really? Would you say that to someone who suffered PTSD from fighting in a war? I bet you wouldn’t. And actually – some people don’t know they’re traumatised because they’re stuck in such a horrible situation they don’t know anywa your, so denial is the best way they can remain seemingly “in control” of their situation. Very common in abuse survivors.

  • OedipaMaas

    Unfortunately I can’t say I’m surprised by it. It reminds me of how those “coffee and fellatio cafe” articles went on about sexual freedom but failed to mention the type of man who would patronize that business, or the pimps/traffickers behind the scenes (or, lbr, front and center- they aren’t even trying to hide anymore because no one cares.)

  • calabasa

    Wow! Really? That means I can stop feeling bad about my rape. After all, because of STIGMA rape feels worse than other traumas. It’s not like there’s a wealth of information out there about why rape is inhherently traumatizing and the multiple ill effects it has on a survivor, sometimes throughout their lives. STIGMA.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Magic!

  • yes

    Sure. Lets casualize sex until you are confortable enough to perform sex acts to your boss because hey! it’s only sex.

  • Meghan Murphy

    lol. Yeah, trauma only exists because I want it to. I loooooove trauma!

    • Kendall Turtle

      These people must think you are a Godess, can make things traumatizing by your own willpower!

  • OedipaMaas

    But how do the experiences of those “thousands” somehow trump those of the millions who are coerced/raped/trafficked/murdered? Why is “empowerment” more important than these women’s humanity?

  • radwonka

    greatpostlinda made me question many things:
    If anything is just labor, if any kind of labor is just like any other labor, if we should repress and modify our critical thoughts, feelings and experiences in the name of labor (aka blaming ourselves and loving those who hurt us because huh.. “labor”… ), then why arent men told to do whatever radical feminists want in the name of “anything is labor, just follow the rules, and if you arent happy, just change your mind!” too?

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/76f3323882b6c087368bc79d09fc78d6d6619b1aea89a2853274069e4df0c35c.gif

    And if people should just change their feelings, those that mean that victims… choose to be victims and can “stop” being victims if they think everything is just “labor”?

    Unsurprisingly, those who claim to use “logic” are the ones who focus on feelings only (“be happy, it changes oppression and the whole word”/”if you are unhappy, just think that you are happy”). And the fact, that they want others to change for them (WTF?) makes them manipulative and toxic.
    I knew that there was of part of the left who politicized emotional blackmail and abuse as a tactic to silence dissidents, but now they want to change others’ feelings too… but they have no legitimate reason for that, though they are still into psychological pressure here, which is the only context where they are consistent. But what can you expect from people who are against any kind of structural thinking? Against any kind of *cause/consequences/conclusions* psychological thinking? Like how narcissistic have to you to be to think that others should change their feelings for *your* norms and that *your* norms are the only ones that can exist? Especially, when *nothing* justifies those norms. Really, I fail to see where is that “empowered freedom” they always talk about. They deny that human behavior, whithin a group, constitutes society, (ie sanctification of a limited set of norms and rules), yet want others to follow their norms so much… weird coming from people who think people should be free to do *whatever* they want, which technically includes not wanting their ideology.

    Strangely, relativism and the ideology of labor both support male domination (prostitution, patriarchal sex and other gendered roles). It’s like a nihilistic version of conservatism, except that it is much more essentialist AND more oppressive because the idea of labor means that you ****have**** to do what they say. “labor” is literally an euphemism. The correct word should be: “serving”. But its not neutral enough to erase the context I guess.
    At least, conservatives blame the bible and have a god to somewhat (lol) sustain their stance, now we have pseudo – anything is like any other- activists who blame nature -and ofc once again, radical feminism is not part of that “who cares if its natural or cultural! just dont think about it! follow happily like a sheep!” rhetoric- =>> how do they explain *what* kind of *labor* is requested in our actual society? And why? Oh, They simply imply its natural, too deep to understand, and even if its not, we should just follow because, huh, well, we should. They are authoritarians, and against critical thinking since they are the same people who think that criticizing norms is a personal attack or against peoples individual rights (they are like the grandfathers of our actual activist who think that disagreeing = literally killing).

    Not only do they accuse people of literally “erasing” pro patriarchy people’s freedom/rights/empowerment/existences/whatever but they also deny such freedom and rights to anyone who doesnt fit their close minded society.

    Same goes with the concept of “consent”. They have a narrow and strict definition of consent, but that argument, or lets say deraillement, is only applied to individuals who perform patriarchal norms.
    You’ll never see them saying “oh radfem freely consent to their ideology! let’s not say anything! instead lets follow them, its just radfem unpaid labor after all! dont erase their empowered agency”.
    Same with patriarchal norms: “patriarchal sex is just like cooking, prostitution is just like building a castle, gendered norms is just like the flower in the prairie, consent is just like knitting, etc etc”.
    Buuuuuut, anything that goes against their norms suddenly is not considered as “its just like Y thing! so its ok!!”. Hmmmm.
    So in the end, they just think that patriarchy is default and should live forever but cant admit it. They want to keep patriarchal norms, thats all. Just like conservatives they blame metaphysical entities: pro patriarchal god=> unexplained pro patriarchal “feelings”.
    So basically, we have to bow down to whoever has internalized patriarchal norms because “something labor like any other” and “something consent” -which are at this point just logical fallacies since it never answers actual arguments, create a straw man and is falsely universalist since it only defends a restricted number of individuals-, but on the other hand, you’ll never see them acknowledge the “unpaid labor” and “consent” (or non consent) of people who dont want those norms.

