Every year in March, we celebrate Women’s History Month, a national recognition of the role of women in our nation’s history, and International Women’s Day (IWD), a global celebration of the social, political, economic, and cultural achievements of women. Not only is International Women’s Day a day of celebration, it is also a call to action. Groups and individuals around the world speak up about the gender inequalities that intersect with all aspects of society. This year, the theme of International Women’s Day is Choose to Challenge. The IWD organization states that “a challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change”.
At Veronica’s Voice, our mission is to empower women to exit from, to prevent entry into, and to end all demand for commercial sexual exploitation in the US. For us, challenging gender inequalities means confronting the notion that some women are for sale. What is meant by this? In part, there are stereotypes regarding what type of women might be bought for sex (or used in pornography) based on things such as race and socioeconomic status, versus other women who would certainly never be “allowed” to enter such a “profession”. There is a dismissal of concerns when some women, even very young girls, are seen walking “the stroll”. Ask yourself this: Would you want your daughter (or her friends, your nieces, the teens at your church, your students, etc.) to have her body sold for sex?
When we allow ourselves to believe that it is okay for some females, but certainly not all, to be “for sale”, we reject the idea that women who are commercially sexually exploited are victims. In doing so, we uphold the power structures that have long existed between exploiters and those who are exploited. This is where the challenge comes in: we must all choose to challenge the social exclusion of victims of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) by recognizing their humanity and potential, and treating them as such.
Female bodies have long been commodified and sexualized, and to justify this commodification, a process of dehumanization takes place. Psychologists define sexual objectification as “occurring whenever a woman’s body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated from her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing her”.
For victims of commercial sexual exploitation, which includes sex trafficking and prostitution, this dehumanization is evident in the societal treatment of these women. They are “othered”, excluded, and surrounded by stigma. This stigma makes the commercial sexual exploitation of these survivors their identity; an identity that casts shadows on the complex person. This article reminds us that often when discussing CSE, people refer to “solutions for prostitution” rather than solutions for the women who are being exploited. The victims are then positioned as the perpetrator, excluding them from the services and opportunities they need. In addition to social exclusion, they are often physically excluded, as well.
Many cities have created spaces where CSE thrives, while others can avoid and ignore it. This process took place in Kansas City as early as the late 1800s, when the red-light district was separated from the rest of the city. The city also wanted “moral zoning” of the “respectable, native-born white women”. The othering, exclusion, and dehumanization of victims is also compounded and intensified by race, gender identity, and sexuality.
Social exclusion is “a series of linked and/or mutually reinforcing processes, such as low income, poverty, debt, unemployment, poor education, health problems, housing problems, crime, lack of social support and other adverse life events”. Not only are victims of CSE socially excluded due to their exploitation, these factors of exclusion can also make women vulnerable to it.
At Magdalene KC, our residential program where survivors of CSE receive housing, employment, and recovery services, the most common shared experience among women in the program is unaddressed childhood sexual assault. Many were also homeless and battled addiction. For most of their lives, they have dealt with trauma and lacked opportunities such as education and employment. As a result, they often become stuck in dangerous cycles of poverty, abuse, addiction, and incarceration, and are left out of the services that exist to help people struggling with these same issues. This blog post states that there is a myth that victims of CSE cannot be sexually harassed or raped, and this is “rooted in the misperception” that they are “not fully rounded people, but rather defined solely” by their exploitation. These women are at risk every day of numerous abuses to their human rights, but are rarely protected by society. Victims of CSE are often punished by the law, which provides them with no real care for their physical and mental health, or assistance to get them out of their situation. The dehumanization of CSE victims that leads to these abuses is perhaps most evident when looking at the buyers, or perpetrators of the exploitation, themselves.
In a study comparing men who buy sex with men who do not, the power dynamic and apathy for the women being prostituted was evident. The study found that sex buyers engaged in significantly more criminal activity and had significantly less empathy for prostituted women than did non-sex buyers. It also found that sex buyers acknowledged fewer harmful effects of prostitution on the women and on the community, and said that they liked the power relationship in prostitution and the freedom from any relationship obligation. Despite the differences between men who do and do not buy sex, men who do not buy sex showed tolerance of prostitution for men who did buy sex. The well-being and humanity of the woman is rarely taken into account in this perspective from the men who are perpetuating this harmful exploitation.
As a society, we all can challenge these norms that say that the lives of women being commercially sexually exploited are worth less, and that they are part of the problem they themselves are victims of. As a society, we can support services that provide alternatives and show humanity. We can reject the ideations that some women are for sale, and some are not. We can demand more, and we can do better. If we do not, we will never be able to truly and completely address gender inequality - in this example, even inequalities among people of the same gender.
As we celebrate women during Women’s History Month and on International Women’s Day, let’s not exclude victims of CSE from our efforts. Instead, let’s join together and help give them a voice so we can celebrate the incredible things these women are capable of. As we do so, we’ll be giving them a chance to thrive instead of barely survive.