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 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.