S.M. Berg: “Hey, progressives! Cathouse got your tongue?”

S.M. Berg is a radical feminist activist against pornography and prostitution. She is not afraid to choose prostituted women over prostitute-using men, and is a big fan of the Swedish model–decriminalizing prostitutes but not pimps and johns. Berg runs Genderberg.com. She has kindly given us permission to reprint the following article, which also appears in The Portland Alliance (July 2006) and the Against Pornography website.

by S.M. Berg

“I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is, I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”
— Rebecca West, 1913

The above quote by Rebecca West has recently been debated among quote collectors and feminists. It seems many people have been passing along a version that cuts off the last three words, “or a prostitute,” mostly without knowing the full quotation ever contained them. Such Orwellian rewritings of a historic quotation concern me, and as an activist working with prostituted women I can tell you there’s nothing they consider more disrespectful than when academic eggheads elide the ugly, violent truths about their lives.

When men, media, madams, and other moneymakers muse with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink about “the workers of the sex” it’s not remarkable or difficult to understand from a beneficiary point of view. The issue I’d like to raise here is how almost all mainstream feminist writers and commentators have remained silent regarding the lives of the world’s estimated 35 million prostituted women, most of them brownskinned girls from the global South sold and coerced into literal sexual slavery.

Globalization, racism and sexism have combined to make 2005 the first year that the market for female bodies enslaved more people than African slavery did 150 years ago. Instead of railing against the increasing exploitation of females internationally, mainstream American feminists have mostly chosen to ignore the severe and tragic harms of prostitution. Why the wall of silence regarding men’s legitimized sense of entitlement to demand sex anytime, any way they want it, from mostly minority and poverty-stricken women?

For all of the times that privileged white feminists have been accused of abandoning non-white women, the refusal to honestly listen to the 92 percent of the world’s prostitutes who say they want out of prostitution, but can’t leave, is the greatest abandonment yet.

Every week millions across the U.S. read a hundred alternative weeklies and the majority have entire sections dedicated to the prostitution industry in them. Yet I have never seen one well-known feminist writer discuss, question, or look into this phenomenon as a feminist journalist might be expected to do. In 26 years of writing The Nation column “Subject to Debate” Katha Pollitt has never once written about prostitution. Feminist magazine Bitch has been around for ten years and not once has an article on the prostitution industry section in weeklies been a featured topic. I’ve seen feminists old and young weigh in on the Showtime lesbian series The L Word and the HBO polygamy series Big Love but I haven’t yet seen one feminist commentary on HBO’s Cathouse, a reality TV show set in a Nevada whorehouse.

Why are The L Word and Big Love widely critiqued but feminist media critics remain silent on Cathouse as the series goes into its next season?

In an unrecorded meeting on economics at Harvard University attended by a handful of academics, Harvard president Larry Summers said one stupid sentence about biology possibly being a reason there aren’t more female economists. The response by feminist bloggers and media pundits was overwhelming, but the weekly prostitution pages in every issue of The Village Voice and the pull-out escort magazine in each weekly issue of The Boston Phoenix has gone utterly unnoticed by feminists.

What’s going on here? Censorship of feminism is what’s going on, both of the overt kind that happens because men control all media and of the more covert kind that happens because men control all media. The most male-approved progressive feminists, and hence the most published ones, are the ones who read The Village Voice or local equivalent and studiously avoid turning just a few more pages to count the number of Asian women whose bodies are displayed for men’s masturbatory renting, or comparing the high number of male-to-female transgender bodies to the lack of ads for female-to-male transgender bodies.

From reading Katha Pollitt’s informal writing on the Internet I know she does not believe prostitution is good for women, but her self-imposed silence continues to avoid making men’s use of prostituted women a subject to debate. When anti-war male writers Robert Jensen and Stan Goff have been published in leftist media outlets which refuse to publish their anti-pornography writings, surely feminist writers intuit their diminished publishing chances for daring to speak their true minds about men reducing a whole caste of women to disposable sex toys. Now would be a good time to write that reminder about renewing your subscription to The Portland Alliance.

It’s maddening to see smart women who understand the handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale were horribly oppressed sex slaves turn around and willfully ignore Atwood’s depiction of the whorehouse Jezebels showing prostitution is just another form of Gilead sex slavery. At the same time, I’m a young feminist writer so I’m empathetic to their dilemma. They can’t look at prostitution and say it’s good for women because that’s obviously untrue, but they also can’t say prostitution enslaves and kills women in ungodly numbers because it makes them unpopular with men in the lefty circles where they live and work. It’s a tough choice to make; be candid with your opinion or clam up and be published by editors whose paychecks are often built on prostitution advertising. When even The Nation has accepted advertising from Bendricks, a prostitution tour operator that sends men to Thailand and Costa Rica to have sex with 15-year-old girls (the legal age of entry into Costa Rican prostitution), what’s a feminist writer to do?

