What Does Ms. Magazine Have Against Sex Workers?
Ms. Magazine, the self-proclaimed "media expert on issues relating to women's status, women's rights, and women's points of view," can't seem to stop disrespecting sex workers—a group who, in the Ms. way of thinking, is composed exclusively of women. The recent article on sex tourism in Ukraine is symptomatic of their usual sex industry coverage: half anxiety and miscomprehension, half lip service to activism efforts promoting sex worker autonomy.
Early in the piece, author Marina Kamenev refers to one source as a "sex worker" before immediately referring to sex workers in Ukraine as "prostituted women," a phrase used to emphasize pimp/trafficker involvement and deny sex worker choice. Yet this very same sentence explains that many Ukrainian women returned to their home country after Ukraine relaxed its visa requirements so that Western tourists could more easily enter. Trafficked women are not in control of their own movement, particularly not across national borders. Therefore, this piece of information suggests women were voluntarily leaving the country for better sex work opportunities abroad, then voluntarily continuing to sell sex once they came home. While Ms. decries the profusion of sex tourism within Ukraine, it's easy to see that the opportunity to work in their homeland, whose language they speak and whose customs they know, with their families and friends nearby, is a considerable improvement for workers.
The next strange moment occurs when Kamenev mentions the police tactic of punishing prostitutes through public shaming while allowing clients to escape without any penalty. Rather than criticize this ugly practice, which relies on gendered stereotypes about sexually active women in order to be effective, Kamenev scolds "brothels remain boldly unembarrassed." Ms. has yet to establish any uniform editorial position on prostitution, but their content generally supports the idea that sex workers should be ashamed of themselves—an attitude which one would logically expect to be negated if they are in fact "prostituted" against their will.
Not too long ago, Ms. featured favorable coverage of NOW-NYC's campaign to eliminate adult classified ads in New York publications on the grounds that these ads often advertised trafficked women. The article, by Jennifer Hahn, explained that publishers were asked to "screen" ads by looking out for those which featured in call only services and "women of a particular ethnicity." Quite a few sex workers choose to see clients at their own location, since, with good reason, they feel safer in a well-known environment that is under their own control. The "particular" ethnicity Hahn refers to is most likely Asian, although the fact that she didn't choose to include that detail speaks volumes about the discrimination inherent in these types of "anti-trafficking" measures. In other words, if NOW-NYC had gotten their way, they'd have made print ads the exclusive domain of white, outcall-only escorts.
NOW-NYC itself was exhibiting some bizarrely misogynistic reasoning when discussing their campaign, most notably with the claim that "advertisers and readers find newspapers loaded with explicit content and photos of half-naked women just not acceptable." The implication here is that such ads are offensive because they're advertising women who are not working voluntarily—but if what's "unacceptable" is kidnapping and rape, the "half-nakedness" pales in comparison. It's hard to see how the explicitness of the ad is relevant unless it's referred to in an effort to stir up old-fashioned American moralizing and sex-shame. If one objects to trafficking, certainly it's the trafficking itself that one finds offensive, not the presentation.
Hahn's article, published in the print edition of Ms. (Fall 2007) bought into the same nasty rhetoric, referring to sex worker ads as "smut" that can deter "more respectable companies" from advertising in the same space. (This, in spite of acknowledging that prostitution can be "a simple business transaction between consenting adults.") The implication here is that sex is shameful, or rather sex for pay is dirty and not a legitimate capitalist enterprise. A letter published in the Summer 2008 issue conveyed this common sentiment, one that has influenced decades of feminist thought on prostitution: "[Diablo] Cody and others like her who have used their bodies as sexual objects have disrespected women and encouraged the subjugation of females." While letters to the editor are the opinions of certain readers and not that of editorial staff, they are also usually suggested as particularly eloquent examples of a common reader sentiment. And the idea that women who do sex work voluntarily are betraying other women is the proverbial elephant in the room in many feminist articles on the sex industry.
To return to Ms.'s more recent take on trafficking, Kamenev's Ukraine coverage contains some pretty astounding numbers, including the statistic that well over half of the phone calls to the domestic branch of a women's rights center (64%) are from individuals preparing to work overseas while only 8% are from families looking for missing persons or trying to help trafficked relatives. This is significant because it starkly highlights the reality of life in parts of Eastern Europe, where economic opportunities are so few that many people, particularly women, are willing to enter into vaguely described or plainly undesirable work conditions abroad. (This includes many forms of manual labor, not just sex work.) Although there are those who deny that any woman can or would enter willing into life as a prostitute, it's terribly insulting to assume Ukrainian women are always, in every single situation, unaware of the type of labor that awaits them in another country. Some women, Ukrainian and otherwise, choose a life as a sex worker when faced with a life of barely any income at all.
If Ms. really wants to assist trafficked women, they'd have a good start in examining some of their own prejudices against prostitutes. It would also be helpful for them to challenge the rhetoric dominating our national discourse on trafficking, a rhetoric that equates sex trafficking simply with trafficking and ignores the forms of forced labor that don't cater to prurient interests. As the recently released Trafficking in Persons Report acknowledges, trafficking encompasses many forms of exploitation, including domestic servitude and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Everyone who wants to minimize trafficking needs to turn their attention and energy to addressing the root causes behind all forms, not simply using the angle of sexual slavery to titillate and sensationalize. (Among these risk factors are unemployment, poverty, political conflict and corruption.) Surely all trafficked persons, men, women, and children, deserve to live a life of autonomy and dignity, and they deserve help whether they're being forced to work in a brothel, factory, field, or home.