NWSA: Beyond the sex wars?

NWSA: Beyond the sex wars?

Douglas, Carol Anne

NWSA: Beyond the Sex Wars?

More than 800 women attended the National Women’s Studies Association’s annual conference at Oswego State University on June 10-14. The highlight was the final plenary session, “Beyond the Sex Wars: Feminism, Sexuality, and Power in a Commodity Culture.” But the first speaker appeared to be addressing the first part of the title, while the second two were addressing the second part.

going beyond purity

The title of the panel was “profoundly hopeful,” said Wendy Chapkis, author of the book Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor in which she interviewed sex workers. Some of us have a deep desire to leave the trenches behind and stop firing at each other, Chapkis said. There have been awful consequences to the sex wars in the women’s movement, she said. We should assess what we have learned and honor the insights of all sides.

The war is the problem, not the differences among us, said Chapkis. I’m never going to agree with Sheila Jeffreys (the British, Australia-based feminist author of a new book opposing prostitution). Our style of expressing differences is dangerous and must change: the future of the movement is at stake, she said.

We cannot forge a synthetic agreement, but we must go beyond the purity of identity or tribal politics, Chapkis said. “Purity is the real enemy.” We reduce each other to one-dimensional stick figures. We speak of sex workers as if they were one-dimensional. She quoted a teen-age streetwalker as saying it is too simple to say that prostitution is good or evil.

Too often women who research the sex industry seek stories that reaffirm our point of view, but not other stories, Chapkis said. She quoted sex worker Carol Queen as saying that if you ask only negative questions about sex work, you will get only one side. A Norwegian street prostitute who was interviewed in a book by a Norwegian feminist said that what was written about her was true, but that there was a double edge to everything that the book didn’t capture.

Both sides of the debate in the sex wars are quicker to form alliances with expressly anti-feminist people who come out on their side (such as the church or libertarians) than with feminists on the other side, because it is expedient, Chapkis said.

In the early ’90s, she went to a National Organization for Women meeting and heard an anti-pornography white man describe his research showing that watching pictures depicting violence against women increased men’s propensity for violence. Chapkis asked him whether it would make a difference if the pictures were labeled consensual sex. He said that she might understand that, but poor black teen-age boys would not pick up on the subtlety. She offered this as example of a dubious ally for anti-pornography feminists.

Several years ago, she attended a meeting and was uncomfortable that Playboy had partially funded it to bring in a sex worker from Europe. In return, a Playboy reporter was allowed to cover the event and was hoping to cover a cat fight among women. Chapkis told him that she was not pleased with everything anti-pornography feminists did, but she thought it was important to note that they were responding to real male violence. She said that feminists should be united, fighting real enemies such as the administration of then-President George Bush. The Playboy journalist expressed surprise and said that he was friends with William Buckley. Chapkis said this incident showed her that “anti-pornography feminists have no monopoly on courting the right wing.”

We all must be self-critical and retain our sense of humor about ourselves and each other, Chapkis said. We should read each other’s work and teach it. We need to see what is smart about each other’s arguments as well as what is wrong. We might learn something that would modify our own point of view.

There is no copyright on the word “feminist,” Chapkis said. “We should let go of self-righteousness and accept that all of us are passionately concerned about the well-being of women. Even on commercial sex, we have points of agreement,” she said, whether we work for the abolition of prostitution or for prostitutes’ rights.

We agree that there is a great deal of violence against sex workers by their clients and by the police, Chapkis said. There are over 100,000 arrests of sex workers a year in the United States. “We agree that there need to be changing attitudes toward these women.”

A former street prostitute now working for the prostitutes’ rights group Red Thread in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, told her that prostitution was awful for her but she thinks it’s important to promote respect for prostitutes. This woman gives talks to the police in an attempt to do this.

Don’t just tell one story about prostitution, Chapkis urged. There are the stories of survivors of sexual slavery and the stories of sexual rebels: the same woman may tell those different stories. Each story has its own truth.

Sex is about violence and negotiation, pleasure and exploitation; these can be present in both commercial and noncommercial sex, Chapkis said.

