From the woman as object to the object as woman

Francine Sporenda interviews Yağmur Arica

Yağmur Arica is a political science turned feminist science graduate. Fiercely abolitionist, she has translated, researched and written on the issue of prostitution for a number of years, and has contributed to the Fondation Scelles Global Report. She has a special interest in misogynistic practices that are not always recognised as such and the indulgent discourses that often accompany them, as with veiling.

FS: You say the digital revolution has had an impact on the way prostitution is advertised. Can you tell me more and give some examples?

YA: The final pages of local newspapers used to teem with prostitution ads, but the digital revolution swept through and online classified ads have now taken over. The principle remains the pretty much the same though – what has changed is the scale of the sexual exploitation.

For example, Backpage, a classified ad site in the US, achieved a turnover of $78 million by 2012. I doubt that Metro would ever have dreamt of figures like that. The number of Backpage ads where it was obvious a child was being exploited was so high that the Backpage executives decided to cap the number they’d report to the authorities at a 500 a month and modify the content of the rest to obscure the reality that a child was being advertised. This is another distinction between paper and digital advertising: the backstage orchestration of prostitution and a terrifying manipulation.

The Backpage executives knew full well that their website enabled the sexual abuse of children. They knew how to identify ads for the prostitution of children. But rather than doing anything to protect those children, they arranged for any incriminating words and images in the ads to be changed or deleted, so they themselves would not be caught.

Backpage is obviously and sadly only one example among many, but it is an important one because, thanks to the FOSTA–SESTA law, it’s now been shut down. I recommend taking a look at the investigation carried out by the American Department of Justice. The mocking, devil-may-care tone used in the email exchanges demonstrates that the men in the department could not care less about the violence being done to children right under their noses.

It’s worth highlighting that the shutting down of the website happened in the US, even though filmed prostitution – pornography – is protected there under the guise of ‘freedom of expression.’

Another consequence of the digital revolution is that pornography is now first and foremost filmed prostitution. That, and the emergence of vast corporations like MindGeek, which owns among other things the infamous PornHub, has also led to a huge increase in the scale of sexual exploitation.

Pornography websites function as advertising – creating desires which would not otherwise exist. Catharine MacKinnon wrote about this and explained how filmed prostitution engenders a desire to act out what is portrayed and even functions as a manual for traditional prostitution (where instead of being behind a screen the punter is physically present with the woman he prostitutes).

Richard Poulin notes that location-based ads on pornography websites actually encourage men to reproduce on local women what they have just seen on their screens.

Image from The Invisible Men website

FS: Could you talk about punter forums and how they adversely affect women in prostitution?

YA: Prostitution positions women and girls as objects or commodities. Once websites like Backpage began facilitating the sale of women and girls as objects, it was inevitable that punters would want to review them, given that you can review pretty much everything else you buy online now. This is how we ended up with websites like Punternet.

As for the content, think of the worst remarks you’ve ever heard men make about women, and then multiply that tenfold. I recommend the exceptional work done by feminists from The Invisible Men and Prostitueurs projects that reproduce punter reviews, including some of the worst examples.

The men insult the women they abused, describe the unbearable acts of violence they committed, and show, just like the owners of Backpage, that they are perfectly aware of the physical and psychological distress of the women.

The locations where the acts took place are known, so the authorities have no excuse not to investigate the men. What is most painful is when you see women apologising to unsatisfied ‘customers.’

Pro-prostitution advocates accuse feminists striving for the abolition of prostitution of attempting to take work opportunities away from women (because paid rape, obviously, counts as work in whatever universe they inhabit) but they forget, as they always do, the vital role played by male demand.

When a man writes a negative comment about a woman, other potential punters are put off from visiting her. It is men’s voices that matter. Just like Roman emperors, their upward- or downward-pointing thumb seals her destiny.

I doubt that many of the women who are ‘reviewed’ on those websites actually have access to those comments. There are obvious cases of foreign women who do not speak the local language and who are probably victims of human trafficking. I’m not so sure their pimps allow them to customise their online profiles…

FS: You say that online prostitution ads use the same formula as dating apps. Can you give some examples and explain what you mean?

