INTERVIEW: Women of colour speak out against prostitution

Raquel Rosario Sanchez speaks with four women who participated in a recent event looking at the experiences of women of colour in the sex trade, and the connection between racism and prostitution.

On February 21, SPACE International, a survivor-led organization fighting against the sex trade, hosted a groundbreaking event in London. “Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade” was the first event of its kind to take place in Britain, focusing specifically on the voices and experiences of women of colour in the sex trade.

The packed event highlighted the way in which the sex trade depends on both racism and colonialism to exploit women and girls worldwide. Topics addressed by panelists included: the exploitation of Asian women in militarized zones, Canada’s Inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, the generational trauma passed on matrilineally through prostitution, and the connection between the historical sexual exploitation of black women and girls during slavery in the United States and the overrepresentation of black women and girls in prostitution today.

Chaired by Taina Bien-Aimé, the event featured eight panelists: Rosemarie Cameron (Britain), Vednita Carter (U.S.), Bridget Perrier (Canada), Ne’cole Daniels (U.S.), Mickey Meji (South Africa), Suzanne Jay (Canada), Roella Lieveld (Netherlands), and Ally-Marie Diamond (Australia/New Zealand) — all leaders in the prostitution abolition fight.

I spoke with four participants who spoke at the event to learn more about their perspectives, how they got involved in the fight against prostitution, and the connection between the sex trade, racism, and colonialism. Vednita Carter is a survivor of prostitution and the Founder of Breaking Free, a direct service and advocacy organization that helps women escape prostitution and sexual exploitation. Suzanne Jay is a Vancouver-based feminist activist and a member of Asian Women for Equality. Ally-Marie Diamond is an Indigenous activist, survivor of prostitution, and founder of Tranquil Diamonds, a coaching service for women.  Taina Bien-Aimé is Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, a non-profit dedicated to ending commercial sexual exploitation and the world’s first organization to fight human trafficking internationally.

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Raquel Rosario Sánchez: How did you become involved in the issue of prostitution?

Vednita Carter: I became involved in the sex trade through the stripping industry. In 1972, right after I graduated from high school, my intentions were to begin college come fall quarter. A friend and I decided to find a summer job and save up money for college. I saw an ad in the newspaper for dancers, saying we could make a thousand dollars a week. We were both elated at the possibility — we thought it was incredible that we could make a thousand dollars a week just dancing. We thought it would be fast, easy, and quick money. We danced all the time, so this was something we both knew how to do. We went to an interview and were hired immediately. Needless to say, it was not so much dancing, but stripping and everything in between. That is how it all began.

Suzanne Jay: I personally got involved because I was a member of a feminist collective that operated a shelter for battered women, a rape crisis line, and a feminist organizing centre. We responded to many women dealing with prostitution, pimps, and sex buyers. These were women who had exited or who wanted to exit prostitution and who were members of the collective (and to this day, they continue to be members). I co-founded Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution after seeing how dismissive elected officials were to Aboriginal women seeking alternatives to legalizing prostitution. At the time, politicians who considered themselves “progressive” were trying to outlaw the sale of Aboriginal women through street prostitution. But I knew from crisis work and plain observation of entertainment culture in Vancouver that Asian women were (and are) being sold from indoor prostitution venues as well, licensed by City Council, and that there was no increase in safety for Asian women in this approach. It was a cruel trick that would only move men’s degradation and violence towards women out of public sight and allow men to demand more degrading acts and enact more violence on women out of public scrutiny.

RRS: Do you find support within the feminist movement or do you think the pimp lobby has permeated most modern feminism?

SJ: I think it is neoliberalism that has permeated the feminist movement. My Coalition thinks it is key for oppressed groups to be able to gather and share information and experiences in order to develop theory, to care for one another, and to carry out actions to make social change. The pimps are taking advantage of the culture of hyper-individualism to convince us that women don’t need each other, that we each make decisions in a vacuum and from a wide range of lovely options, when, in fact, women make decisions constrained by our sex (patriarchy), the colour of our skin (racism), and whether/what food our mothers had access to when pregnant with us (class oppression). I would say that pimp culture bribes the women with the most privilege to abandon and sell out those of us who start out with the least.

RRS: How did you become involved in this event?

Taina Bien-Aimé: The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women has always worked very closely with survivors, and we understand that they are key to the movement. They have lived experience, and, in New York, people are totally ignoring their stories. But SPACE International is changing the narrative as to what prostitution is and how it affected them, including their physical and psychological well being. We have a close partnership with SPACE, so I was invited to moderate.