Both sides would agree that just because prostitution has always existed does not mean that it must always exist or cannot change. she said.

There needs to be a fundamental redistribution of money between women and men and among men and among women, Chapkis urged. No one should be forced into sex work, but we should honor the labor of those who do it. Our concerns are the interests of the workers, not of the employers or the clients, Chapkis said. We should respect sexual diversity, whether it is for love or commercial. We should create conditions under which consent can become more meaningful, Chapkis said. We have got to figure out a way to support each other, she concluded.

prostition is not a choice

The next speaker, Kelly Holsopple of Breaking Free in St. Paul, Minn., the Metropolitan Coalition Against Prostitution, and the Center for Prostitution Research and Action said, “I am a survivor of prostitution.” Its proponents promote it as entertainment, sex therapy, a service, or as sexually healing. However, “they do not want to empower but to destroy women.”

“Pimps want money and tricks want to get their dicks wet,” Holsopple said. They inflict prostitution on women and children. They prevent women and children from escaping, and make them dependent financially and dependent on chemicals. Prostituted women and children simply want food, money, and shelter. It is not a question of morality or choice but of circumstances. “If you are starving and homeless, prostitution is not a choice,” she said.

Pimps and tricks say it is a job like any other and tell you that you are smarter than women who give it away for free, Holsopple said. “If any of you academic women are tired of their job and want to do it, you can.” They pay to fuck you with fists, animals, bottles, and garden hoses. They tie you up and burn you with cigarettes and photograph you. Your wages are negotiated with transaction and you are paid only if the client comes. There are no benefits for hazards like mutilation and death. “Do you want this job?” she asked. “Do you want your daughter to take this job? Then, whose daughter?”

“Prostitutes do not do it because they want sex,” Holsopple continued. “Not one woman I knew in 13 years said she got in it for sex. After you get out, you do not say that you miss the sex.”

It is the intersection of incest, rape, battering and torture. Which comes first, that, or prostitution? she asked.

The great majority of prostitutes have slave status, she said. This keeps a class of women and children available for use. Tricks don’t care if you are coerced or consent, they don’t care if you are 12 or 22, Holsopple said. “Sex work is not female sexual expression.” Tricks fuck infants to death. A 60-year-old man holds a 14-year-old girl’s head in his lap.

“I was devastated to learn that some feminist books promoted prostitution,” she said. “I cried. They pimp other women. In a fantasy world they try to neutralize it, to make it further and further abstract. They keep us on our backs and on our knees. We can’t stand up because the man is on top of us or holding down or heads.”

These feminists are avoiding the reality of women and children in prostitution, who are forced into it by power, hunger or other reasons, Holsopple said. These feminists reinforce the idea that women like being violated. “Do they know that they are being turned out, used by pimps and tricks? They are promoting pimps and tricks at the expense of women and children,” she asserted.

Making a class of women for men’s use does not protect other women from rape and torture, Holsopple said. “Men treat prostitutes like women. No class of women is exempt.” Prostitution is not liberating and disobedient, it is under a system of control, she said. Men should not be entitled to uncontrolled use of women’s and children’s bodies.

Women imitating men is not liberating, Holsopple said. A woman who slaps her girlfriend is a batterer. A woman who pays for sex is a trick.

When the current status of women is defended, we call that right-wing conservatism, she said.

In order for feminists to advocate for women’s independence, they must advocate for women to get out of prostitution, Holsopple maintained. Make education, housing, and skills available for women, she urged. Prostitution is not a solution to poverty or discrimination.

Don’t use ambiguous terms like “sex work,” Holsopple said. Call pimps “pimps,” not “employers.” Call tricks “tricks,” not “clients.”

Question why prostitution exists, she urged. Don’t accept it. “Prostitution is not a normal condition for women. If you can’t imagine consenting to these things, why do you think other women would?”

“Prostitution is not a career and prostitutes are not your career,” Holsopple concluded.

twenty million women and children

Twenty million women and children in the world are in the sex trade, said Ninotchka Rosca, of the GABRIELA Network, a Philippine/U.S. women’s solidarity organization working with the largest women’s coalition in the Philippines. This is not considered critical, or even a human rights violation. This illustrates the relative strength of the women’s movement and where the power lies in the global economy, Roscasaid. “If these had been heads of cattle, there would be an outcry, pickets and demonstrations every day. If it were 20 million men, there would be memorials every day.”

