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The Major News Story Nobody’s Running


This commentary is from the Fighting Words segment of the December 14 episode of “Women’s Media Center Live With Robin Morgan,” which is available by podcast at wmclive.com and iTunes .

What if a major United Nations program was urging all UN nation-states to promote prostitution? Wouldn’t you think that would be a front-page story? Have you read or seen this story covered anywhere? No? How can that be?

Sorry, a necessary digression here, for a bit of background.

As you probably know, the current global women’s movement has for at least 40 years been fighting pimps, brothel owners, traffickers, and the selling and buying of human beings, which has another name: slavery. For decades, feminists—some of them survivors themselves—have also been pointing out that prostitution devalues all women, so is an issue concerning all women. For decades, such feminists as Kathleen Barry and the late Andrea Dworkin called for a strategy of 1) criminalizing the buyers while decriminalizing the women they buy, the victims in this “victimless crime”; 2) offering support services to the women, ranging from safe harbor through drug rehabilitation to education and skills training; 3) enforcing laws that criminalize pimps, traffickers, and brothel owners.

The response was that it would never work (and feminists were crazy).

There’s been sustained backlash during these decades, of course. The sex industry fought back openly (“oldest profession, always been with us,” and “sexual liberation” arguments) and covertly, through funding of happy-hooker-type groups reframing prostitution as “sex work,” and praising it as a career choice like any other. (Ever encountered an eight-year-old little girl saying, “Ooh, I wanna grow up to be prostituted!”?) Post-traumatic stress is found in 20 to 30 percent of combat veterans—but in two thirds of prostituted women. Vednita Carter, a survivor activist, has pointed out that every prostituted/trafficked woman has been forced, whether or not she seems to “choose willingly.” Racism, violence, and poverty loom as ever-present forms of coercion in the sex industry.

Here is Carter, writing in Sisterhood Is Forever on the demographics of prostitution:

“• The average age of entry in prostitution in the US is 14.

• 75 percent of women in prostitution are survivors of child molestation, child rape, and/or child sexual/physical abuse.

• 60 to 75 percent of these women were sexually abused before age 18.

• 95 percent suffer from drug and/or alcohol addiction.

• 80 percent are victims of rape eight to ten times every year.

• 66 percent are victims of physical and/or sexual abuse by pimp “boyfriends.”

• 55 percent are victims of kidnapping.

• 83 percent are victims of assault with a weapon.“

Every one of these factors has an even greater impact on women of color; African American women comprise 7 percent of the U.S. population but more than 50 percent of women abused in prostitution. And we are only now discovering the enormity of impact that prostitution has on the women in Native communities. Despite this reality, use of the phrase “sex work” became fashionable in some well-meaning liberal circles, which assumed that term meant a show of respect for the woman when actually it signified approval for the context in which she was trying to stay alive, or from which she was trying to escape.

Nevertheless, after all these decades, progress has finally seemed possible.

Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have passed legislation holding the customers responsible for buying human beings for sex,criminalizing the buyers and offering the women support programs. This is now known as the Nordic Model (see Kathleen Barry, “ Abolishing Prostitution,” Women’s Media Center). The French parliament voted on December 1 to follow Sweden’s model, with a law backed by the Minister of Women’s rights: it fines buyers for a first offense; subsequent offenses are charged as crimes. Similar laws are pending in the parliaments of Belgium and Ireland. The European Union’s Women’s Lobby has raised the “Nordic Model” for a vote in the European Parliament. Soon, “the Nordic Model” will be a misnomer. (If there were justice, it would be called the Barry-Dworkin Model.)

The thing is, the model works. Since the legislation began being enforced in Sweden, prostitution has been reduced by half.

So, just when you might have thought the case was proven, the sex industry struck again. This time, the glove on its fist is a United Nations health program.

You cannot make these things up.

On November 4, the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), admittedly having consulted with the Global Network of Sex Worker Projects, issued a policy directive asking nation-states to treat prostitution as “sex work.” If this initiative succeeds, it will effectively destroy the Nordic Model, leaving buyers again free to purchase human beings for their pleasure, with impunity.

This flat-out violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being proposed, it’s claimed, to “improve health outcomes in the context of sex work,” stunning non-logic that ignores two facts. First, most johns won’t wear condoms and, criminalized or not, won’t hesitate to beat up or report to a pimp any woman who insists they do. Second, the rate of HIV/AIDS in countries using the Nordic Model has already declined because the rate of prostitution encounters has declined. Can’t they do the math?

Not coincidentally, the rate of sex trafficking has also declined. That’s no mystery: less need to import the “product.” This unglues the arguments of those who treat trafficking as a separate issue (Bad) from prostitution (Not Bad because it’s “sex work”). Is being bought less enslaving in one’s own country than in another country?

What we know now is that there is one interrelated enterprise of sexual exploitation. Its tentacles connect the vast global business of pornography, the prostitution industry itself, and the local, regional, and global sex trafficking networks. We know the usual trajectory of, say, a desperate young runaway from an abusive home: A) the offer of work in “films”—pornography; B) the “temporary” turning of a trick or two which becomes permanent deployment in prostitution; C) finding herself moved around as a trafficked commodity.

But there exists a potential mechanism for addressing this lethal conglomerate.

Barry, who literally wrote the book on this subject— The Prostitution of Sexuality —also drafted a Proposed UN Convention Against Sexual Exploitation; it covers the abovementioned interlocking industries and more, though as yet the UN has not acted to adopt it. (The entire Convention is printed in the Appendix of that book, and is also accessible at www.kathleenbarry.net). Abolish Prostitution Now! is a new global campaign that includes survivors, activists, and supporters, organizing for prostitution’s abolition and for the recognition that sexual exploitation is a violation of basic human rights.

This time survivors must be heard.

This time the women’s movement can’t be dismissed as just those crazy feminists—because the governments of Sweden and France, among others, are also protesting this attempt to turn the world body of the United Nations into, in essence, a pimp.

Now if only the media would consider that news.

More articles by Category: International
More articles by Tag: Trafficking



Robin Morgan
Co-founder. Women's Media Center, Host & Producer of WMC Live with Robin Morgan, Writer, Activist
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