VC: I met feminist author and survivor Rachel Moran about seven or eight years ago at a meeting in Washington DC. At that meeting, she explained her mission for SPACE International — an international survivor-led organization formed to give voice to women who have survived the abusive reality of prostitution — and I thought that was wonderful. We began to talk with each other on a regular basis and, after about a year of knowing Rachel, I was asked to join the Board of Trustees of SPACE. We were keen to host an event in the UK that centred the voices of women of colour, and that is how I was invited.

RRS: Do you see some remnants of slavery or colonialism in the sex trade?

TBA: Yes. In prostitution, women are branded and labelled. You belong to the person who owns you. This is an inheritance of the plantation era in the US context. It is an extension of the pervasive violence against women we see being normalized and treated with impunity daily. The exchange of money shouldn’t be a green light to allow men to perpetuate horrific violence against women. Here we are, in this #MeToo movement, and as a society we can understand how [sexual harassment and assault] traumatizes women when it happens in the workplace, but if he gives her a hundred dollars, it’s acceptable? How is that possible? Where have your brain cells gone?

The race narrative in the US is very complicated. Black women represent seven per cent of the U.S. population, but in some jurisdictions, they represent over 50 per cent of the prostituted population. Among sex trafficked youth (children and teenagers under 18), 40 per cent are black girls. The sex buyers are overwhelmingly white men. If you talk to survivors like Tina Frundt, the Executive Director of Courtney’s House, sex buyers say to black and brown women and girls, “You are made for prostitution,” “Your feelings are different than white girls’ feelings,” “Your breasts and your hips are made for this.” Much of it relies on racist stereotypes of women of colour on top of the misogyny. We know that women of colour are sexualized way more than the white girls, and sex buyers perpetuate that dehumanization.

Ally-Marie Diamond: In Australia and New Zealand, Indigenous, Maori, Thai, and Pacific Islander women and girls are enormously overrepresented in the sex trade. We are living a combination of racism and sexism.

I ask myself: If I don’t stand up and speak for them, who will? Who will stand up and speak for my sisters who have died because their paying rapists beat them too hard? Who will stand up and speak for my sisters who have died because it was the rapist’s fantasy to choke her while fucking her? Who will speak for my sisters who have lost the ability to give the gift of life because a paying rapist shoved bottles, cucumbers, carrots, stupidly oversized vibrators, shoe heels, batons, and whatever else their warped minds could come up with, so far and so hard up their vaginas that they damaged their reproductive systems beyond repair? Who will speak out for my sisters who couldn’t cope anymore and chose the only route out: suicide? Who will speak out for the innocent children left behind who lost their mothers? Who will speak out for my sisters who are so lost in those streets that all they do is take drugs and alcohol until they are dying of kidney and liver failure? Who will speak out for my sisters who are still trapped in the life of paid rape with no way to get out?

RRS: It appears that an inroad has been created in academia in the Global North, which has been churning out defences for the sex trade and contributes to sanitizing prostitution. Why do you think that is?

TBA: Just as there is a gun lobby and a tobacco lobby, there is a sex trade lobby. Here in the United States, the most harmful penetration of the sex trade lobby has been, unfortunately, in academia. There are several foundations that support the narrative that the sex trade and prostitution is “work” and that support exploiters as “employers.” Those foundations, in turn, fund academics — particularly scholars in gender studies departments and philosophy departments — to perpetuate that narrative.

I see university syllabi and it is all a one-sided debate looking at prostitution as work, and oftentimes student societies invite self-employed and privileged sex workers to speak to the classroom. This academic analysis is coming from the perspective of a system based on profit and capitalism, above all, not focusing on the exploitation of women and girls worldwide. These arguments are not presented fairly or in a balanced, evidence-based way so that kids can make their own minds up. The true feminist academics in many universities tell us how shunned they are and how isolating it is for them because of how hegemonic the pimp lobby infiltration in academia has become.

AMD: “Sex work” is a glorified term for paid rape. These are not brothels or escort agencies or massage parlours or whatever other name you want to call them. It is not work or an industry. This is terrorism against women — a sustained international attack on vulnerable women, girls, children. They may not blow up buildings or themselves but they definitely blew up my mind, my body, and my soul. They sent me to a torture chamber that I would never escape from. Even today I fight to survive, to live, to feel worthy, to be loved, to dream.

So many of my sisters have been murdered — one of them was slayed to death as a jilted ex-lover ran through a brothel with a sword, taking everyone out that he came into contact with. I hear women saying this paid rape brings them empowerment, feeds their children. I hear them speak as they protect the only road they know. I’m glad for them that they have a voice to speak with, but I am here to speak for my sisters who have lost their voices, who don’t have the strength to speak, who have lost their fight, along with their belief in love and humanity itself. I am here to speak for those women, who are the vast, vast majority.

