The #MeToo groundswell of women who are challenging everyday sexual predation by men is consciousness-raising and courageous activism that will hopefully benefit all women. Men’s money and power coerce women’s submission to sexual harassment both in and out of prostitution, in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, in Ford auto factories, in the California and Massachusetts and U.S. Senates, in domestic service, and everywhere else on the planet. But does this wonderfully expanding big-as-the-sky-sized basket of women’s voices include women in prostitution? Is their “me too” welcomed? Is the prostitution of women in pornography included in #MeToo?
Sex trade survivors’ voices are essential to a discussion of sexual harassment, rape, and male supremacy because their experiences are that of tolerating sexual harassment and rape and verbal abuse in exchange for money or goods or something else of value. Sometimes the “something of value” that is exchanged for sex acts is food or shelter or medical care. But when the “something of value” is career advancement – it’s still prostitution. The supremacist logic of the man who has more power than a woman, whether he is her boss, doctor, lawyer, teacher, president – is the same as the sex buyer: “I pay you so I own you so I can do anything I want to you.” Career advancement in exchange for sex acts is a form of prostitution since it is the exchange of something of value for sex acts. Prostitution as an element of career advancement is usually named sexual exploitation but not prostitution.
Sexual harassment is what prostitution is. If you remove the sexual harassment, there is no prostitution. If you remove unwanted sex acts, there is no prostitution. If you eliminate paid rape, there is no prostitution. Evelina Giobbe, founder of WHISPER (Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt), said, “Prostitution sets the parameters for what you can do to a woman. It is the model for women’s condition.” Wherever there is sexual harassment, a certain group of women is split off from other women. “Prostitution is set apart from everything that people are me-tooing about,” said Giobbe. “People would not be appalled if Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Woody Allen did what they did to prostituted women.” Why is that? A special caste of prostituted women is created to guarantee men unconditional sexual access to women (Giobbe, 1990).
Men in the highest government offices — men like Donald Trump and Clarence Thomas – deny their predatory and chronic sexual harassment as locker room talk, as boys being boys, as just the way things are. Their behavior can’t be distinguished from the behavior of predatory sex buyers, except that sex buyers pay to sexually harass and rape. “Weinstein and Trump are no different from everyday johns,” said Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free in Minneapolis. “They rape women because they can, telling themselves she wanted it or liked it.” The narcissistic delusion that sexual harassment and prostitution are her “free choice,” or that “it was consensual” is the ideology that keeps prostitution – and the subordination and silencing of women – running smoothly. Prostituted women have the highest rate of rape of any women on the planet. Sex buyers’ behaviors are a model for sexual harassment and sexual predation. The pre-rape cues described by psychologists as warning signs for rape are precisely those behaviors exhibited by men who buy sex: an attitude of sexual entitlement, unwanted touching, persistence, and social isolation (Senn, Eliasziw, Barata, Thurston, Newby-Clark, Radtke, and Hobden, 2015).
“Everything the women are describing in #MeToo are common everyday experiences of women in prostitution. Women in prostitution are seen as a legitimate target for men’s violence, that we somehow deserve what we get,” said Alisa Bernhard, who works at Organization for Prostitution Survivors in Seattle. In prostitution, women are defined as rentable sex organs, as unrapeable, less than human, as having no feelings. “What others see as rape, we see as normal,” a woman prostituting in Vancouver explained (Farley, Lynne, and Cotton, 2005).
What men do to women in prostitution is not challenged as illegal. In some places, it’s even defined as “work” for those who have no other survival options. I can barely imagine the pain of having the world see sexual abuse as your job. Yet that is the burden that is shoved onto women in prostitution. Bernhard observed that “prostitution is the definition of a hostile work environment.”Challenging denial about sexual exploitation, Giobbe asked, “Why would you be surprised that men who can help with your economic advancement would demand sexual favors or rape you? That’s what men do with women who they pay for.”