It took officials at Beijing two weeks to get a declaration of a truth that is self-evident — a woman should have control over her sexuality, Roscasaid. The Catholic Church and the Muslim countries jumped up and down about it. Did it mean that a woman could refuse to marry? Did it encourage lesbianism? There doesn’t have to be a declaration that men should have control over their sexuality, she noted.

The sex trade is the third most lucrative criminal activity in the world — the first is the trade in drugs and the second is the trade in weapons, Roscasaid. Of those, selling women is the least dangerous, and it involves the largest number of people.

“This is not a question of one woman setting up shop. These are large-scale organizations that are extremely systematic,” she said.

Southeast Asia was the original model of the international sex trade, but it is being replicated throughout Asia and in Latin America and Africa.

Recent raids in brothels in New York found Korean, Chinese, and Russian women held in slavery, Rosca said

In Thailand, two million women work in sex tourism, 800,000 of them minors. Thirty-six percent of them are HIV positive. The national economy relies on the sex trade.

When South Korea was recovering from the Korean War, two million women went through the sex trade.

There is a prevailing idea that the sex trade is hidden. That is not so, Rosca asserted. The Netherlands is the center for 20,000 Filipina women who are sent to sex farms in Europe, under coercion. In a small country like the Netherlands, the authorities must know about this.

The sex traffic began in my country (the Philippines) with a few huts near U.S. bases, then grew to 30,000 women, she said. It was deliberately designed to serve those bases. “There are 150 languages in my country, but none of them has a word for prostitution. The closest word is for a woman who makes bad choices. We have to use the Spanish word because there are no indigenous ones.”

“We now export 375,000 women, 200,000 a year. They are the Philippines’ chief export,” she continued. Most are domestic workers in male-headed households.

“We don’t ask why women go. There are huge economic and political forces drawing women out. The international labor markets siphoning women from the poor countries to be servants in the richer ones,” Rosca said.

The sex traffic includes girls being taken from Burma to Thailand, because Thai men believe that having sex with a virgin can cure AIDs. Girls of 10-16 are preferred.

Russian and Eastern European women are sent to the U.S. and Japan.

There are Korean and Filipina women serving military bases in the U.S., as they do in their own countries.

Mail-order brides from Asia, Russia, and Eastern Europe come to the United States. They have to remain married for two years to stay, although the husbands may batter them. Some men who order mail-order brides divorce them at 18 and marry younger women, perhaps their younger sisters: some of these women kill themselves, she said. Some of those who sell mail-order brides — and they are sold — say the man can return them after 30 days. One serial killer in Waco married and murdered three of these women, and was discovered only after the third time.

“What is most shocking is the general acceptance of the use of women for capital accumulation,” Rosca said. “This is unconscionable, terrifying. We are being convinced that there is nothing wrong with this, this is choice. Twenty million woman and children are making a choice? No!” she shouted.

“It’s time for the feminist movement to stop talking about and studying the women,” Rosca said. “They should study the economic structure. It is imperative to understand that this is a systematic industry and we have to fight it.”

A woman in the audience asked the speakers to address the homeless lesbian and gay youth who have to rely on selling their bodies to survive.

Holsopple said that lesbian girls prostituted to heterosexual men blow away the idea of prostitution as choice. In Minnesota, there are youth shelters that serve homeless lesbian and gay youth and host homes of adult lesbians and gays who provide shelter for lesbians and gays aged 16-18.

Another woman asked how to fight the international sex trade.

Rosca answered that GABRIELA is having a conference in New York. They are asking young men to sign a pledge that they will not patronize the sex trade. Decriminalization of the women and criminalization of the pimps and tricks is important, she said. GABRIELA opposes legalization.

Historian Bernice Carroll asked about the class structure in the sex industry.

Kelly said that class is controlled by the class of men who use them. When the men stop using them, the women no longer have access to them.

