If you think feminists everywhere are celebrating the prosecution of the world’s largest online sex market, Backpage.com, as a major blow against the exploitation of women, you would be wrong. The Women’s March is perhaps the most vocal and visible group to self-appropriate the label “feminist,” but others as well have come down decisively on the side of prostitution as sexually empowering because “the real mark of feminism is trusting women to do what they want with their bodies.”
According to the Women’s March Twitter feed, “The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis ” and the crackdown is “motivated by the patriarchal notion that women should not be free to do what we want with our bodies.”
The story of Backpage.com, where thousands of children and women kept as sex slaves were being sold again and again by their pimps, illustrates how modern slavery and human trafficking pervades the sex industry — and how the “happy hooker” is a statistical blip. Most women (and of course, all children) who sell their bodies have arrived there through poverty, grooming, coercion, and a host of societal dysfunctions and failures. Even when not coerced, prostitution is a last resort for desperate women. No matter how vigorously ideologues celebrate the “choice,” renting out one’s body to a stranger comes with many obvious negatives.
There is the degrading exposure of a woman’s feminine intimacy and delicate privacy to a greedy, careless stranger — something one can perhaps get used to, but at a tremendous psychological cost. There is the physical danger of the meetings; women in the industry experience astronomical rates of violence, some of which is built in, as there are men whose whole sexual experience hinges on causing pain to a helpless victim.
The “workplace homicide rate” is 51 times higher than working in a liquor store, according to the American Journal of Epidemiology, and prostitutes also report a high incidence of rape. There is also the almost certain infection with sexually transmitted diseases, some of which are incurable, like herpes and HIV. No girl to my knowledge has ever hoped to grow up to be a prostitute, and no rational mother has held her little daughter in her arms and yearned for her to grow up to be a high-priced call girl.
The truth is that women who work as prostitutes are abused continually by johns and pimps, and are often enslaved. They frequently come from abusive homes and have spent a lifetime marginalized and oppressed. Too often they have no way to escape their situation, no support and no hope. This includes women plying their trade legally in places like Nevada and Holland.
Legal or illegal, financial benefits are reaped by the violent and powerful men in their lives — the brothel owners and pimps, and in the case of the online sex trade, platform CEOs like Carl Ferrer of Backpage. He has just pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to facilitate prostitution and admitted to laundering the huge amounts of money he made from advertising the use of women’s and girls’ bodies.
Characterizing prostitution as an empowering choice minimizes the suffering of trafficked and abused women and children, and allows traffickers to move under the cover of sex marketplaces that enjoy societal acceptance granted by the feminist imprimatur. Turning away from these victims in order to celebrate “sex work” as an expression of women’s agency and choice is disingenuous.
These “feminists” are guilty of whitewashing a sordid industry that relies on women’s lack of choices and reinforces the societal idea that men are entitled to women’s bodies. Feminism, if it is founded on concern for real women, should be interested in creating a world where women do not have to perform sexual acts in mortal danger to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads.
It’s not surprising, sadly, that evil men use powerless women and girls for sex or profit. What is surprising is the way some who claim to care about their sisters are relabeling modern sex slavery as “sex work.” When they support the normalization of prostitution and the sale of human flesh, they are allying themselves with pimps, brothel-keepers and human traffickers like the owners of Backpage.com. They are helping to keep their sisters down, and bad men in control.
• Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy adviser for The Catholic Association.
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