YA: The German app Peppr (from the German word ‘to fuck’) mimics dating apps like Grindr and Tinder. Its female creator took pity on the women freezing out on the German streets and made the app so they could connect with punters while staying warm inside – naturally with a generous margin for herself.

There is also RichMeetBeautiful from the Norwegian Sigurd Vedal, who staged a publicity coup by displaying posters outside Belgian and French universities. The aim of the website is to put rich men in touch with penniless young women. The proportion of female to male users – four women to each man – even has a religious flavour to it. It reflects the number of wives in Islam and echoes Mormon precepts (an all-you-can-marry buffet of wives for the husband)… With time after all, one is able to hone one’s machismo…

Why is there such a blur of the sex/prostitution frontier?

Among the prostitution myths, there’s one that even abolitionists struggle with and that is that prostitution is sex for money. We see it manifest in the expression ‘sex buyer.’ But in reality prostitution is rape with money.

When we say ‘sex for money’ we imply that prostitution is a sexual activity like any other, but with a bit of money involved. But in fact money fundamentally defines the prostitution encounter and radically differentiates it from sexual intercourse.

Lise Bouvet explains that money is both the proof that sex is not desired and the weapon of sexual constraint. The encounter would never have taken place were it not for the money. And if we remove the money from the prostitution encounter what do we have if not rape?

Prostitution websites that copy dating websites try to reinforce the false idea that prostitution is just sex. It’s a brilliant strategy for avoiding any sort of general consciousness about what prostitution really is. ‘Sex-for-money’ is placed on the continuum of possible relationships, as if we’re just adding another category after ‘serious relationships,’ ‘casual dating,’ etc.

I have specifically mentioned the RichMeetBeautiful website because it pretends that it is filling a gap in a grey area that presupposes this very type of continuity. And when it comes to usual dating sites we can see, especially with Tinder – the go-to place for any nocturnal hankerings – that they resemble the prostitution scheme: fast, selfish, sex with no strings.

In both website categories, what matters is dissociation: sex without emotion and body without mind. We could, according to this logic, potentially engage in as many physical encounters as possible without our psyche ever being positively or negatively affected and men could enforce any sexual act on a woman’s body without ever unsettling her mind. The end point of course is that when men are urinated on we talk of torture, but when women are urinated on we talk of pleasure. For him the body and mind are one; for her the mind is irrelevant.

It is revealing that in the rhetoric of women’s rights, the lexicon of possession is recurrent: ‘my body, my choice’, ‘my body is mine’. But we are our body![1]

Each affront to our bodies is an affront to ourselves. It is time we acknowledged our being, rather than reclaiming our having, which only reproduces the male idea that women are to be owned.

FS: Could you talk about the links between the communication giants (such as Free) with pornography and prostitution?

YA: In France Free, a low-cost telecommunications company, became a big hit with a humorous ad campaign displaying a nerdy male character. The message was that because he had Free ‘He’s got it’. Needless to say, the advertising was sexist. In one of the TV commercials, this nerdy guy was surrounded by beautiful young women. ‘He’s got it’. He knows that male sexual violence against women is the most lucrative business there is: ‘an interesting and tax-free return on investment’, as he puts it.

Minitel 1. Built 1982

‘He’ is Xavier Niel, majority shareholder of Free. Before becoming Mr Free, he was Mr Minitel, Mr Pink Minitel. (Minitel was the French ancestor of modern computers, a cumbersome machine you could use for finding out basic information and communicating. It included sex lines, which were known as Minitel Rose or Pink Minitel.)

As a young man, Xavier Niel was a developer at Minitel and in 1991 he bought Fermic Multimedia, renaming it to Iliad, which is now the telecommunications group that Free is part of. In 1993, he launched the country’s first internet provider, Worldnet. The last remarkable stage in Xavier Niel’s career was in 2010 when he became majority shareholder of the French newspaper, Le Monde, along with Pierre Bergé and Mathieu Pigasse.