Widespread sexual violence against women is caused by the continued acceptance of men’s sense of entitlement to sex from women. That’s what the very word “sexism” means, being discriminated against and objectified because of sex, being made into objects for men to sexually (ab)use without regard to women’s humanity. Men who rape believe that men have a right to use women’s bodies any time, any way, however they want. Sexual harassment at work and on the street stems from a culture that accepts men’s right to define and control female sexuality. Anti-choice forces believe they can deny women abortions by dint of the sexual use of a woman’s body by an impregnating man.

Until more feminists can defy men who profit monetarily or emotionally from renting women’s reproductive organs, significant advancements in women’s rights can’t happen. Rejecting prostitution is consistent with the feminist belief that men do not have a right to control women’s sexuality ever, but too many feminist women still can’t say so while standing tall and without apologizing for believing it.

See also:

Another Victory for NOW-NYC: New York Magazine Drops Sex Ads
[International Herald Tribune:] New York Magazine agreed Tuesday to stop accepting sex ads after the local chapter of a women’s rights group threatened protests outside the popu
lar weekly publication.

The National Organization for Women had accused New York of being a “marketing arm of the organized crime world of prostitution and human trafficking” because of classified ads at the back of the magazine with such tag lines as “Asians Gone Wild” and “Asian Dreamgirls”…

[NOW-NYC] has been asking other local media to stop taking the salacious ads and said it has won agreements to do so from 14 other publications including Time Out New York and New York Press…

[New York Sun:] “Trafficking exists because there aren’t enough women to do this assembly line brothel work,” the president of NOW’s New York City chapter, Sonia Ossorio, said. While no one knows exactly how many women are prostituted against their will, it is indisputable that some come to New York with promises of legitimate jobs only to find these don’t exist and there’s only one way to pay off their debts.

One would think that this would be exactly the kind of exploitation the Voice would revel in exposing. But because the Voice is free, it apparently needs the revenue brought in by, this week, 10 pages of these ads.

And so its press release yammers on about how our freedoms are “under attack by the Bush administration,” and makes NOW sound like the Taliban, and finally trots out the same pathetic excuse New York once made: “If there is evidence that any advertiser in our pages engaged in…sex slavery…” Blah blah blah.

It’s hard to be part of the solution, when you’re part of the problem.

“New York Press No Longer Marketing Arm for Prostitution/Trafficking”
Under the new ownership of Manhattan Media, New York Press, a weekly publication, will be free of ads that advertise illegal massage parlors and blatant ads promoting prostitution. Manhattan Media initially will take a financial hit by dropping sex ads that have made up a sizable percentage of New York Press sales, but the long-term growth prospects for this widely-circulated newspaper dramatically increase as it is remade into a reputable publication.

“Tom Allon is a trailblazer,” said Sonia Ossorio, President of the National Organization for Women in New York City. “He sees the future of the newsprint business, and that future isn’t reliant on the fast, cheap money of the prostitution industry…”

Today, trafficking human beings for sexual exploitation, labor, and domestic servitude is the third fastest growing illegal enterprise. The United States is the second highest destination in the world for trafficked women, with an estimated 17,500 women being smuggled in every year…

“The proliferation of organized prostitution in communities throughout New York is undeniable,” according to Ted Hughes, a law enforcement expert in organized criminal prostitution rings. “They are part of the local economy. Whether it’s the landlords who rent to traffickers at three times the market rate or the publications that act as the marketing arm of this organized crime, the scope of the problem is larger than most people would like to think…”

“We’re simply asking publishers to do basic due diligence and use common sense,” Ossorio said. “If someone calls wanting to place an ad that reads ‘Russian Girls, Young, 24/7’ what’s there to check out? Take the contact information and call the police.” This ad appeard in El Diario/La Prensa May 17, 2007.

New Competitor to Craigslist Rejects Ads for “prostitution services and other questionable listings”

Ask the Valley Advocate to stop profiting from the sexual exploitation of women
Over the past several months, we have delivered to the Advocate’s offices at Eastworks volumes of information about the link between escort ads and prostitution, the harms of strip clubs, and the fact that New York Press just decided to walk away from adult advertising. We have relayed our concerns directly to editor Tom Vannah… The ads continue. We invite you to join us in asking the Advocate to cease facilitating this business. Contact them here.

