“Women freely choose to sell their bodies in pornography and in prostitution” is one of the main disputes that pornstitution defenders put forward as an attempt to silence any feminist critique of misogynistic industries. Wallowing in their muddy myopia, pro-porners and pro-”sex work” people argue that “women in the sex industry (especially the porn industry) are fully consenting adults and, besides, for the most part, they make a lot of money” and then they smugly hope that their “Women freely choose, so don’t criticize the sex industry” argument will obviate any fair criticism of the multi-billion dollar sexual exploitation business. In other words, this “choice” argument is one of the most common excuses that pro-pornstitution folks use as a conversation-stopper.
Radical feminists have never denounced prostituting women and pornography performers for their choices. Instead, we compassionately acknowledge that many of those women’s choices are made under a variety of constraints. We believe that any discussion regarding prostituting women’s choices should take into consideration the different conditions under which they choose.
As Robert Jensen wrote in his recent book Getting Off
: “A meaningful discussion of choice can’t be restricted to the single moment when a woman decides to perform in a specific pornographic film but must include all the existing background conditions that affect not only the objective choices she faces but her subjective assessment of those choices.” The same applies to prostitution: one woman doesn’t suddenly wake up one morning and say “Oh, I’ve just decided today that I’m going to sell my body for sex among a wide range of opportunities to make money”, this is absurd! Prostituting women’s life stories are much more complex than this.
Debunking the “sex industry isn’t a monolith” lie
Before I raise awareness on prostituting women’s complicated choices and lack of choices, I believe it is important to mention how pornstitution’s defenders deliberately and frequently obfuscate the links between pornography, stripping, prostitution and any other forms of commodification of women’s and girls’ bodies with their “the sex industry isn’t a monolith” lie, namely pro-pornstitution folks claim that “the sex industry isn’t something merely uniform and massive; there are lots of opportunities, aspects and types.”
However, this view of the sex industry is very limited and male-centered. It all boils down to the consumerist vision of johns/porn users and the heartless capitalism of pimps/pornographers. This view of the sex industry serves to obscure the reality of a business that is one of the world’s major cases of trafficking (other main traffickings being in guns and drugs): sex trafficking, i.e. the global sexual exploitation of women and girls and their suffering inside of the sex industry.
A man can choose to take unfair advantage of the brutal and popular commodification of women and girls’ bodies in various ways: he can choose to be a strip-club patron, a pornography user, a john, etc. or he can choose to be a strip-club owner/manager, a porn producer/director, a pimp, etc.
On the other hand, a woman or girl entering the sex industry will very likely start as an exotic dancer or a prostitute,etc. then become a porn ‘actress’ or ‘nude model’, etc., or vice versa. To prostituted women, the ‘sex’ industry is something uniform and massive in this constant way: they are being (ab)used and controlled by men. The only different thing is that there are various ways within which they are being (ab)used and controlled by men.
To most prostituting women: prostitution feels like “paid rape”; pornography is prostitution plus a camera; trafficking is being transported from one place to another (domestically or internationally); stripping is a particular way of being prostituted and having one’s body being used (i.e. strip bars’ customers are often led to the impression that they have bought “the right to touch, grab, slap or otherwise violate, degrade, or devalue the woman stripping”, as former stripper Taylor Lee explained
As a matter of fact, prostitution businesses are interconnected. The Truth
is that prostitution is a global industry of sexual exploitation in which sex is traded for money, clothing, food, drugs, shelter, or favors. Prostitution (or “the sex industry”, term used as an euphemism) includes strip bars, lap-dancing clubs, massage parlors, brothels, saunas, adult and child pornography, street walking, live sex shows, phone sex, prostitution rings, Internet pornography, escort services, peep shows, ritual abuse, and mail order bride services.
Therefore, this “the sex industry isn’t a monolith or something being merely uniform and massive, blah, blah, blah” view promulgated by pro-pornstitution people is a male-centered and misogynistic myth because, in the end, it all boils down to this: the exploitation and abuse of prostituted women and girls will have various forms (in order to cater to different kinds of male needs to use female human beings as merely objects to degrade) but it still will be the exploitation and abuse of prostituted women and girls, and an ongoing suffering to them.