But let’s scratch beneath the surface of this apparent success story.

In the 80s, Xavier Niel met Fernand Develter at the Le Petit Ramoneur café, unofficial headquarters for sex-shop employees on the rue Saint-Denis in Paris, a street that was infamous for all sorts of sexual exploitation.

Niel and Develter became associates in the Pink Minitel business and re-invested half-a-million euros in peepshows. As usual, these venues were not limited to peeping. In 2001, two associates of Xavier Niel managing a peepshow in Paris were prosecuted for pimping. That time Mr Niel got away with being a mere witness.

In 2004 the Niel–Develter duo were directly investigated for aggravated pimping at a venue in Strasbourg. Xavier Niel was also suspected of having misused company funds and was kept in temporary detention in the Prison de la Santé in Paris. The anti-money laundering body Tracfin suspected Niel of using Iliad for laundering money but were unable to prove it. In August 2005, the charges of pimping against him were dropped.

He admitted embezzlement and explained that from 1999 he no longer had any financial interests in the peepshow business, in response to which the prosecution pointed out that he had simply transferred his interests to a member of his family. In 2006, he received a two-year suspended prison sentence and a €375,000 fine for misuse of company funds. Meanwhile, Fernand Develter was sentenced to two years in prison, with a further 15 years suspended, for corruption. It is important to remember that Pierre Bergé, shareholder in Le Monde, was a generous donator to Act Up, an anti-AIDS, pro-prostitution organisation.[2]

So Xavier Niel is at the crossroads of the holy prostitution-technology-media trinity. Yes, he was cleared of pimping, but he never denied his involvement in the area. It is therefore fair to say that the internet in France is linked to money from prostitution. The information and media sectors more generally are vital given that the pro- and anti-prostitution battle is now mainly played on the lexical field (‘sex work’ versus prostitution).

Another patriarchal outfit worth mentioning in the communication area is Dorcel and son. If Xavier Niel is the suave tech gentleman of prostitution, this pair are its brushed-up street rogues.

Their prostitution enterprise, founded in 1979, encompasses all the traditional commercial strategies of pimps. First, the Hollywood vibe: participation in Academy Award-style ceremonies, exclusive contracts with certain women… Then, the media legitimisation à la Playboy. Simply by dint of presence in the press (Marc Dorcel Magazine and the Dorcelle.com blog), one can easily make an exploitative activity masquerade as an exercise in ‘freedom of expression’. And finally, the bonus philanthropic angle (let’s remember that Playboy financed campaigns in favour of abortion): crowdfunding for a new prostitution film and the ever-popular and unavoidable decision to participate in the fight against AIDS. It’s all in how you sell it.

Image from the set of The Stepford Wives

FS: Could you tell us a bit about ‘masturbatory dolls’? Who produces them, their price, etc?

YA: To paraphrase Gail Dines, we will soon regret the good old days of the horrible inflatable doll. The new doll is taken directly from The Stepford Wives.

The masturbatory doll is a doll in the shape of a woman, life-sized, into which men masturbate. Some masturbatory dolls also have integrated AI software. These are often called sex dolls or robots, but as Professor Kathleen Richardson emphasises sexual intercourse is an experience with another person, whereas masturbation is an individual experience. Therefore ‘masturbatory doll’ is more correct.

We can thank the US and Japan for these technological advances. Leading the race is the RealDolls Company, founded by Matt McMullen of California. The software in these robots is the most advanced out there: they can chat with their owners, get them all turned on in their ‘obscene’ mode, they can even moan and with time adapt to their owner’s preferences. The average price is £11,000 and the company sells about fifty models a month.

Then we have Douglas Hines’s TrueCompanion, which sets itself apart from the rest with its ‘Frigid Farrah’ robot capable of stiffening up for any rape-simulation fetishists, and also its much-too-young Yoko, barely legal as the saying in pornography goes.