Chapkis said that she had been disturbed by the class aspects of sex work, which emerged in all of the interviews she did. White middle-class women who are doing it to put themselves through law school talk about poor women as if they had that option if they would only save money.

A woman in the audience noted that Wendy Chapkis said she would never agree with Sheila Jeffreys and asked if she agreed with Kelly Holsopple and Ninotchka Rosca.

There are points of agreement, Chapkis said. “I don’t think that prostitution is selling women’s bodies,” she said. “I don’t think that all of them are. Some are.” I do think that there are incredible abuses, she said. I agree that men treat prostitutes like women. We as a culture believe that women who are sexual deserve what they get, are asking to be raped. I agree with a critique of international capitalism. Capital accumulation is not unique to prostitution. There is an inequality between nations. Exoticizing unequal others applies to all tourists: it’s a bigger problem than sex tourism.

Donna Hughes of the University of Rhode Island noted that the U.S. has been out of the Philippines for two years, but now under a new treaty has access to all 22 Philippine military bases. Will the sex industry there therefore spread to serve them? she asked. And how can we oppose this?

Rosca said we could try to convince Congress to pass a law requiring the U.S. to be responsible for all the children generated by U.S. servicemen. There now are 200,000 AmerAsian children in the Philippines who have no access to education.

A woman suggested that women in universities near military bases in the U.S. can get in touch directly with the women serving those bases.

Another woman in the audience said that if academic women do research on the prostitutes, not the pimps and tricks, that’s what will be used in court. They should do research on the men. There should also be research on men who buy mail-order brides.

Holsopple said that johns should be arrested as sex offenders, with punishment based on whether they are chronic, like drunken drivers.

A woman in the audience said that she was struck at the contrast between theory and practice. She was struck at the privilege of being able to theorize.

The workshop on Theories and Practice of Sexual Exploitation also focused on sexual slavery. Sheila Jeffreys launched it by explaining the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, which says that prostitution is sexual violence against women and is seeking to have it accepted as such, as marital rape has been.

Up to 70 percent of prostituted women were abused in childhood, Jeffreys said. Then they are raped by pimps and clients. On the Italian Riviera, a serial killer murdered six mostly Algerian prostitutes, but there was no great attempt to stop him until he killed two “respectable” women.

It is important to use the term “prostituted women,” not to say sex work, because the former term brings the agent — the man or men — into the picture, Jeffreys said. “Client” also is a normalizing word: “prostitution perpetrator” would be a better one, she said.

Prostituted women say they dissociate to survive, Jeffreys said.

Prostitution is legal in Melbourne, where she teaches. The women say that in the half hour, they try to make the sex happen in the last five minutes, because then they won’t have do as much. If the men are drunk, the women try to get them to sleep so they won’t have to do it.

Practices such as prostitution normalize what we are trying to get rid of, she said. Prostitution normalizes harassment. Professors at her university who are not supposed to harass students can go down the street and pay for a prostitute, who may be one of the same students, and do what they are not otherwise supposed to do. Sex phone lines normalize obscene phone calls, she added.

The coalition has brought to the United Nations a proposal calling for penalizing the johns and decriminalizing the women and defining prostitution as violence against women.

In May, Sweden passed a bill decriminalizing the women and penalizing the men who buy them, Jeffreys said enthusiastically.


In Japan, there has been so much focus on a current rash of prostitution by teen-age schoolgirls that the traffic in Asian women has been made invisible, said Kazuko Watanabe of Kyoto Sangyo University. Ten thousand mostly Southeast Asian women a year are brought to Japan to get jobs and then find out that the job is prostitution. By the time they arrive, they are deeply in debt to the traffickers and forced to pay back killed by pimps. Some escape their debts. Often they are shot up with drugs to keep them from protesting. Some are killed by their clients. Some kill themselves or are able to escape and get help. The Asian economic crisis has worsened this, Watanabe said.

Although Japan’s law passed a law that was supposed to rehabilitate prostitutes, still women are punished and men who use them are not.

In 1980, the Asian Women’s Association was founded to work to stop sex tourism from Japan to other nations, but more women from other countries are being brought to Japan.