Corporate media propaganda
Given the mass-pornified media propaganda pervasive throughout this culture, it is no wonder that many people believe that “women freely choose to sell their bodies in pornography and in prostitution”. The malestream media typically portrays and elevates misleading images such as of “the happy hooker”, “the glamorous life of the stripper”, or “the empowering job of the porn star”. HBO and other major TV/cable channels are filled with deluding glamorizations like these in order to gloss over the dark side of the porn industry and other forms of sexual exploitation of prostituting women. Corporate media only shows the few “Jenna Jamesons” of the world, the few prostitutes/’porn actresses’ who “made it to the top”, while ignoring the overwhelming majority of women who appear in video and Internet pornography.
For instance, the problem with a typical HBO-type (or other TV channels) documentaries which glamorize the porn industry is this: the sample size (usually around 30) of porn performers interviewed is both too small and unrepresentative of the overwhelming majority of porn ‘actresses’ for these pro-porn TV programs to be accurate portrayals of what life is like for the women in the porn industry.
Of the millions of women who are pornographized worldwide, the (usual) thirty that HBO (or another TV channel) picks are the ones who are near the top of the business, who have some degree of name recognition and some kind of “fame” among porn consumers. It is likely that their tales differ to an extent from those whose names we will never know, who don’t get the “glamorous” Vivid contract, and who work in some disgusting grimy basement for a miserable amount of money.
Those on screen probably also have to protect themselves — if they say defamatory things about the pimps that prostitute them out for mass consumption, they’re likely to lose their position to someone who is a lot more compliant. Glamorized pornified documentaries such as these should normally be deserving of our contempt and little else. As a friend of mine once told me, “why does anyone believe mega corporations with billions of dollars invested into pornified media will provide a fair analysis of pornified media?” Unfortunately, too many people fall for the lies perpetuated by pornified media.
In a recent article which was published in the in Hartford Courant, Gail Dines wrote that mainstream culture “is accepting, even promoting, the media-generated sugar-coated image of the porn industry as glamorous, fun and cool. This image has been made popular by Howard Stern, documentaries on E! Entertainment and celebrity magazines such as People. The Vivid Girls are the elite of the porn industry, women who earn a decent, if short-lived livelihood, and are somewhat protected from the much larger world of more violent and body-punishing hard-core movies called “gonzo” by the industry. The (mainly white) Vivid Girls are the respectable face of the porn industry; their job is to make porn look like a wholesome route to stardom; they act as a recruitment tool for a mass production sweatshop industry that needs to keep replenishing its supply of female bodies.”
Dines also wrote that “Those women who do go into porn are mostly women from underprivileged backgrounds who, facing a life of minimum wage labor, see porn as a way out of anonymous economic drudgery. And why not? The only image they ever get of porn is one that highlights the lucky few who actually make real money and get to mix with a few B list celebrities. What they don’t get to see are the thousands and thousands of women who start in porn and end up, within a short time, working the brothels of Nevada for a pittance, or having to deal with substance abuse and sexually transmitted diseases.”
While I was having a conversation with Janice G. Raymond (the co-executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – CATW International) at a conference last year, she said to me “There are some women who choose to prostitute but there aren’t many”. I believe it is possible that there are a few women out there who do freely choose to enter the industry, are fully aware of what’s involved and/or make a lot of money. Still, I do not believe it is honest people focusing all their attention on those few somewhat privileged women while ignoring the vast majority of prostituted women who never got the chance to choose a better life, who are being controlled and mistreated by pimps, and who are used and abused by johns.
Stories of “happy hookers” or “women who love doing porn” are magnified by malestream media and are elevated in patriarchy. These “happy pornstitution stories” are exalted by pornographers and their defenders. All this done with the purpose to conceal or obscure the real life stories of those who undergo a vile and excruciating form of slavery: the sexual slavery that is prostitution.
