We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution.
Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables)
The exhibition today at the Women's Library blew me away. Shon and I spent about 4 hours there, absorbing each aspect of each display and we still did not get to see it all. I would strongly recommend that anyone, man or woman, takes the time to get to London's Women's Library and see it for themselves. I can guarantee that this exhibition will do what every good piece of culture does: entertain, inform and challenge.
Prostitution: What's Going On? is dedicated to Josephine Butler, who was an early campaigner for sexual equality and who led the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which gave the police the right to arrest any woman suspected of selling sex. The aim of these acts, believe it or not, was to stop the rise of sexual diseases amongst the military, yes, that's the right - who were men. So who got arrested, detained and subjected to compulsory 'treatment?' The women. Butler said of the Acts:
"They are nothing but an arrangement for catching, examining, cleansing and returning to the street women for the safe enjoyment of men."
And in this piece of history lies a central point in any consideration of prostitution through the ages - more often than not we're looking at women, not men. The buyer of sex stays as a mysterious, undiscussed and predominantly unchallenged figure, whilst the women, as ever, are placed under the microscope, labelled and filed. This remains broadly similar to the legislation on prostitution of many countries now, especially those who have decriminalised or legalised it: the women selling sex are registered and regularly, compulsorily screened, but there is no compulsory screening for the buyers.
Here are some frightening facts included in the exhibition for those of you still labouring under the common misapprehension that the majority of prostitutes or sex workers 'choose' their profession freely:
At the point where they sell sex for the first time:
- 1 in 2 women are under 18 years
- 1 in 4 are under 16 years
- and 1 in 3 have experienced violence or abuse
There are two phone-boxes in the exhibition each of which presents two oral histories taken from two different people: two are prostitutes and two are punters. The dichotomy of experience presented here was at times exceptionally disturbing. In the first phone box, a woman tells of her first experience selling sex at 14 years old. She was given ten pounds by a man who had sex with her in the back of a car. Later, when her mother found out what she was doing, her mother let her use the house to bring clients back to.
Here are some quotes from these women's testimonials:
"The trouble is it's easy money and it's hard to get out of....it fucks your head up. I've never enjoyed sex, never had an orgasm...I hate men."
"I'm never going to get out of this job and lead a normal life."
"Sometimes I'm tired of greasy people, touching and pawing me.....but you've got to be an actress on the mattress."
"It eats away at you like acid."
The reality of listening to these interviews was for me, the moment when I began to discover my core feelings on this issue. Women like me, who have never been in these women's shoes, can stand outside of their experiences and struggle to understand the complexities of her right to sell herself and his right to buy sex as much as we wish; wringing our hands and trying to pass the correct judgement. But for me, the reality of it came down to hearing these women speak: about violence, about lack of choices, about having sex for money when you're 14 - and one other central point.
When you regard prostitution and sexual trafficking as the industry that it is, the ones really bringing in the cash are men. It's an industry owned, controlled and almost exclusively used by men - and if you bring in government, it's an industry that's almost exclusively legislated over by men, too. To give you an example, a trafficker called Luan Plakici, selling women through escort agencies, earned £144,000 from 1 woman in just 2 years. How is that different from a slave owner on the plantations in the 1800's?
The division between the experiences of the sex workers and the men who buy sex was also, at times, bitterly funny. In the Punter's phone box were the accounts of two men who regularly use prostitutes. On one of the displays was a piece of research telling the visitors that sex buyers are almost overwhelmingly male, and in a minority (i.e. comparitively few men regularly use prostitutes). Most interestingly, very few of them have no other sexual outlets, indeed most have long term partners. Here's some excerpts from the men:
"it allows you to be promiscuous without it having to impact at home, like having an affair without the mistress asking you to leave your wife." (That's an interesting comparison, isn't it?)
"there are no thoughts of (the woman) being any less than my equal...and I've met so many nice people."
"It's a good release for them, and it's a good release for me."
Both punters made reference to the women having a 'good time' sexually (yeah sure - how likely do you think that is, really?!?), which considering that both women in the other phone box referenced their relationship and respect for men being permanently damaged, I found fascinating and more than a little contemptuous.
Most frightening of all, for those of us who view prostitution/sex work/sex industry and sexual trafficking as inextricably linked with the sexual objectification of women (there can only be about two readers who have made it to this point, and they're both hardened feminists - anyone else still here, good for you!), is one other fact that I wasn't aware of.
The numbers of women and girls being sexually trafficked globally are growing with every passing decade. Currently, at least 1,000,000 women and girls are trafficked globally every year.
The display on global trends concludes:
"sex industries and trafficking expand considerably in the aftermath of conflict, the arrival of peacekeepers and burgeoning criminal activity."
So, with the UK engaging in military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan at present, we can now quite genuinely lay claim to screwing the world from every conceivable angle. The more the boys bring out their big guns to play with across the globe, the more women paying the horrific, unchosen and - for women in many countries STILL without the vote - undemocratic price.
There are several other aspects of the exhibition we hardly got to spend any time with, for example, a short film about women being trafficked from other countries across the world into the UK. Being in the process of working on slavery and the slave trade, the parallels here were shocking: Guinea, including Sierra Leone, which form the focus of the Chasing Freedom exhibition, is one of the main originating countries in Africa of women for sex trafficking, and the UK is one of the major destinations of trafficked women.
We also didn't get to spend much time with the young women's diaries. This part of the exhibition presented diaries from 6 projects across the UK working with girls and young women who are being abused through prostitution. I think this was one of the main succeses of the entire exhibition - at the end, prostitution no longer seems like a faceless issue, it seems like an infinitely human one.
In my opinion we are a long way from a place where the majority of women can freely make a 'choice' to sell her body for sex, and this is evidenced in the fact that the vast majority of women are not making a 'free' choice. The common denominators for entry into prostitution include: abuse, violence, drug or alcohol abuse, debt, poverty and being in care in childhood. The infinitely intricate and highly organised supporting structure of sexual trafficking, and the fact that the only ones making a profit are, in the main, men, tells me this 'industry' is not about equality, freedom or choice for women at all. Which is not to say that the women who involved in it are merely victims - quite the opposite.
Whether you think you're interested in the issue of prostitution, whether you think it has anything to do with you as a person, or your life or your lifestyle, I would recommend - no, in fact, I would plead with you, to see this exhibition. There is no one who would come away from this exhibition without learning something about the world and something about yourself.
Today's Beautiful Things
1. The Women's Library - just on principle, really
2. Deciding to organise my own exhibition - on 'The Punter'
3. Culture, in all its infinite variety