Monday, 25 October 2010

On Invisible Harms

I just had an article published by the European Women's Lobby. They sent me, along with a couple of copies of the magazine, a dvd called 'Not For Sale' , which they produced jointly with the Coalition Against Trafficking Women. They also sent me 'The Links Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking: A Briefing Handbook', full of facts about prostitution and pornography. It makes for pretty grim reading.

What really interests me is this question: where are these facts and statistics when prostitution and pornography are debated in everyday life?

This information is not hidden away: it is not stored in some secret cache in a darkened room. Yet it is completely absent from most discussions. Why is that? If one were to debate the pros and cons of genetic engineering, one would never attempt to do so without recourse to information, to facts and figures. If one were to debate anything of import, from capital punishment to the welfare state, in any meaningful way, one would expect to use data and evidence.

The sex industry has made a good job of ensuring these facts are kept out of debates about prostitution and pornography by instead using a language which is extremely attractive to the modern western mind. Choice, liberalism, empowerment - who doesn't support those? I have argued elsewhere that this language has no place in the context of the sex industry. Their arguments are largely attractively packaged hot air.

The point that the dvd I watched made, and which I believe to be one hundred percent true is this: that when we adopt this language, in particular where a state legalises prostitution, it serves to make the harm done to the women involved invisible.

Legalising prostitution makes the harm done to the women it uses invisible.

There are fewer exiting services in countries where it prostitution is legal. Why? because where it is legalised, it becomes viewed as just another job, and why would you need help to exit a normal job? Just think about it. Where prostitution is legal, the pimp becomes a businessman, an entrepreneur, whose interests are protected by law. The language of abuse vanishes. The women who are prostituted become 'sex workers', the johns become 'clients'. A veneer of respectability is given to a system that is no respecter of human rights. An atmosphere where daily acts of violence and degradation are perpetrated on women becomes legitimate because it takes place in a 'safe' setting. What is safe about being penetrated, hurt, being used? Is it okay because it takes place in rooms with nice bedspreads (for the benefit of the johns of course) and indoors? If I am raped in a legalised brothel not on a street corner, how does that make it better?

Violence is inherent in the action of every john. They demand the right to take their pleasure in the manner they feel fit, and because they pay for it, it is deemed acceptable. Why is it more okay to rape a prostitute, to abuse a prostitute, than any other woman? Does an exchange of money, much or all of which the woman will have to pay to the house or to her pimp, make the unacceptable acceptable?

Legalising prostitution is not about improving the safety of the prostitute: there is no safety as a prostitute. Being an 'escort' may sound more salubrious, but the act is the same, the risks are the same. What legalising prostitution is all about is the safety and wellbeing of the johns, of the pimps. It gives them an air of legitimacy, enables them to hold their heads up high and chat about their 'business' in public (a very abstract, sanitised version of it, anyway). Legalising prostitution effectively removes any possibility of the prostituted woman asking for help, speaking about her abuse, which is hard enough as it is.

Legalising prostitution would be the equivalent hearking back to the times before marital rape was recognised: change the language and you silence the problem. How do you speak out without language?

I have struggled to access help, to be heard, since I have exited. I have experienced mental health practitioners (so-called) who fail to see anything wrong with prostitution. I have been told that I was wrong to have a problem with it, to be upset by porn (even as someone who was used in porn and was made to 'learn' how to be from porn) - told to get over it and that I chose it.


You don't choose to be treated that way. You're fucked up and you end up in it. That's what happened to me and I saw the same story time and time over with the women I met. They had been abused. They were caught in addiction. They had no money. They had no self esteem. They had no options.

You get to the point where you are so shattered by it, so exhausted by it, that the things that you're told - by the johns, by your partner who beats you, by the whole clamour of a society that has bought into the lies of the industry, that you cease to care what happens to you. They told you you like it, you chose it. You get confused. Maybe you did. Who cares. So tired. Just survive. Just survive.

I am lucky to have got out - just. I nearly didn't make it. I know a lot of women who weren't so lucky. We need to fight to keep the harms done them visible.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Appalled but Unmoved

I saw the other day that a 16 year old boy had been convicted for raping an 8 year old girl. People are appalled - and it is appalling and wrong. But it is perhaps not surprising. This is what happens when we live in a pornified culture. When we live in a culture that sells women, that degrades women, that makes a good deal of profit from depicting women as sex objects, constantly available, simply waiting for your cock (or any other passing object) to be inserted into their vaginas and rectums, we should not be surprised when our upcoming generations believe women wish to be treated this way. 'Underage' children* will access porn and will be affected by what they see. I remember seeing a friend's brother's porn collection when I was primary school age. Those images, and what they meant for me, stayed with me. When I told the men who used and sold me that it hurt, they told me it didn't, that I'd like it - just like the women in the films they watched said.

I don't believe they liked it either, judging from the expressions of pain on their faces.

Defenders of porn say it's harmless fantasy. But it's not fantasy for the women who are used in it ('actress' and 'model' seems too sweet a label for the truth: fuck doll). Or for the women whose partners watch it and want them to emulate what they see, totally ignorant of intimacy and equality. Or for our children who learn about sexuality and relationship dynamics between the sexes this way. Porn is not about equal partnerships of needs and wants. It is about assertion of power and ownership, lies and misinformation.

Most hetero porn doesn't depict safe sex - in any sense. Rarely do the men use condoms, and women are shown being penetrated both orally, vaginally and anally (higher risk of infection) by multiple men. Or the same man fucks multiple women, one after another, sans johnny. 'Bare back' as the industry likes to call it. How often does porn show lube being applied? Or any sort of nod toward the welfare of the woman. She is there simply to turn the man on: the man shown fucking her; the one wielding the camera; the one making money selling her and the man on his settee wanking over it at home. Her wellbeing, physical or emotional, just doesn't feature.

So with both boys and girls often learning about sex via porn, we have a problem. Women feel that their needs and wants are invalid - there is no place for them. Women in porn have no needs or wants other than to be touched any way, fucked any way, fulfilling the man's requirements and demands. Girls growing up feel a weight of expectation. Boys feel that 'being manly' involves treating women as sex objects, being dominant, and fucking women with neither intimacy nor respect. It's hard to learn intimacy and respect in a culture of aggressive porn, especially when it's so mainstreamed. Fisting, gang bangs and DPs don't really go hand in hand with respect. And the presence of a camera and an audience don't exactly shout intimacy.

Human worth is out of the picture.

We should stop acting surprised when men or our younger generation of boys treat women like sex objects in the real world and take some responsibility for once. After all, if we condone women being treated like that in magazines and dvds, and defend it, cash in on it and laugh about it ('boys will be boys!'), why wouldn't that change how men treat women in everyday life and how women think about themselves? We need some consistent thinking, some ownership of our part in this and some definitive action to stop the sexual objectification of women becoming further normalised. Until we are prepared to act, to do things differently, we remain appalled. But unmoved.

* I find it bizarre that when a woman turns 18 her status somehow magically changes so that her exploitation in pornography becomes legal... Does reaching a certain number agewise suddenly make a human being less worthy of protection and dignity? Likewise with the age of accessing pornography - at 18 does it suddenly become okay to join in the buying of and abuse of women in porn? I am not arguing here that minors should not be protected but rather questioning why the concern for human welfare vanishes when a minor becomes an adult in the eyes of the law.