The hostel that we called home for a week just happened to be right next to Central Park West. Monday morning we met with Lauren, our faithful Soapbox Inc. contact to walk over to Central Park for an introductory brunch with the one and only Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, authors of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism. Without these two inspiring women, this experience would not have been possible. I was instantly star struck and distinctly remember someone saying, "look at these superstars just hanging out in Central Park!" This was the first time that all of us were together and I instantly felt the solidarity as each woman told their "click moments" with feminism. Subjects ranged from domestic violence to being excluded from playing football. It was so indicative of how gender inequalities span across spectrums of everyday life experiences. I felt myself becoming instantly jealous of those who explained that they were raised to be a feminist. Though I am grateful for my roller coaster of "click moments" because it has made me into the person typing before you.
As Jennifer Baumgardner described New York City as a "Petri dish", Amy Richards segued into our eventful day that focused on sex work and sex trafficking. She reminded us to "keep an open mind when you go into these spaces" and for us "to try to understand where they're coming from theoretically." Most importantly, Amy said, "don't try to be the perfect feminist."
In the realm of advocating for sex workers rights, one would think that the solutions would be cut and dry, especially coming from a feminist perspective. However there seems to be, as seen in all social movements of the past and present, a divisive school of thought on the issue. I visited two different organizations, each going in a separate theoretical direction.
The NOVO Foundation supports initiatives for women and girls, specifically those affected by armed conflict. They were responsible for such programs as the The Girl Effect. We met with Pamela Shifman, Director of Initiatives for Women and Girls. She caught my particular interest when I found out that she had served as a legal advisor for the ANC Parliamentary Women's Caucus in South Africa. How absolutely amazing. As she is also a Women's Studies professor, she was very helpful in explaining the opposing sides of sex worker theory.
The Dutch Model to sex work focuses on legalizing prostitution. Using this model indicates to me that prostitution is not exploitative and is just a job. In Amsterdam, they believe criminalizing sex work is stigmatizing it. However, it is a matter of perception. While this model makes sense as a theory in a women's studies text, Pamela explained that this system needs more regulation. To me, it is implying that women choose to sell sex. Most Dutch women do not choose to become prostitutes, therefore many of the girls in the Red Light District are illegally trafficked from Eastern Europe. So let's protect the Dutch citizens... but not the illegally trafficked women?
That's where the Swedish model comes in. They were the first country to adopt this. According to this theory, prostitution equals more violence against women. The act of selling sex is not violent, however, the buyer often turns down that path to reinforce some patriarchal notion of manhood dominance. NOVO believes the Swedish model is the best way to address gender inequalities within sex work. Most women choose this profession as their last option. In the U.S., the average age for becoming a prostitute is 14. For most of these young girls, selling sex is probably not their dream career. In fact, when I was 14, I had to get a worker's permit to file papers in a dentist office. I would hardly equate filing papers to selling your body. Pamela also pointed out that teenagers are more vulnerable because they have the least amount of choices. Using the Swedish model, the seller is not criminalized but the BUYER is. This is absolutely opposite of how we do things in the United States. We stigmatize the prostitute but give the "John" a high-five.
When speaking of illegal sex trafficking, and yes, there are thousands of human beings being trafficked into other countries to be sold into labor every single day. Sorry to burst anyone's bubble of a free world. Most of those trafficked for sex are women and girls from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe who face multiple forms of oppression. There is no choice involved. Many of them are lied to and know there will be a risk for leaving with strange people who promise them a better life. Imagine your life is waking up into poverty, being raped everyday with gun fire all around you. Not much of a choice is it?
The International Women's Health Coalition acts to protect the reproductive and sexual rights of women and girls worldwide. We met with Audacia Ray, Program Officer for Online Communications and Campaigns and Lori Adelman, Program Assistant for Communications. Audacia also hosts a monthly storytelling series, The Red Umbrella Diaries, an avenue for former sex workers to share personal stories and wrote Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing In on Internet Sexploitation.
According to IWHC, the health of women and girls is a community problem. Women should be engaged in every decision on sex and reproduction. IWHC believes that empowering, advocating, mobilizing and informing a community are all critically linked. To make sure advocacy is effective, one must combine local and global grassroots and policies. IWHC, and Audacia, are aligned with the Dutch Model approach to prostitution. She explained the word "sex work" is an umbrella term that encompasses all forms of sex work: prostitution, exotic dancing, phone sex operator, etc. It is often confused with sex trafficking, which is the illegal coercion of people into selling sex. Audacia recently embarked on a journey to India and made a powerful short film on sex workers in the Sangli district:
Sex workers' rights are human rights. I think as feminists, we can all agree on that. Sex workers should ideally have autonomy over their own bodies, have the right to work and be free from violence. The UN Declaration of Human Rights only added women's rights in 1995. Nonetheless, this is should he upheld by all member states. The problem comes in, Audacia states in an article for RH Reality Check, when "some feminists are quick to leap into conversations about sex work and trafficking to speak for the affected communities," instead of providing sustainable training to "prioritize the voices of sex workers themselves, so that sex workers can articulate what they need to be safe, healthy, and able to provide for themselves and their families." Which is a good point, because oftentimes feminists with a "rescue complex" like to think of women in prostitution as simply that: prostitutes. We forget that they have a family and possibly a significant other whom they also have sex with. In this way of thinking, they are just doing a job.
I am torn between the two approaches, as I found with several of my colleagues in NYC. It seems we've come to a crossroads where we can run in opposite directions or somehow merge together to fight the negative consequences of the world's oldest profession: violence, exploitation, trafficking and abuse, without victimizing those who choose to be in this business. To me, the fact that an overwhelmingly large amount of those in prostitution are gender-identified as female, this tells us something about patriarchal underpinnings of society. Sure, we should all be free to do with our bodies what we wish, but when that freedom only advances the egos of scum bags who do 5-year-old girls, where do we draw the line? I'd love to know the answer. I'd love to know how to mark a clear and concise solid line on the age of consent (U.N.=18?). I think we need to start looking at the socialization of the buyers: men and boys, and stop blaming the sellers. We need to provide social programs for sex workers, which NOVO and IWHC gave me conflicting statistics on. And most importantly, we need to stop the white, middle class feminist that likes to swoop in like Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman and rescue all of these sex workers in the developing world. How about instead of blaming the "victim" of dire circumstances, we try and advocate for policies and practices that change her circumstances so that prostitution isn't the best option.
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