On the other side of the Pacific there’s Shin Takagi’s Trottla, which also goes the underage route and produces child-like dolls. There is, apparently, quite a successful market amongst elementary school teachers.

And European men aren’t to be left behind: the Spaniard Sergi Santos, for example, produces Samantha, a robot with a ‘family mode’ so she can spend time with the kids once daddy’s done his business.

FS: A recent survey found that 40% of the male respondents would consider buying a masturbatory doll within the next five years. What does this show about their vision of women?

YA: There is a BBC documentary on Sergi Santos and his wife Maritza. I recommend it because the way Sergi treats his wife exemplifies the attitude men who want these dolls have towards women: ‘Could you clean this for me please? Remember to put this sensor back where you found it, please. Maritza do this, Maritza do that!’ There’s a genuine feeling that Maritza would be perfectly happy to be replaced by the robots she assembles for her husband (who reportedly masturbates in them a few times a day) just to have a bit of peace.

An online user of a masturbatory robots’ forum admits that if these robots were also capable of cleaning and making sandwiches, he would never be in a relationship with a woman again.

To these men, women are conceived of as instruments: we are only here to fill a limited number of functions for men, mainly involving serving and moaning.

What do we call something whose sole purpose is to fulfil a set of precise functions? An object. The definition in the Larousse dictionary is clear:

‘Object: Solid thing considered as a whole, fabricated by man and destined to a certain use’.

Would desiring masturbatory robots be conceivable if you didn’t already see half the world population as objects for one’s own gratification?

Men can have sexual relationships with women. Women are objects. Therefore by extension men can ‘have sex’ with an object. One can almost hear the old line from The Big Lebowski.

‘Mr Treehorn treats objects like women, man!’

While the joke is in the inversion of women and object, in fact it gets it spot on. Woman = object and object = woman.

And with reification comes interchangeability. As long as the desired tasks are fulfilled, it does not matter who or what fulfils them. One woman is as good as any other and a doll is as good as a woman.

Line up in a masturbatory doll brothel

FS: There are, as you mentioned, child-dolls for paedophiles. Some legitimise the existence of those dolls (and brothels of dolls) by saying that they protect women from rape and children from sexual aggressions by paedophiles. Is this credible?

YA: It’s not only not credible, it’s utterly preposterous.

‘Maritza would you mind preparing ten child-dolls for next week, please? Yes, it’s for a friend of Jimmy Savile’s who says he wants to reminisce about the good old days.’

There are men who rape women and girls with impunity. Do we really think we can stop them by allowing them to carry on with dolls?

This is like saying we need to increase aggression in order to reduce it.

This idea is a reinvention of the scapegoat – an animal or person who is sacrificed in order to preserve the majority. It’s exactly what we do with some women.

‘So you’ve been sexually abused in the past and are going through financial difficulties? Well that’s awful dear, but as luck would have it we still have some positions available as a bumper for male violence! No darling, you don’t need experience, you’ll be just fine. It’s just a quick, harmless bit of rape, say ten times a day, in exchange for which you’ll get enough money to buy a Tesco meal deal and maybe a bottle of sparkling wine at the end of the week if you’ve been good. And if you’re lucky you could even get a chance at modelling! Well, mannequin modelling in a shop window… Now doesn’t that sound nice? Fab, you can start today!’

We’ve been pestered for a while with the absurd claim that prostitution reduces male violence, forgetting that prostitution is violence per se. Now, it’s suggested that dolls can fulfil this function.

But it is only because male violence is so widespread that these dolls exist, and as their producers make a profit from that violence it is in their best interest to keep it that way.

You can’t put an end to a practice by facilitating it. We can’t stop rape by training men to rape. When a schoolteacher has plastic girls at home, he will not want to stop molesting his students; quite the contrary, his desire will be normalised. He will get used to it. And let’s remember that we’re talking about a system that feeds off the blurring of the boundary between women/girls and objects…

We must ask ourselves questions before we draw any conclusions. If male violence did not exist, would these dolls be produced? Can we end violence if we start with the idea that it will always be there? How can we be comfortable with the idea that paedophiles are preparing for an assault on dolls that were given to them?