What kind of a world is this, in which many women have to go through the pain of being penetrated vaginally, orally and anally by five to ten men a day in exchange for money (which for the most part goes to their pimps) and then all of this gets defended as “sex work”? What kind of a world is this, in which the very same acts which are done to these women, whose bodies are being sold, are filmed or photographed and then all of this gets defended as “sexual freedom” or “free speech”?
There is no doubt that pro-porners, cruelly reveling in their pornographic ‘fantasies’ and being deaf to the cries of millions of suffering women and girls, would rather not hear stories like:
“I was thirteen when I was forced into prostitution and pornography. . . I was drugged, raped, gang-raped, imprisoned, beaten, sold from one pimp to another, photographed by pimps, photographed by tricks; I was used in pornography and they used pornography on me; “[t]hey knew a child’s face when they looked into it. It was clear that I was not acting of my own free will. I was always covered with welts and bruises. . . It was even clearer that I was sexually inexperienced. I literally didn’t know what to do. So they showed me pornography to teach me about sex and then they would ignore my tears as they positioned my body like the women in the pictures and used me.”;
“My entrance into prostitution overlapped with stepdad’s sexual abuse of me. For me, it was a logical move, after all I was already having sex and getting gifts. I knew I was nothing more than some holes for men to use. So when I stayed up late and went to clubs, I was attracted to sleaze. I wanted to be the “bad girl” because being good never stopped the pain. . . From aged 12, I had started drinking. It deadened my pain. It made me not care how I was treated. I drank because then I forgot for a while. It was also a slow way to killing myself. It was within this head-space that I entered into paid sex. I was aged 14 when I first had sex for money. I thought I knew what I was doing but I had no idea. . . I was having sex too much. I had sex, but I had no love or affection. I had decided I was just an object for men to fuck. I had lost who I was. Now, I had hit on a form of self-harm that fitted me. I find it so hard to see that time, for I was so scared and abandoned. I see that time, and all I think is that I was recreating the images I had seen in hard-core porn. For, as I was being raped over and over again by these men, I had learned to act as if I was enjoying it… I was so dead inside, that after many acts of violence, I would “act normal” afterward. I could not allow myself to think about what had happened, because then I would lose my mind.”;
“[O]ver a period of eight years… I worked as a prostitute, dancer and nude model… As a prostitute I worked in massage parlours, peep shows, private apartments, street corners, bars and for escort services… At the age of seventeen I began dancing in topless and bottomless bars. I was working for a pimp and was under a lot of pressure from him and the club owners to make a lot of money. In these bars they had pornographic videos playing constantly which contained graphic scenes of various sexual acts. The women in the videos were usually naked and the men were often clothed except for their penis. . . I had never seen pornographic movies before. I soon found out that in order to make tips I had to lay on the dance floor, spread my legs and expose my genitals to the customers, just like in the videos. . . A lot of my work consisted of acting out particular scenes for the customer [john] which caused him to become aroused. . . Some of the most violent pornography that I saw was in the houses of customers that I saw through escort services… I considered the men who were into pornography to be the most dangerous and potentially violent since that is what aroused them. . . At least fifty percent of the men that I saw professionally were into fantasies and pornography such as I have described. They were men from all over the world and all types of professions. Every prostitute I know has had similar experiences. Often we keep it to ourselves because it is very painful to remember. I have been scarred for life both mentally and physically. I have violent nightmares on a regular basis which replay my worst experiences of sexual violence over and over. I have difficulty relating to people in normal social situations. I cannot make love with someone without having flashbacks of being a prostitute. I have very little self confidence…”;
