In 2008, Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), a rape crisis centre in Vancouver BC, published a position paper documenting a two-year collaborative process between their staff, board, volunteers, and practicum students exploring the issue of prostitution. It states:
“The argument of supporting individual women’s choices pales when one considers the way in which prostitution plays out in the global arena. As a global phenomenon, it must be analyzed in its capacity to enhance women’s lives and in its capacity to end violence against women. Viewed in the broad social context, and not in the context of individual choice and unique experiences, prostitution operates as a function of capitalism, colonization, and slavery. It destroys cultures, communities and women through objectification, sexual violence and exploitation.”
Ten years later, on July 18, 2018, WAVAW published a new statement, explaining that their previous position — which criticized the actions of men as sex buyers, pimps, and profiteers of the sex industry — had harmed sex workers, that they take accountability for causing that harm, and that they now support “sex work.” The organization also apologized for articulating their (previously) critical position through written text, as they claimed publishing and sharing this position had caused harm to “the sex worker community and their allies.”
While I disagree with WAVAW’s public commitment to support men who are sex buyers, pimps, and profiteers — the organization has every right, as we all do, to change its political analyses. I, too, operate with an openness to changing my views if I learn about better ways to work toward women’s liberation. However, WAVAW’s ideological shift works to redefine prostitution from a form of male violence against women and barrier to women’s liberation into a career path for women and a service and financial opportunity for men. As WAVAW joins other rape crisis and related centres in supporting men who buy sex, pimp, or profit from the oppression of women, I wonder what “women’s liberation” and freedom for women looks like for these organizations?
What is Feminism?
As feminists, we should all be concerned with the depoliticization of what was once called the “women’s liberation movement.” Today, we are more likely to hear about “gender-based violence” than “male violence against women,” which wouldn’t be such an issue if “gender-based violence” weren’t replacing “male violence against women” as a central component of the feminist movement. As feminist women, our ability to unapologetically voice our realities, name the problem, and set boundaries is being undermined.
What happens when women and our interests are pushed out of the core of our own liberation movement? One consequence is the transformation of rape crisis centres from expressly politicized organizations — where women who have been assaulted by men can receive support from other women and where women come together to develop feminist theory and take action — into apolitical “service-providers” that are open to all.
The feminist movement — like other political movements — is expressly political, and has focused political goals. This means that the feminist movement, like other political movements, is inherently exclusive. For example, a group of hotel workers who are organizing for better working conditions would not include hotel management or the hotel owners in their political movement. Yet, women’s rape crisis centres are pressured to include services for everyone.
This is not to say that service delivery isn’t necessary — it certainly is. Supporting women who have been assaulted by men with a safe place to go, accompaniment to the hospital, and a variety of other important services such as counselling, transportation, housing assistance, and advocacy are just some examples of assistance that is absolutely critical in the struggle for women’s liberation. The difficulty lies in finding the funding, time, and energy to offer these short-term supports while simultaneously working toward a long-term goal of ending patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. The increasing need for social services tied to decreased funding earmarked for anything beyond basic services creates a challenge for organizations who wish to deliver services and develop an analysis and take action against the systems that are creating the need for social services in the first place. But that doesn’t mean achieving this is impossible.
For a rape crisis centre like WAVAW to claim a place in the long herstory of the women’s liberation movement while decentering women and including the interests of men as sex buyers, pimps, and profiteers of the global sex industry in their mandate is at best a misguided position and, at worst, a purposeful attempt to individualize, ahistorcize, depoliticize, and redefine feminism as an inclusive, trendy, profitable brand that is about supporting men’s entitlement to sex on demand and accommodating men’s feelings and desires above all others.
In patriarchy, men as a sex class have power and privilege and women as a sex class do not. A rape crisis centre that supports women and girls in prostitution while simultaneously affirming men’s entitlement to sex on demand and the immense profit generated by that demand runs counter to feminism’s focused political goals to end patriarchy and liberate all women from male domination. Supporting women and girls in prostitution and opposing men’s entitlement to sex with whoever, whenever, wherever, and however they want, is a feminist position that can provide services and recognize and challenge misogynist systems and their underlying ideologies.