RRS: How can we address and challenge narrative created by academia, in which privileged voices in the sex trade amplify each other and neglect to take marginalized women and girls into account?

TBA: Students need to address the problem that this academic neglect is causing in wider, public discourse. In any other area of study or field, academic best practices teach us that we must show students both sides and that academics ought to teach students how to think critically. But when it comes to the sex trade, students are being indoctrinated into believing that the sex trade is a viable employer for the most vulnerable women and girls in the world. For many student activists, the concept of “sex work” has become an identity. These activists say, “I’m a sex worker,” and you want to ask them, “What exactly do you do?” It’s part of the cultural narrative to give more voice to these hip and woke liberals. But being prostituted is not an identity. Young people are using it as a platform to glamourize what prostitution is to the point that the idea of prostitution becomes another commodity for privileged people… It’s not the reality, though.

There is something I want to ask academics who promote the sex trade: Are you going to mandate students to have an internship in India to see how women live and the toll that the number of men who come in and penetrate them have on their well-being? Academia should have a mandatory internship so that students go to the red-light district in India or Germany. I wonder how those students would react if they came face-to-face with the realities of prostitution. If they had any empathy for the women treated like objects by strange men who penetrate and use any orifice of their body, would they continue to demonize women like us who advocate for the abolishment of prostitution?

RRS: What do you make of activists who say that if you criticize prostitution, it is because you “hate sex workers”?

VC: First off, I am an activist and at one time I did call myself a sex worker because I thought that is what I was. It was not until I was able to remove myself from that life and look at the impact that prostitution had on my life, that I realized how I was brainwashed to believe that doing prostitution was a job. In many ways, it was easier for me to believe this lie than to face the reality of what it really was — violence — and how it was affecting me while I was involved in the life. I don’t hate “sex workers.” It just saddens me that we can’t see eye to eye on this, as women. I always say that prostitution is an extension of slavery because when it came to freeing the slaves, some slaves thought that being a slave was not so bad, even though the majority wanted out. I am thankful that policy makers went with the majority and realized that slavery was bad for all enslaved people, regardless of the opinion of the minority. This is the same way that we must view prostitution: most women want out.

I would say to those student activists who want to perpetuate the sex trade: prostitution is not work, it is sexual abuse at its worst. Imagine having sex with your boyfriend 15 times per day, maybe more on some days, every day. Nothing can turn this into a good sexual experience even if it is with someone you love. I would say “try it for yourself,” however, I wouldn’t put anyone through this kind of torture, not even my enemies.

TBA: I think it would be helpful for everyone to follow their arguments to their logical conclusion. What is the end destination with their support for the sex trade? If you look at the German model of prostitution versus the Swedish model, in Sweden, prior to the law that targeted sex buyers, 80 per cent of men believed that it was okay to purchase women for sex. The Swedish law included an educational program to raise awareness about prostitution and that questioned why men feel entitled to women. What are men buying when they pay for sex? They are buying power and control over another person’s body with no regard for the journey the person they purchase has gone through. We know that, more often than not, this journey has included child sexual abuse, racism, violence, homelessness, etc. Today — 20 years after the Swedish law came into effect — 80 percent of men [in Sweden] are against prostitution and believe that it is unacceptable to purchase women for sex because they understand that this is a barrier to gender equality.

However, in Germany — which legalized all aspects of prostitution in 2002 — the State created an environment where men are being told that it is perfectly fine to treat women as purchasable vessels. You have country-wide chain brothels and multi-storey brothels so that, on a Friday night, men can go to the local brothel. There are specialized brothels that advertise that you can have a beer, sausages, and pay a woman so you can tick whatever sex act you want. If you have a fetish for pregnant women or want a gang bang, that’s a legal purchase. Up to 90 per cent of women in those brothels are not Germans — they are immigrant women and they are women of colour. Moreover, they are undocumented immigrants, according to the German government. If you are from the Global North, the Dutch and German women have educational opportunities and job opportunities that they can access. Those women have the opportunities to reach their potential, so they don’t need to be filling up the brothels. Essentially, the German state enacted a law that entitled men and says to men: “The demand is yours — it’s ok for you to go and use women like a toilet.” But, as a country, Germany doesn’t have the supply of prostituted women to suffice the demand that has been incentivized [so they have to bring in women from elsewhere]. And that is how you have the link between the sex trade and sex trafficking.

RRS: What is your view of support services for women trying to exit the sex trade? If you could speak directly to shelter advocates and women who work in direct services for women, what would you want them to understand about the sex trade?