Belltown Messenger: “Greed, Lust and Ink”
…the only motivation for running escort ads in the first place is unbridled greed-and these supposedly liberal publications can’t have it both ways when defending the rights of society’s underdogs in their editorial content…

Andrea Dworkin: Time for Progressives to Stand with the Victims, Not the Users (explicit language)
This is a political point: what once was the Left wants to be the user, does not want to be anywhere but on top of the used; and some so-called feminists want to be the user, not to be under, not to be the condemned, the injured.

“Trade – A Film Brings Sex Trafficking Home”
Trade makes it clear that traffickers do not operate in a vacuum. Theirs is a complex and determined industry, enslaving both women and children through coercion, violence, and drugs. It is painfully apparent in the film that there are often moments when everyday people could intervene – but choose not to…

Gloria Steinem at Smith: Cooperation, Not Domination
…there are more slaves in proportion to the world’s population–more people held by force or coercion without benefit from their work–more now than there were in the 1800s. Sex trafficking, labor trafficking, children and adults forced into armies: they all add up to a global human-trafficking industry that is more profitable than the arms trade, and second only to the drug trade. The big difference now from the 1800s is that the United Nations estimates that 80% of those who are enslaved are women and children…

Prostitution: Factsheet on Human Rights Violations
In one study, 75% of women in escort prostitution had attempted suicide. Prostituted women comprised 15% of all completed suicides reported by hospitals. (Letter from Susan Kay Hunter, Council for Prostitution Alternatives, Jan 6, 1993, cited by Phyllis Chesler in “A Woman’s Right to Self-Defense: The Case of Aileen Carol Wuornos”, in Patriarchy: Notes of an Expert Witness, 1994, Common Courage Press, Monroe, Maine)…

Pornography Trains and Indoctrinates Prostitutes
In a study of 475 people in prostitution (including women, men, and the transgendered) from five countries (South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, USA, and Zambia)…92% stated that they wanted to escape prostitution immediately…

Penn & Teller Think Nevada’s Brothels are A-OK
This fuzzy thinking is debunked in Melissa Farley’s new book, Prostitution & Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections. Farley shows that life inside Nevada’s legal “pussy penitentiaries” is far from safe, glamorous, or remunerative… “More than 80% of those interviewed told Farley they wanted to leave prostitution.”

New Book – Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections
[The Guardian:] There is only one place in the US where brothels are legal, and that’s Nevada… There are at least 20 legal brothels in business now…

The brothel prostitutes often live in prison-like conditions, locked in or forbidden to leave…

The rooms all have panic buttons, but many women told her that they had experienced violent and sexual abuse from the customers and pimps…

…[a] pimp told Farley matter-of-factly that many of the women working for him had histories of sexual abuse and mental ill-health. “Most,” he said, “have been sexually abused as kids. Some are bipolar, some are schizophrenic.”

…The women are expected to live in the brothels and to work 12- to 14-hour shifts…

Farley found that the brothel owners typically pocket half of the women’s earnings. Additionally, the women must pay tips and other fees to the staff of the brothel… One former Nevada brothel worker wrote on a website: “After your airline tickets, clothing, full-price drinks and other miscellaneous fees you leave with little. To top it off, you are … fined for just about everything. Fall asleep on your 14-hour shift and get $100 [£50] fine…

Sweden’s Prostitution Solution: Why Hasn’t Anyone Tried This Before?
In the fog of clichés despairing that “prostitution will always be with us”, one country’s success stands out as a beacon lighting the way. In just five years Sweden has dramatically reduced the number of women in prostitution. In the capital city of Stockholm, the number of women in street prostitution has been reduced by two thirds, and the number of “johns” has been reduced by 80%…

In 1999, after years of research and study, Sweden passed legislation that a) criminalizes the buying of sex, and b) decriminalizes the selling of sex…

Today, not only do the Swedish people continue to overwhelmingly support their country’s approach to prostitution (80% of people in favor according to national opinion polls), but the country’s police and prosecutors have also come around. They are now among the legislation’s staunchest supporters. Sweden’s law enforcement community has found that the prostitution legislation benefits them in dealing with all sex crimes, particularly in enabling them to virtually wipe out the element of organized crime that plagues other countries where prostitution has been legalized or regulated.

The Guardian, “Ending a trade in misery”
Not only have the Swedes decriminalised the selling of sex; the Swedish government has also made significant resources available to help women leave prostitution. Beside this radical legislation is a public education campaign to debunk the myths and lies about prostitution – for example, that it is a career choice, and an equal exchange between buyer and seller…