“I’m just tired of the industry. The way that they treat us as though we’re just pieces of meat. That we don’t have a mind and our body is everybody’s and we have no soul… [In the porn industry] Guys [are] punching you in the face. You have semen… Twenty or thirty guys all over your face, in your eyes. You get ripped. Your insides can come out of you. It’s never ending. You’re viewed as an object not as a human with a spirit. People don’t care. People do drugs because they can’t deal with the way they’re being treated… You are a number. You’re bruised. You have black eyes. You’re ripped. You’re torn. You have your insides coming out of you. It’s not pretty and foofoo on set. You get hurt… You have to numb yourself to go on set. The more you work, the more you have to numb yourself. The more you become addicted, the more your personal life is nothing but drugs… Your whole life becomes nothing but porn… We’re ripped, we’re tired, we’re sored, we’re bleeding, we’re cut up, we have dried semen all over our faces from numerous guys and we can’t wash it off because they want to take pictures. You have this stuff all over you and they’re telling you, ‘Hold it!’… It’s all about the money. They’ve forgotten who they are and they don’t care who they’re hurting.”;
“[Melissa] Farley presented a panel on prostitution shortly after her book [Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections] came out, and a number of former prostitutes spoke. One said that Las Vegas is greatly lacking in services to help prostituted women, girls, and children. (The city has a thriving business based on the sale of young girls, ages 13-17.) She said that local charities would not help the prostituted. Once they discover you worked as one, they throw you out. . . At the panel, one prostitute came up with a startling fact: that very few women, girls, or children actually make it out of prostitution, and, of the few who do, life expectancy is short. Most are dead two or three years later. From insanity, suicide, disease?. Her remarks made me stop breathing for a few seconds. I now realize that I was incredibly lucky to actually survive the three-year stint I spent in prostitution and that the odds of my being alive now are amazing. When I was in it, I saw no way out. Esteem so low and a body and mind and emotions so battered that I could not see past the next hour or so. I felt as if I was in a ten-foot pit and could not see the rim. I smiled all the time, as if everything was okay. But I simply assumed I would die in prostitution. I gave up. What life is there after being raped thousands of times by men you don´t know? There is none. I have no courage, no self-worth―all these must come from inside and there is only empty cold space inside me. I am afraid to leave the house. I am terrified of everything. I am not a rape/prostitution survivor. I didn´t survive. I have no ´support network´ since I have never spoken to another prostitute. I am always afraid I will see the same sadness in her eyes that I see in my own. The only way I know what other prostitutes think is through people like Melissa Farley, who has talked to so many all over the world. With surprise, I found many similarities―whether it´s Bangkok or Bombay or London or Las Vegas, the raped body feels the same. Through Farley´s interviews, I have also found ones who are ´true´ survivors. Hope and peace and safety they have found. That´s not me. No hope, no peace, and certainly no safety―since I am terrified to go outside the door. This is a big deal for me since you can´t do much of anything else if you can´t cross the threshold, into the outside world. I pretty much live in spite of this. The beautiful things in the world–I know they are there–but I can´t reach them for comfort. I am still ten feet down, in that pit. I love sparrows. So small and cute and sweet and fragile, yet also so cheeky and spirited. I wish I could appreciate the beauty of a sparrow again.”; or
“What I saw were women just like myself who were desperate, addicted to drugs, homeless, and I’m sure probably at least 80 percent of them suffered from sexual abuse as children. I saw them re-living their childhood experiences by getting into that industry. They were looking for attention, pleasing men, and being abused. And that’s all they know. They think it’s great. They think it’s wonderful. I could’ve looked you in the eye ten years ago and told you that I loved being in pornography, was proud of what I was doing and that I was having a great time. But now I can tell you that it’s so far from the truth. I was very convincing. I could convince you. I mean, I could walk up to a porn star today and she could tell me the same story and I can remember being in that place.”
Pro-pronstitution folks would rather not hear such stories; they’d rather avoid such stories; they’d rather not care about such stories; they’d rather try to silence these women’s stories. I do not believe it is fair. There are many stories like these and probably many more that we do not even know about. These accounts are the true stories of the daily lives of many women an girls who are/have been in the sex(-slave) trade and these bought and sold female human beings don’t want to hear about “sex work”!
The problem is that, for most people, it is very hard to understand why women who are in prostitution or pornography would not enjoy their ‘job’, because people only see a few of them on TV pseudo-documentaries which glamorize the sex industry and the women they see typically say they do it because “they love the sex and they feel good about their bodies”. People usually fall for mainstream media propaganda and conclude that prostituting women are “having a great time” because “they say that they are having a great time”.