    Finally their ideology has three main characteristics:
    1. there is an insidious threat : perform “labor”, aka misogynistic roles aka serve men and dont comply, or die starving and ostracized. Ex: “you dont like sex work? Just change! If patriarchy dont offer what you want, its your fault and your problem!”
    2. Men are always erased and/or victimized: whenever there is a tragedy, they focus and blame the victims and erase the culprit (ex: johns).
    Violence happens and the cause is men? They will say that Its the womens fault. That We arent “into” patriarchal norms enough, that we lie, that we are too emotionnal, that we should just force ourselves to fit this society (as greatpostlinda demonstrated).
    Here again, women are expected to blindly follow, whereas men arent expected to change. That alone is a red flag and shows that their ideology is intellectually limited and pro abuse.
    3. it is essentialist: it naturalizes gendered roles through the depoliticized concept of “labor”

    In conclusion: Never take anyone who uses relativism seriously, chances are, that its just a weak attempt to derail and erase men from the equation. Because they are cowards and have no legitimate reason to maintain gendered roles. If you debate with them, say that your stance is technically also part of that relativist ideology thus not inferior to their ideology, youll confuse them forever lol

    • Meghan Murphy

      This is a complete aside, but I love any opportunity to use a Mariah Carey gif.

  • Meghan Murphy

    The only reason I can figure someone might say something like this is if they have never experienced any kind of trauma themselves OR if they HAVE experienced trauma, but chose to cope with it by pretending it wasn’t traumatic/trying to ignore the trauma and convince themselves the abuse or whatever was not really abuse/harmful. The latter is pretty common with victims of abuse and understandble, albeit sad, especially if it means they demand others adopt their coping strategy because it allows them to keep imagining away their own trauma. Alternatively, maybe these types are simply sociopaths, unable to feel empathy.

  • lagattamontral

    And the sex-slave labourers in them were of course unpaid, like all the other prisoners who weren’t gassed on arrival, except perhaps an extra bowl of soup or gruel.

  • fxduffy

    The Left, Right, and Middle are at one in forbidding that women name themselves or all other females…

    1) a Victim.
    2) a Rape Victim, an Incest Victim
    3) a Battered Wife
    4) a Victim of Male Violence or Femicide
    5) Oppressed
    6) A radical Feminist
    7) An anti-Sexist
    8) A Man-Hater
    9) A Lesbian, an Asexual, or as Anti-sex.
    10) A Female Separatist, an Advocate of Female Space–or a Biological Female

  • OedipaMaas

    Because they perceive every criticism of johns as a threat to their bottom line and their empowerment narrative. It’s so vile, I can’t believe I bought this shit for so long.

  • Morag999

    “I am omnipotent.

    “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

    Exactly. Also:

    there is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so
    you must believe, not doubt
    banish all negative thoughts
    invite wealth into your life
    you reap what you sow
    think positive thoughts
    create your own reality
    the law of attraction
    think and grow rich
    make lemonade
    like attracts like
    moving forward
    empowerment
    the secret
    abracadabra
    alakazam
    consent

    • will

      ^^Brilliant^^

      • Morag999

        Thanks, but naming this crap — which seems to be a blend of magical and neoliberal thinking — is MUCH easier than defending yourself against it in real-time and on-the-spot. Know what I mean?

        If you have to seek support from others due to poverty, say, or trauma, or some other type of social marginalization, you run the risk of having to sit still while some rather dull-in-head positive thinker — who probably has power over you — shovels this useless and/or victim-blaming shit in your direction while calling it sunshine and feeling proud of the way they’ve “helped” another human being. It’s incredibly common and insidious.

        • Wren

          omg been there sooooo many times.

          • Morag999

            It’s so awful. And the more vulnerable a person is at the moment, the more harm (yes, harm) so-called positive-thinkers can do with their cheerful or new-agey world views. Because there are times when we are forced to trust others, right? Times when there is no other choice but to trust others, which can turn us into sitting ducks. Corporations and big institutions are big into doing this to their employees, in order to make them more compliant and productive — they’ll corner people and say it’s for their own good, for their own enlightenment, which the company gives them for free, because they’re so caring and generous. People who need to make a living, who are afraid to lose the job they have, no matter how shitty it is, are the perfect, captive audience for this kind of indoctrination … ugh.

  • Morag999

    “You do realize your viewpoint could justify all sorts of horrible things right?”

    Could, has and does.

  • Cassandra

    “Sex work” is never, ever empowering. What reddit MRA forum did you come from?

  • Cassandra

    Ernestine! Always a good choice.

  • Cassandra

    I LOVE her. Did you get a chance to see the first season of the show she recently did with Jane Fonda—Grace and Frankie? It’s worth checking out.

    • Virginia Howard

      I’ll have to look that up, thanks Cassandra!

  • Morag999

    PERFECT. Love it! Look at her, just sitting there all silent and constrained, while he take an expansive stance, waxing lyrical with all his accumulated male wisdom. And that typical greeting card font … yeah, exactly! You’re a talented woman, will.

  • Morag999

    I’ve seen some of his films, but not that one. I’ll put it on my list of titles to look for at my library.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I don’t understand what you are arguing here, Resse. I mean, it is true that liberals refuse to hold men who buy sex accountable… This acceptance of male entitlement to female bodies does equate to accepting rape culture.