Sex as Work
“I want to bring us back to basics. Prostitution: what is it? It is the use of a woman’s body for sex by a man, he pays money, he does what he wants. The minute you move away from what it really is, you move away from prostitution into the world of ideas. You will feel better; you will have a better time; it is more fun; there is plenty to discuss, but you will be discussing ideas, not prostitution. Prostitution is not an idea. It is the mouth, the vagina, the rectum, penetrated usually by a penis, sometimes hands, sometimes objects, by one man and then another and then another and then another and then another. That’s what it is”
There is an unresolvable contradiction when a rape crisis centre supports “sex work.” One might assume that a rape crisis centre would challenge male entitlement to the bodies of women and girls — whether that entitlement takes the form of sexual harassment on the street; fathers who molest their daughters; or men who beat, rape, and kill the women they claim to love. Male entitlement to sexual access to women and girls is a pillar of misogyny and patriarchy — what has now been termed “rape culture.” Without male entitlement to the bodies of women and girls, prostitution would not exist.
While rape crisis centres that support the system of prostitution may believe the message they are sending is progressive and inclusive, the message actually being sent is: male entitlement to sexually access the bodies of women and girls is not ok unless you pay for it.
Supporting “sex work” as an occupation means supporting and affirming male entitlement. Supporting “sex work” means supporting the ideologies and corresponding behaviours of men who buy sex, pimp, and profit off of women.
One of these men is the self-proclaimed “Trump of Pahrump,” Nevada pimp Dennis Hof. Hof has recently entered politics, and explains:
“It’s all because Donald Trump was the Christopher Columbus for me. He found the way I jumped on it.”
The now 71-year-old Hof has stated he prefers to engage in sex acts with young women between the ages of 18 – 25 years old and only has sex with “pros.” As Hof’s longtime assistant, Judy Gloria, was quoted as saying in his 2015 autobiography, The Art of the Pimp, “Every time he hired a new girl for the ranch, he had to test her out.” Hof’s words and actions demonstrate very clearly what men who benefit from the sex industry think about women. To these men, women are not human; rather, we are objects to be used to satisfy their sexual and/or financial demands.
Another man who benefits from a “sex work” ideology is Judge David Ramsey. Ramsey sexually assaulted and paid for sex acts from Indigenous girls, some of whom had appeared before him in his court. He pleaded guilty to sexual assault causing bodily harm, breach of trust, and buying sex from minors. But if Ramsey had bought sex from these Indigenous girls the day after they turned 18, how would a rape crisis centre that supports “sex work” respond? Ramsey would simply be another “client” seeking the services of a sex worker after a hard day at the office.
And what about Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer who used his position of power to target and coerce sex acts from black women, many of whom were criminalized, living in poverty, and had histories of struggles with drug addiction and prostitution? If Holtzclaw had used cash to coerce the women into sex acts with him instead of (or in addition to, if they “consented”) threatening them with outstanding warrants, the presence of his gun, or other means, would this have then been acceptable? Holtzclaw would simply be another “client” seeking the services of a sex worker after a hard day on the job.
In these scenarios, the racist patriarchy is in plain view — it is undeniable that the ideologies and actions of these men are unacceptable. But when a rape crisis centre supports “sex work,” it becomes more difficult to label these men’s beliefs and actions as unacceptable — what we would think is a very clear line between behavior that is harmful and behavior that is not becomes unclear.
What is certain is that the underlying entitlement of Hof, Ramsey, and Holtzclaw to sexually access the bodies of women and teenage girls is the same entitlement that fuels the sex industry. It is unclear how a rape crisis centre that supports “sex work” would respond to millionaires, judges, and policemen — men with very obvious power and privilege — seeking out young, marginalized women of colour in order to pay them to engage in sex acts. Whether the men who are sex buyers, pimps, and profiteers hold occupational status or immense amounts of power and wealth is irrelevant — the ideologies are the same, the entitlement is the same, and the behaviours are the same. The stark inequality in these situations is only more glaringly apparent and less easy to ignore.
When rape crisis centres buy into the idea that sex can be work — a job, an occupational opportunity — the contradictions continue. If we frame engaging in sex acts as an occupation available to women, the question follows: what does going to work and not wanting to perform the job’s occupational duties, but doing them anyways (as so many of us do), mean when the occupational duty is engaging in sex acts? Is engaging in undesired sex acts with men harmful for women?