Unfortunately, most people do not understand Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the mental process of dissociation. Of the 854 prostituted respondents interviewed by researchers, 68% met the criteria for PTSD. Women in prostitution whose tricks or pimps had made pornography of them had significantly more severe symptoms of PTSD than did prostituted women who did not have pornography made of them. While it is hard to tell how another person feels, we do know that prostituted and pornographized women often have their mind splitting into different parts of the self in order to be able to cope with what they do.
Dissociative disorders are common in prostituted women. Seeing a prostituting woman on a screen smiling and saying that “she loves her job” does not necessarily mean that she is happy . She might believe that she is happy while being shielded in a form of protective denial with the purpose to protect herself from the painful reality she lives in: the ongoing abuse which occurs in the sex trade.
In a study of the strip bar industry, strippers reported a dissociation to abuse: “It takes a willingness to do it…anybody can do it.” “It takes somebody who can shut themselves off and be really fake.” In her book Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress (2003), Melissa Farley, clinical psychologist and researcher (whose research on prostitution has been used by state governments, as well as by advocates and organizations providing services to prostituted and trafficked women) wrote: “In order to survive the brutal commodification of their sexuality in prostitution, women dissociate, and appear to accept the view of themselves as sexual commodities.”
In a study of 854 prostituting (mostly female) human beings from nine countries (Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Zambia), 57% reported having been raped in prostitution; 73% reported having experienced physical assault in prostitution; 49% had pornography made of them; 75% were currently or formerly homeless; and 89% stated that they wanted to escape prostitution immediately. Summarizing different study findings, research carried out on prostitutes (some of whom had pornography made of them) and clinical literature on different types of prostitution, it is estimated that between 65% and 95% of women in prostitution were sexually assaulted as children. This Farley et al. nine-country study is the most comprehensive research on prostitution which the world has known to date!
In Germany, where prostitution is legal, out of the estimated 400,000 Germany’s “sex workers” only 100 joined a union. That’s .00025% of German prostitutes. According to the Nevada Coalition Against Sex Trafficking, 81% of women in the Nevada legal brothel prostitution urgently want to escape it. This makes even clearer that women don’t want to be prostitutes!
In spite of all this, “sex work” advocates carry on their propaganda by upholding the anti-woman status quo. “Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession”, they frequently say; this misogynistic saying should be translated as “Women as whores: that’s what women are for, have always been for, and will always be for: being men’s whores”. It is also worth pointing out that the pornstitution industry and pornified corporate media glorify the few women who defend them as an attempt to conceal the obvious misogyny of the ‘sex’ industry (i.e. trying to show something like this: “See, if some women defend it; it can’t be misogynistic”).
Many of the pro-pornstitution women are, without any doubt, financed by the ‘sex’ industry itself! So, pro-pornstitution women more often get to be heard than us (rad fems) in this atrocious patriarchy. Radical feminists know that the overwhelming majority of people who defend pornography and prostitution are in fact men, though. Pro- pornstitution women are merely a sideshow (a pro-porn tactic to create diversion).
The few somewhat privileged women who genuinely want to stay in prostitution (probably due to the deeply entrenched institutionalized female masochism enforced by patriarchy) are elevated in male-supremacist culture. They are magnified by pornified media, highly praised by “sex work” advocates and pro-porners; they are given megaphones, book deals, spaces on major websites, etc.
Some of those few women who “make it to the top” in the pornstitution industry become pimps (i.e. Madams) themselves and (ab)use the other women they sell, instead of channeling their internalized anger (from past abuse) in the right direction: toward the industry itself and the johns/porn users who abused them. The “sex work” advocates inhumanly refuse to hear the stories of the vast majority of prostituting women or prostitution survivors and attempt to silence them.
