Prostitution is the quintessential expression of global capitalism. Our corporate masters are pimps. We are all being debased and degraded, rendered impoverished and powerless, to service the cruel and lascivious demands of the corporate elite. And when they tire of us, or when we are no longer of use, we are discarded as human refuse. If we accept prostitution as legal, as Germany has done, as permissible in a civil society, we will take one more collective step toward the global plantation being built by the powerful. The fight against prostitution is the fight against a dehumanizing neoliberalism that begins, but will not end, with the subjugation of impoverished girls and women.
Poverty is not an aphrodisiac. Those who sell their bodies for sex do so out of desperation. They often end up physically injured, with a variety of diseases and medical conditions, and suffering from severe emotional trauma. The left is made morally bankrupt by its failure to grasp that legal prostitution is another face of neoliberalism. Selling your body for sex is not a choice. It is not about freedom. It is an act of economic slavery.
On a rainy night recently I walked past the desperate street prostitutes in the 15 square blocks that make up the Downtown Eastside ghetto in Vancouver—most of them impoverished aboriginal women. I saw on the desolate street corners where women wait for customers the cruelty and despair that will characterize most of our lives if the architects of neoliberalism remain in power. Downtown Eastside has the highest HIV infection rate in North America. It is filled with addicts, the broken, the homeless, the old and the mentally ill, all callously tossed onto the street.
Lee Lakeman, one of Canada’s most important radicals, and several members of the Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, met with me one morning in their storefront office in Vancouver. Lakeman in the 1970s opened her home in Ontario to abused women and their children. By 1977 she was in Vancouver working with the Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter, founded in 1973 and now the oldest rape crisis center in Canada. She has been at the forefront of the fight in Canada against the abuse of women, building alliances with groups such as the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network and the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution.
Lakeman and the shelter refused to give the provincial government access to victims’ files in order to protect the anonymity of the women. They also denied this information to the courts, in which, Lakeman said, “defense attorneys try to discredit or bully women complainants in criminal cases of male violence against women.” This defiance saw the shelter lose government funding. “It is still impossible to work effectively in a rape crisis center or a transition house and not be breaking the Canadian law on a regular basis,” said Lakeman, who describes herself as being increasingly radical.
Lakeman, along with the radical feminists allied with the shelter, is the bête noire not only of the state but of feckless liberals who think physical abuse of a woman is abhorrent if it occurs in a sweatshop but somehow is acceptable in a rented room, an alley, a brothel, a massage parlor or a car. Lakeman is fighting a world that has gone numb, a world that has banished empathy, a world where solidarity with the oppressed is a foreign concept. And, with upheavals ahead caused by climate change and the breakdown of global capitalism, she fears that if mechanisms are not in place to protect poor women the exploitation and abuse will increase.
“We have never stopped having to deal with misogyny among activists,” she said. “It is a serious problem. How do we talk to each other as movements? We want to talk about coalition building. But we want new formations to take women’s leadership seriously, to use what has been learned in the last 40 or 50 years. We deal with the most dispossessed among women. And it is clear to us that every sloppy uprising, or every unplanned, chaotic uprising, devastates poor women. We need to have thoughtfulness built into our practices of revolt. We do not want the traditional right-wing version of law and order. We work against it. We do not call for a reduction in men’s rights. But, without an organized community, without state responsibility, every woman is on her own against a man with more power.”
“We are seeing a range of violence against women that generations before us never saw—incest, wife abuse, prostitution, trafficking and violence against lesbians,” she went on. “It has become normal. But in periods of chaos it gets worse. We are trying to hang on to what we know about how to care for people, what we know about working democratically, about nonviolence, yet not be subsumed by the state. Yet we have to insist on a woman’s right not to face every man alone. We have to demand the rule of law.”
“Globalization and neoliberalism have accelerated a process in which women are being sold wholesale, as if it is OK to prostitute Asian women in brothels because they are sending money home to poor families,” she said. “This is the neoliberal model proposed to us. It is an industry. It is [considered] OK … just a job like any other job. This model says people are allowed to own factories where prostitution is done. They can own distribution systems [for prostitution]. They can use public relations to promote it. They can make profits. Men who pay for prostitution support this machinery. The state that permits prostitution supports this machinery. The only way to fight capitalism, racism and protect women is to stop men from buying prostitutes. And once that happens we can mobilize against the industry and the state to benefit the whole anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggle. But men will have to accept feminist leadership. They will have to listen to us. And they will have to give up the self-indulgence of prostitution.”
“The left broke apart in the 1970s over the failure to contend with racism, imperialism and women’s freedom,” she said. “These are still the fault lines. We have to build alliances across these gaps. But there are deal breakers. You can’t buy women. You can’t beat women. You can’t expect us to coalesce on the ‘wider’ issues unless you accept this. The problem with the left is it is afraid of words like ‘morality.’ The left does not know how to distinguish between right and wrong. It does not understand what constitutes unethical behavior.”