In recent years, a fad has developed in which teen-age girls accept money for going out with older men, sometimes having sex with them. Men have developed an obsession with schoolgirls. In a survey, some girls said they do it to rebel against their parents. One girl said the customer was the first person who ever gave her a compliment. Some said they regretted it, some were disgusted, a few said that they would do it again. There is no adequate education or protection for girls, Watanabe said.

Bang-Soon Yoon of Central Washington University presented a report on Japan’s use of sexual slaves (so-called “comfort women”) from Korea and other subject countries during World War II. The Japanese government, both military and civilian agencies, was directly involved in running the brothels. But terms such as “brothel” and “prostitution” are not entirely appropriate because the women were not paid, just given food, clothing, and sometimes cosmetics. The Japanese government began forcing women into serving their military in 1937, in the wake of international condemnation of its soldiers’ widescale rape in the taking of Nanking, China. The Japanese government still has not acknowledged its role in the sexual slavery, she said.


Sarvi Chitsaz, the U.S. representative on the National Sexual Exploitation and Council of Resistance of Iran, was not able to attend the conference, but a friend read her paper.

Many women have been executed in Iran. Seventy percent of the resistance movement is composed of women.

Since the advent of the fundamentalist regime in 1978. Women cannot be judges, because they supposedly are not rational but are ruled by their emotions. Ninety-seven fields of study, including engineering and agriculture, have been barred to women. The regime says that there are two different forms of human beings, women and men. Men have larger brains. Woman is the embodiment of sin and must be in the home. It is a woman’s sacred responsibility to satisfy her husband. A woman has no right to leave home without her husband’s permission.

Many women have been stoned to death, supposedly for adultery but actually for political activism. When a woman is stoned, she is buried in the ground up to her neck, while a man is buried only up to the waist.

The age of marriage for girls is nine. Some can be married younger, with the consent of the father and a court.

Suicide rates for girls are increasing. There are many suicides the day after marriage. Many girls are taken to the hospital for serious injuries after such marriages.

The government allows families to sell girl children.

There is much rape of women prisoners. The Ayatollah Khomeini decreed that all women prisoners must be raped before execution so they will not be virgins and therefore will not go to heaven. The women’s parents were sent boxes of cookies after executions with a note from the government saying that their daughters were married to their guards the night before the execution.

Many schoolgirls were politically active at the time that the Khomeini regime began. The government tried to stop them with systematic rape.

Also, the government has set up some hidden residences for women prisoners where they are systematically raped for years. Some who have been set free have become mentally disordered.

The government also has extracted confessions from parents by raping their daughters in front of them.

Prostitution is more prevalent in Iran under fundamentalist rule than it ever has been before. The eight-year war with Iraq in the late ’70s and the ’80s caused many deaths, and the widows often had no other way to survive.

The government created the institution of “temporary marriages,” which supposedly are religiously acceptable, which can last for as little as 24 hours and can be repeated as many times as the man wants.


Sheila Jeffreys has criticized the prostitution of boys in Australia, but she said that queer practice and theory has made it more difficult for feminists to critique this practice. Queer theory promotes sexual minorities such as pedophiles. This is seen as an expression of sexual freedom. Pat Califia has said that prostitution is a sexual preference.

Jeffreys told of a survey in which 20-25 percent of gay men said that they had accepted money for sex. Some boys and men say that acts of prostitution had raised their status, but on the other hand they talk about dissociating during sex as prostituted women so.

Some gay male theorists say that pornography is crucial to a gay male identity and should be protected. They maintain that it is transformative because it undermines heterosexuality. These kinds of sex are said to help men transcend boundaries of selfhood, but women need to reclaim ourselves as subjects, Jeffreys said.

For the past 10 years, there has been a lesbian sex industry. Some brothels in Melbourne have a women’s night. Jeffreys said she has heard British lesbians talk about going on a sex tour to Australia because they could go to brothels there.

Donna Hughes of the University of Rhode Island discussed the use of the Internet to promote prostitution. Men use the Internet to choose and compare notes on particular prostitutes in Thailand and other countries, she said.

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women has a site on the Internet.

Illustration (Pair of legs)

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jul 1998

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved