Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls

Making the Harm Visible: Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls

Douglas, Carol Anne

Making the Harm Visible: Global Sexual Exploitation of Women and Girls

edited by Donna Hughes and Claire Roche, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, 1999. P.O. Box 9338, N. Amherst, MA 01059. $10 plus postage.

Make no mistake, these are the stories of women who have escaped from prostitution and women who work with women who are trying to escape from prostitution. They are not titillating, though they often are horrifying, they are important for feminists to know. These women are mostly affiliated with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), which opposes the idea that prostitution is just another form of work; they see it as a violation of women’s human rights.

The articles are international in scope. They tell how women in West Africa made infertile by sexually transmitted diseases from their husbands are then abandoned by those husbands and turn to prostitution to survive, and of the few groups who work with these vulnerable women. They tell how girls who grow up on the street in South America become prostituted at a very early age, and of groups in Brazil and Venezuela that work with them and try to educate girls to be mentors to their peers. They tell of women from Southeast Asia and Russia and Eastern Europe who are trafficked to Western Europe, how rare prosecution of the traffickers is, and how light the sentences are when traffickers are prosecuted.

The stories of former prostitutes in the United States are no less horrific than the stories from other countries. Women tell how they seldom tried to escape from pimps because the punishment for trying and failing was so terrible.

Janice Raymond, co-director of CATW and a professor of medical ethics, tells about the medical effects of prostitution. In a 1994 study of 68 Minneapolis/St. Paul women, most of whom had been in prostitution for at least six months, half had been assaulted by customers and pimps; one third of those who were assaulted had been assaulted several times a year. Two-thirds of the women had had unwanted pregnancies that they had terminated. Forty-six percent had tried suicide, and 19 percent had hurt themselves in other ways. The women in the study had suffered from sexually transmitted diseases, chronic pelvic pain, and extreme stress. In a study of 55 women by the Council for Prostitution Alternatives in Oregon, 76 percent had been raped by pimps and buyers an average of 49 times a year; 84 percent had been assaulted; and 53 percent had been sexually abused and tortured.

Prostitution can lead to many illnesses, Raymond writes, but medicalizing it by monitoring prostitutes’ sexually transmitted diseases is just a consumer protection deal for men; it does nothing for the women.

A women’s group in Japan did a study of the men who use prostitutes. They distributed 20,000 questionnaires, of which 2,502 were filled out. Seventy-four percent of the men had partners. Eighty percent had started using prostitutes by the time they were in their early twenties. Most started because they were encouraged by friends or acquaintances. Eighty-one percent of them thought that sex for money was different from other sex. They said their reasons for seeking out prostitutes were a desire for sensations, “physiological needs,” the fact that women are prostitutes, not wanting to destroy their family through (other) extramarital sex, and solidarity with other men.

Of course the prostitution industry is trying to normalize prostitution. In Melbourne, Australia, where prostitution is legalized, there are annual SEXPO trade shows publicizing prostitution, brothels, and escort agencies. SEXPO features live sex shows. Last November, 70,000 people attended the SEXPO. Members of the Melbourne Coalition Against Trafficking in Women picketed the show, and were harassed for their pains.

In countries where prostitution has been legalized — the Netherlands and Australia — there are many Asian women who have been trafficked. Legalization does not prevent trafficking.

The Internet is used to promote prostitution. There are many ads for sex tours, describing the various women, especially in Thailand. Men who have been to a brothel in Nevada have put up the names and descriptions of the women they have had sex with and what they did with them; then other men go to the woman and add their descriptions.

Kelly Holsopple of the U.S. made a study of women involved in stripping, which may sound milder than prostitution but often leads to it. Strippers are considered to be independent contractors, not wage workers. Most have no wage, just tips, of which about 40 to 50 percent goes to management. They have a quota for each shift, and if they do not earn enough in a shift, they are in debt to the club. Of course they get tips by letting the men touch them. Their earnings are very low, and if they complain, the management suggests they try turning tricks and offers to arrange it for them. There are no chairs in their dressing rooms, nor can they smoke there. If they want to sit down or smoke during their “breaks,” they must sit with the customers to do so. They are fined for coming in late, calling in sick, or “talking back” to management or customers. They cannot turn down a drink from a customer.

There are “private dances” in private space, such as “lap dancing” (gyrating in the man’s lap), “bed dancing” (rubbing on a man who still has his clothes on), and “shower dancing” (in which the man can wash the woman down). Of course tips come for letting the man do more or doing hand jobs on them.

One hundred percent of the 18 women in Holsopple’s survey had been abused at their clubs; 78 percent had been stalked by customers; and 61 percent had suffered attempted assaults. Women stripping have been pelted with objects including bottles, cans, golf balls, and garbage. Customers have bitten and slapped them and tried to pull their costumes off. Not surprisingly, the women don’t like how the customers treat them, Holsopple reports.

Much has been made out of the fact that some women have paid for their education with stripping, but most have to get drunk or high before they go on the job and many develop addictions. Between that and the late nights and long hours, most find that they can’t do anything else with their lives, according to Holsopple. The women began stripping generally in their late ‘teens.

The average age of women who enter prostitution in the U.S. is 13-14, Norma Hotaling writes, making the idea of choice absurd.

Leaving is hard because the women generally need counseling, legal help, help with drug or alcohol problems, a place to live, and jobs. Public housing won’t accept tenants with criminal records (including prostitution) and landlords won’t rent to former prostitutes if they know that’s what they’ve done. Employers don’t want former prostitutes either.

And of course there are racial aspects to this. African-American women are arrested at a higher rate for prostitution, and are given longer sentences, according to a study in St. Paul.

Women working in projects in St. Paul, San Francisco, Cambodia, the Philippines, Mali, and other countries tell how they try, with limited resources, to provide all of the support services that women leaving prostitution need.

The San Francisco First Offender Program, set up with the police, the district attorney’s office, and the Department of Public Health, helps women and girls in prostitution and also has a program for johns who have been arrested in which former prostitutes tell the men how much they hated prostitution. Of the 960 men who have been through the program, only three have subsequently been arrested for buying women.

Minerva Kalenandi, a former prostitute in the U.S., writes: “I still live in fear; fear of being found by my ex-pimp or his friends; fear of being identified as a survivor and losing my job; fear of never being able to trust again. And fear that somewhere tonight another woman will be living my story, and she might not get out before she dies.”

This is a powerful and enlightening book.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jul 1999

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