A few months ago, some “sex work” advocates violently attempted to disrupt a play entitled My Real Name, which used the real life stories of survivors of prostitution. My Real Name was about, by, and for survivors of prostitution and sex trafficking, and was a racially and ethnically diverse production. Maxine Doogan, a “sex work” advocate who wrote a propaganda piece called “Anti-prostitution group commits violence on sex worker”, is a convicted madam from Washington state. She encourages prostituting women to oppose anti-prostitution feminists and sex industry survivors. Maxine Doogan was one of the women who orchestrated the racist and classist ruckus that occurred when the play My Real Name was being performed in Berkeley.
Some “sex work” advocates, such as Yasmin Nair in Clamor Magazine, have even gone so far as saying that women who are from poor countries and who are trafficked into the U.S. for prostitution, are lying about being pimped, enslaved, raped, beaten and sold into the American sex industry. Those “sex work” advocates have claimed that trafficked women are “problably migrating for ‘sex work'” instead. Victims of sex trafficking have been recognized by Amnesty International, Equality Now, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the Polaris Project and hundreds of other international organizations. This sort of “sex work” advocates’ propaganda indeed erases rapes and promotes racism.
There are many agencies that specialize in recruiting young women to the porn industry with the promise of making big money and becoming a star. Indeed, the money is an attraction for mostly young, working-class women who face limited choices in a harsh economy. Given those economic realities and the glamorization of pornography, it’s not surprising that some young women will see this as a viable career option. Undeniably, the whole culture promotes the “porn star” job as a glamorous job. In TV shows, the image of the “porn star” is shown as “liberating” and “empowering” for women.
Some young girls unfortunately, turning 18, fall for the pernicious ideologies that the media industries (whose owners, managers, producers and broadcasters are predominantly men) want them to believe. Brainwashing pornified pimp culture obviously trains women and girls to view the porn industry as glamorous. However, those young women and girls who enter the porn industry after having had a harmful pornified media training, are often not aware of the conditions in which they will “work”. They’ve only seen the glamorized side of porn and hope they can become the next Jenna Jameson. They aren’t aware of the ongoing sexual violence that goes on in porn.
The average age of entry into prostitution is 13-14 years old (Sources: M.H. Silbert and A.M. Pines, 1982, “Victimization of street prostitutes”, Victimology: An International Journal, 1982; and D. Kelly Weisberg, Children of the Night: A Study of Adolescent Prostitution, 1985). Many women in pornography are only 18, and are easily used and discarded by the industry. Most pornography performers have a very brief “shelf life”, they find themselves being overexposed so, even if they initially command a high rate per scene or per movie, their market value as “fresh meat” declines rapidly. Some ex-porn ‘actresses’ and people who knew pornography performers, are also known to have revealed that most women in porn are indeed survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
When we expose the facts, “sex work” advocates argue that we are “portraying women in the sex industry as victims” and that we are “denying their autonomy”. All this is untrue and “sex work” advocates fail (do not want) to understand our analysis of circumstances within which some women have much more limited choices than others in patriarchal capitalist society. “Sex work” advocates simply do not want to face the fact that denying major study results on prostitution along with real life stories of prostitution survivors is a deplorable repudiation of one’s empathy.
Some “sex work” advocates claim that the exploitation of prostituting women arises from the social stigma associated with prostitution. There is a great body of evidence that prostituted women are still being horribly discriminated against in countries where prostitution is legal. The issue of stigmatization of prostituted women and girls simply cannot be separated from their ongoing reality of economic exploitation and sexual and physical violence.
The ‘sex’ industry has done a great job in focusing the debate on “women’s choices”, while the focus of any discussion on the subject should be on the consumers who CHOOSE to use pornography, and, in the case of prostitution, on the johns who CHOOSE to buy women for sex.
“In the past we had a women’s movement which understood that the choice to be beaten by one man for economic survival was not a real choice, despite the appearance of consent a marriage contract might provide. Yet now we are supposed to believe, in the name of ‘feminism’, that the choice to be fucked by hundreds of men for economic survival must be affirmed as a real choice, and if the woman signs a model release then there is no coercion there”.
— Catharine A. MacKinnon.
ETA: For a follow-up to this post see this post here: On Choices (part 2): Prostitution and the Agency of Johns
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