VC: I am the founder of a program in Minnesota called Breaking Free. We are one of the first programs in the US that provides services for women and girls escaping systems of prostitution and sex trafficking. I started this program because of the lack of services for prostituted women and girls in my own community and throughout the country.

When I first began this program in 1996, it was almost impossible to get the [support] of various community members such as law enforcement, the courts, funders, etc. They looked at this population of women as deserving what they get for being involved in prostitution — all they needed was jail and nothing more. During the first year of Breaking Free’s existence, all I did was educate, educate, educate. Finally, I was able to get people to listen and understand the connection between prostitution and domestic violence. The same tactics of power and control that keep battered women trapped in domestic violence are the tactics that keep prostituted women trapped in prostitution. Doors finally began to open.

SJ: I think most women who find themselves working in direct service provision have some understanding about the sexism, racism, and violence meted out to their callers. The problem is that service providers are also constrained. The managers, executive director, and funders won’t permit workers to advocate or even imagine social change. They may be allowed to fight for a small change in policy, language, or practice, but the professionalization of the paid work positions undermines the translation of knowledge and connections between women from being used to overturn the system that facilitates prostitution. For example, shelter workers are probably encouraged to have good relations with police and to “coordinate,” rather than demand and complain in public for better (life-saving) responses to battered, raped, or trafficked women.

I would encourage others to form their own voluntary groups to make change and stop looking to the paid workers to make change. Something I learned early as an organizer is that you cannot hire someone to be a revolutionary.

RRS: What would you say to someone who has not given much thought to the sex trade? What would you say to someone who has a vague idea that “sex work is work” and the sex trade is all about “empowered choices”?

VC: This has nothing to do with being liberated. I would remind those people of what I said above, then add that they need to think of the little girls coming up now and in the future. Is prostitution something that they should ever have to imagine being a vital part of their life? Can you imagine those little girls going to the employment office looking for a job and being told that all they have available is a position as a prostituted woman and that she must take that or nothing? Little girls should never have to daydream about becoming prostituted when they grow up, ever.

TBA: I would say to them that the important thing to understand about women in prostitution is that they are not different than immigrant women seeking asylum, or women who have been sexually assaulted, or women with mental health issues, etc. This category of women is not different than any other category of women who have been raped, battered, abused, mutilated, or tortured. As a country, we need to develop protocols to identify these women. In the US, they go to emergency with broken bones and nobody asks them any questions. The situation with prostitution is the same that existed 50 years ago with the topic of domestic violence. If a woman was battered, the police would come and ask the men to “be nicer,” “take a walk around the block,” and maybe go to church to have a conversation with their rabbi or priest. It wasn’t until the women’s rights movement said that we are looking at power and control that society’s approach to violence against women changed. Prostitution is a discriminatory practice but, as a society, we don’t recognize it as violence against women yet. Who is doing the harm to that woman being prostituted? Currently, we are analyzing the sex trade in isolation, so all the questions regarding the system of prostitution revolve around her (the woman) as opposed to the people doing the harm and the profiteers (who are overwhelmingly men).

RRS: Is there anything you want Feminist Current readers who couldn’t be at the SPACE event to know? What was the take away?

TBA: It’s important to state loud and clear that prostitution is about colonizing women’s bodies for men’s economic profit. Within the US context, but also worldwide, as a black woman from the Caribbean, we know that the minute European colonizers came to our shores, the first thing they did was rape the Indigenous women. Then, once they decimated the local population, they brought in black women through human trafficking. Culturally, our heritage is a system of genocide, human trafficking, and rape that built this country. Slavery itself was a cultural institution in the United States. Even when the influx of trafficked people stopped, what sustained slavery was the breeding and rape of black women. That means that there is an in-house machinery that perpetuates rape through the exploitation of black women, and that is alive and well even today.

The sex trade is a continuation of this because it is an economic system that is profiting from the rape of black women. Except that in our culture, prostitution is seen as something outside the scope of what can be socially changed. Every culture in the world has different cultural mechanisms to harm women and then to justify the violence committed against women, as well as systems to control women’s bodies and their reproductive capacities. For example, in the African continent, you have 28 countries where female genital mutilation is still rampant. Therefore, we can make the analysis that the beauty of patriarchy is to establish systems of control of women’s bodies and call it culture! Prostitution is our own harmful cultural practice. Like child marriage is a harmful cultural practice in some countries, and breast binding is another harmful cultural practice in others. Prostitution is a global harmful cultural practice.

At the United Nations level and in international law, there is increasing recognition of cultural and religious practices that harm women and girls, but prostitution is always an exception to that. We live in a society where everything can be bought, so why not women?

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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