For a rape crisis centre that supports “sex work,” the message is a resounding “no”: a woman who is coerced or forced to engage in unwanted sex acts with a man, as long as she is compensated financially or otherwise, is not harmed. However, a woman who is coerced or forced to engage in unwanted sex acts with a man, but is not compensated financially or otherwise, is harmed.
In reality, whether compensated or not, a woman who is being coerced or forced by a man to engage in sex acts she does not want (with that man, or in that way, or in that place, or at that moment) is being harmed. Sexual assault hurts women, whether or not there is additional violence (such as punching, stabbing, or strangulation) committed beyond the horrific violation of her boundaries and the assault on her body. “Sex work” is, therefore, the only occupation wherein a woman who does not want to perform her job duties with a particular “client,” in a particular way, in a particular place, at a particular time, but does so anyways as she is required to do as part of her work, is sexually assaulted. To claim that engaging in numerous unwanted sex acts with men is not harmful is particularly troublesome coming from a rape crisis centre that supports victims of sexual assault. Additionally, what legislative consequences could result in claiming that engaging in unwanted sex acts — sexual assault — is not harmful to women?
When men like Hof, Ramsey, and Holtzclaw benefit or would benefit from a rape crisis centre that, knowingly or unknowingly, supports their misogynist, racist, and classist ideologies and corresponding behaviours, something is amiss. I would hope that rape crisis centres in particular would operate in a woman-centered, feminist way, and stand against men who feel entitled to sex on demand and who coerce or force unwanted sex acts on women, despite the fact that taking this position is often misunderstood, purposefully misrepresented, and very unpopular.
It is entirely possible — and, I would argue, responsible and necessary — to make a distinction between women and girls in prostitution and the men who buy, sell, and profit from women in the sex industry. Working with women who decide to stay in prostitution, to leave prostitution, or to move in and out of prostitution is not in question — of course these women, like all women, deserve support, when requested, and understanding that, as women, we all do the best that we can in the situations we are in. What is in question is the acceptance and normalization of this situation and delivering services with a goal of helping women to cope better and to better accommodate the patriarchal, racist, and capitalist culture we live in. To meet women where they’re at and leave them there sends the message that we can’t reimagine, take down, and rebuild the systems that harm us, so we might as well give up and accept conditions as they are, and not dare hope for something better.
I will not apologize for saying and writing that prostitution is a form of male violence against women and girls that should be abolished. The 2008 report that WAVAW apologized for includes mentions of groups and organizations I have been a part of and women I have worked with. It referenced connections between prostitution and the colonization of Indigenous women, and prostitution and the enslavement and rape of black women. I need to say that I am appalled that a rape crisis centre would apologize for and state that these analyses are causing harm. Yes, read, learn, question, challenge, and discuss the issues at hand when developing or reevaluating a public political decision. Change your position and change your visions, but do not apologize for engaging in well-reasoned critiques of prostitution as functions of racism and colonization. Do challenge and disagree with this position — I’m interested to engage with the information that changed WAVAW’s position, as perhaps I and others can learn from this information as well. But do not dare apologize for associating yourselves with my ideas and the ideas of other Indigenous women and women of colour, and do not insinuate, by your apology, that myself and other women should apologize for the “harm” we are supposedly causing with the feminist analyses we have developed and communicated in our writings.
Challenging male entitlement to women’s bodies, challenging men’s accumulation of wealth from selling women’s bodies, and challenging the system of prostitution does not cause harm. The men who buy sex from women, sexually harass women on the street or on the job (feminist lawyer, Janine Benedet, has asked, pointedly, how workplace sexual harassment laws apply to sex work), and the men who are making millions off our objectification and the sexualization of our dehumanization are the ones causing harm and are the ones who ultimately benefit from sex as work. We need to ask hard questions when discussing this issue, such as: Does men purchasing sex acts from women work toward women’s liberation and the end of patriarchy? Does men purchasing sex acts from Indigenous women in Canada contribute to a process of decolonization? Are men entitled to sex whenever, however, wherever, and with whoever they want? Does this change if they can pay for it?
Centering women in feminism, imagining and working toward the end of patriarchy, and challenging a billion-dollar assault on women that is so ingrained in our culture that rape crisis centres refuse to challenge male entitlement to sex on demand — as long as its paid for — is not easy, especially today. But feminism is not easy, and that’s the point of it. If it were, we wouldn’t need it at all.