FS: You say that the industry of doll brothels is an extension of prostitution, could you explain?

YA: The question of doll brothels is obviously intimately linked to male violence. These brothels have sprung up in Paris, Barcelona, Germany – of course – and Toronto… Why have there been such investments? Because male demand is there. Men are ready to splash out up to £100 to masturbate inside those dolls. It is no longer possible to talk about the ‘choice’ made by these dolls the way the ‘choice’ made by women in prostitution is talked about. The lie is visible to all.

We should not see the market for dolls and the market for women and girls as separate entities. There is but one market, and dolls are one segment of it.

The logic – possessing to subjugate – is the same. The demand is the same. The location is the same. In the brothels in Barcelona for example there are both dolls and women, blurring the boundary even further.

What’s more, the pornographic consumption of masturbatory dolls is on the rise. The dolls’ appearance is inspired by the imagery made available in filmed prostitution – pornography – and they are built through moulds made from women who are already in the prostitution industry. In other words, without prostitution, doll brothels would not be possible.

These dolls will not put an end to rape, nor its paid form, prostitution, as some whose good intentions pave a highway to hell claim. On the contrary, I would predict that demand for prostitute women along with dolls will increase in the years to come, that men who demand dolls will demand women too, and vice-versa.

FS: You mention the myth of Pygmalion when talking about these dolls: man, unsatisfied by real woman, sets himself up as ‘an almighty divine creator’ and creates an artificial woman that better meets his needs. Why do real women not meet men’s needs whereas dolls do?

YA: It’s interesting that you say ‘real’ women. This real/false woman distinction comes from a misogynistic male view of women. I think that male creators will correct you though by saying that ‘real’ women are the ones they create (note the definition of object I mentioned earlier: ‘thing… made by men’). The others, the ones who move away from their will are faulty, false. This attitude can be felt even on a daily basis when men deny womanhood to women they do not deem feminine: ‘Girls in engineering are not really women…’

As creators they can judge the quality of the merchandise. The three main monotheistic religions have male ‘creators’ and male prophets. And if god made man in his own image then man is also the image of god.[3] So man is the creator, woman his creation – a reversal of reality common to all those myths. Ultimately, the contemporary advent of masturbatory dolls is the pinnacle of men’s biological denial of women’s exclusive capacity to bear children. It is womb envy at its best.

The fact is, there are no more ‘false’ women than there are ‘real’ women. There are women and then a misogynistic idealisation of ‘woman’ spread by religion and the prostitution industry – when the two do not overlap – whose representatives vie for dominance in the patriarchal world order. Pygmalion wannabes simply cannot stand the idea of women living outside their ideal – an ideal that exists only to them.

It is possible to interpret the advent of masturbatory dolls as the umpteenth backlash against feminism: as the #MeToo wave reclaims what has been the territory of predatory men, as women are talking about the limits we must establish against men, there is a media interest in these dolls.

Dolls that accept everything, that claim (thanks to the pre-programmed words, amongst other things, men have placed in their mouths) they ‘live’ only for those men and will never tell them how bad they are in bed. They will never disappoint the men and the men can and will penetrate them at any time. They do not have an existence of their own nor legs with which to run away (again, suitably, these dolls are not capable of ‘walking’).

These dolls fill the endless void of male ego, a task that cannot be asked of a fellow human being, even from the one who loves us the most, especially if one sees her as an equal. Paradoxically, though, by trying to subjugate the Other to such an extreme degree, the subjugator ends up perhaps more dependent on that Other than the Other is dependent on the subjugator, for the whole existence of the subjugator becomes impossible without the Other.

This article was originally published in French on the Révolution Féministe website.


[1] The ideas about dissociation were sparked by Kajsa Ekis Ekman’s reflections in her book, Being and Being Bought.

[2] All the information reported about Xavier Niel and his associates and Pierre Bergé can be retrieved from the following articles (in French):

[3] See Mary Daly’s work on misogyny and religion.

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