In Dr Vednita Carter’s Black Minnesota neighbourhood, white middle class men cruise the streets in luxury cars, looking for Black girls and young women to pay to use and abuse sexually. This echoes back to the white man’s white god-given right to unlimited sexual access to Black women and girls during the long centuries of slavery.
There isn’t much that Dr Carter doesn’t know about prostitution and its inherent racism. When she was 18, she and her white friend answered an advert for dancers. They were channelled into separate white girl and Black girl tracks, and before long Dr Carter found herself sucked into prostitution.
But she was one of the lucky ones. Unlike so many women, she got out of the trade relatively quickly and with her life intact. She subsequently set up a not-for-profit, Breaking Free, to help other women and girls get out. In February she was in England to speak at the ‘Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade’ event, hosted by SPACE International, an organisation of prostitution survivors.
She told us about the group work she does with young women, some still in that life, some taking their first steps out of it. When you ask them what they like about prostitution, she said they talk about how good it feels to have money. But when asked how they feel when they get down on all fours and take his dick into their mouth, they all start to cry.
Dr Carter said, “Don’t get me wrong. The majority of women in prostitution don’t make a lot of money.” Mickey Meji, from South Africa, continued this theme saying prostitution is not a way out of poverty. Most women enter it poor and those that manage to get out, end up even poorer, but now scarred emotionally, physically and mentally.
Bridget Perrier, an indigenous Canadian woman, who was brutally pimped from the age of 12, said that in her native language, there’s no word for prostitution. Traditionally, women and girls were seen as water carriers and life givers. It was the white colonialists who introduced prostitution to her people. And what a brilliant mechanism it has proved to be for decimating communities.
Prostitution defines women as commodities, objects to be used, so the power men have over them is more or less total. Perrier told us of her adopted daughter, whose mother, Brenda Wolfe, was murdered by the notorious serial-killer, Robert Pickton, who fed her body to his pigs. Her jawbone was found in the pig trough.
He admitted killing 49 women – all involved in prostitution and most indigenous. The police missed endless opportunities to end his killing spree, just as West Yorkshire Police spent years bodging chances to catch Peter Sutcliffe.
What do you expect? Women involved in prostitution are disposable and when they are racialized, even more so. As Dr Carter said, prostitution makes a statement about all women: that all women can be bought and sold, and if a man doesn’t want to buy you, he can rape you. If you can be bought and sold, you’ve not got full human rights. So of course the police aren’t going to prioritise your disappearance or even murder.
Ne’cole Daniels was a ‘trick baby’ – her father a ‘trick’ or ‘john’ as American prostituted women refer to their punters. She was the third generation of women in her family who landed up in prostitution. She spoke movingly about the havoc that the trauma her mother and grandmother experienced wreaked on the family. She had an epiphany and became determined that she would be the last one; that there would be no fourth generation.
The pain and loss in these women’s lives was a palpable presence – the pain and struggle of being Black in a white supremacist culture; female in a male supremacist culture.
White-dominated agencies are ill-equipped to deal with Black women’s emotional pain – pain caused by white racism. The need for well-funded services run by Black women for Black women is urgent. Daniels, like Perrier, Meji and Dr Carter, has dedicated her life to serving the women in her community and telling the world the brutal truth about the sex trade.
Suzanne Jay, an Asian Canadian woman, spelled out the racist ways in which Asian women are packaged as products for men, raw materials for multi-billion dollar profits: china dolls, geishas, Japanese schoolgirls, and willing, subservient girlfriends. Their small stature and ‘childlike’ features are fetishized in porn and brothels everywhere.
She traced the roots of this back to the Japanese ‘comfort women’ brothels in the Second World War, enthusiastically taken over by the United States afterwards. The US ‘rest and recreation’ centres set up during the Vietnam War confirmed Thailand’s lasting pre-eminence as a ‘sex tourist’ destination, where relatively wealthy white men come in their thousands to buy sexual access to poor Asian women, feeding off their poverty, disadvantages and suffering.
Just as the military use and abuse prostituted women, so do the so-called peacekeepers. While UN peacekeepers were in Cambodia, its sex trade more than tripled.
Many people argue that the solution is to legalise the sex trade or to decriminalise all its aspects. But consider what we heard from Roella Lieveld about the Netherlands, where prostitution was legalised 19 years ago and recent research found that 97% of the women involved experience violence.
Consider also the Black woman we heard about whose pimp placed her in one of the legal brothels in Nevada. When the white men didn’t buy her because she’s Black, her pimp beat her for not making enough money. She was advised to get photos taken of herself naked on all fours and to market them to punters who like Ku Klux Klan roleplay.
Is such a brutal, exploitative and racist industry really reform-able?
And what is it for anyway? Male orgasms. And building up male egos and entitlement.
I leave you with the wisdom of Ally Diamond, an indigenous woman from Australia. She asked why society enables men’s bad behaviour. We make excuses for them: they don’t mean it; they can’t help it; it’s not their fault. When did this start? When did we start downgrading men’s abuse from serious to not so serious?
We deserve better. We need to unite and rise up and say enough is enough. We need the Nordic Model. And we need it now.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star on International Women’s Day, 2019.