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Speeches: Gloria Steinem on Combating Sex Trafficking

Gloria Steinem Speech on Feminist Approaches to Combatting Sex-Trafficking and Prostitution to mark Apne Aap Women Worldwide’s Tenth Anniversar; JNU, New Delhi, 4/2/2012

Gloria Steinem, feminist writer and activist, gave this historic speech on the 10th anniversary of Apne Aap Women Worldwide, a grassroots organization working to end sex trafficking, founded by journalist Ruchira Gupta, at JNU, New Delhi, on 2nd April, 2012. Speaking on Feminist Approaches to Combating Sex-Trafficking and Prostitution, Steinem reported the women’s movement has seen a third way, emerging from victims, survivors and prostituted women themselves. Up to now, the dialogue has been falsely polarized as legalization versus criminalization. The women-centered reality is that people with the least power are arrested and people with the most power are not. A third way is not to arrest the women but to provide real alternatives to women and to penalize and rehabilitate customers and use the full force of the law against those who buy and sell the bodies of others.

Steinem learned the third way after several years of traveling to talk with survivors and prostituted women in Ghana, Nepal, India and inside the US. This speech is based on her interaction with the victims and survivors of Apne Aap, who have organized in small groups of 10 in slums and red light districts, to challenge the prostitution system.

Full Text:

Thank you for taking out time out of your busy lives to meet together in this room. The prophets of the Internet say that its very highest purpose is to get people in a room together — or in Liberation Square in Egypt or in Occupy Wall Street — because only with all our five senses can we truly empathize with each other. Only in each other’s presence do the empathy chemicals get triggered in our brains. After all, the Internet can help us with information on how to raise a baby — but it can’t raise a baby.

Also just before I left New York, one of our best feminist poets died — Adrienne Rich – who said : “ The connections between and among women are the most feared…and the most potentially transforming on the planet.” Knowing Adrienne, she would have included the men in this room whose shared purpose makes them Honorary Women.

India rescued me not only from a wrong marriage, but through its example of village level organizing – and through its acceptance of an outsider – also let me know that one could be a community organizer. This would turn out to be how I spent most of my life.

I say this because one of my oldest friends and role models from that time is here — Devaki Jain who was Devaki Srinivasan as she when we met — and also because I want to pay tribute to her late husband, the great Lakshmi Jain. This is the first time I have come to India without a Lakshmi in it. It was Devaki who gifted me with Khadi to wear, which I am sure would have made Lakshmi smile.

Since I am here to talk about a needed change, let me remind us of deep changes of the past. When I was here as a student living in Miranda House, auditing classes at the university, there were many students who had not before been in a room or discussion with members of the so called opposite sex who were not from their own families. Tension and self-consciousness was palpable. A couple of professors said it was unnatural and possibly impossible to learn with such sexual tension in the room, that co-education might work in other cultures – but not here. Now, I think it’s possible in both our countries for women and men to actually be friends, whether or not there is any sexual or romantic vibe between them. That is a huge step towards our full humanity.

When I was a student, there was still instances of Sati that was viewed as chosen or even romantic. There had been brave protests against enforced Saten, but by some, it was still as an inevitable and even honorable part of the culture, perhaps even in human nature because women’s identities were so implanted in the men they were married to — and there was no other way for them to live.

When I was here, both of our countries viewed some wife beating as inevitable. even deserved, since wives were supposed to obey their husbands, and men might be justified in physically disciplining their wives. In the U.S. we, too, had no term for domestic violence; that would be invented much later by the women’s movement to name injustice and suffering. Then, it was just called life, and the question often was: What did she do to deserve it? Or at least, why did choose him?

When I was here, both of our countries tied instances of rape and sexual assault to what a woman was wearing, or whether or not she had been a virgin, or many other questions that focused on the woman who had been raped, not on the rapist. Now that we have studied the men who rape, we have discovered in the U.S., that the average rapist has raped 14 times, that sexual aggression is not a normal part of all or most men, but an addiction of some men to a vision of masculinity that depends on conquering women — even if they are very young or very old. Rape is not an inevitable part of human nature. The compulsion to prove superiority to females may the cause the rape even of infants — as it just did in one lethal instance here.

In fact, it is the reason most sexual assaults of boys are not by homosexual men, but by heterosexuals. As long as a compulsion to be “masculine” is sold by the culture — and it is sold to persuade men to act against their own self interest by fighting in wars that have nothing to do with their own self-defense – the dependency and helplessness of children will be sexualized and become a sexual turn on for some.

I say all this because we are now facing a global epidemic of sex trafficking. It is enslaving mostly women and girls, but also sometimes young boys, for sexual purposes. It is even bigger than global trafficking in enslaved labor, though that stretches from agriculture fields and domestic work to building the skyscrapers of Gurgaon. Together, sex and labor trafficking now enslave a larger percentage of the earth’s population – of people who are being bought and sold like objects – than the percentage during 1800s at the peak of the slave trade. I don’t have tell you that this group that profits from sex trafficking now rival those from the global trade in weapons or that in drugs. Indeed, they are often sold by the same network. In New York, one can buy a gun, woman, or a fix from the same underground.

Women’s movements around the world have been fighting the sex trafficking industry for as long as I can remember. Laws and some enforcement of laws against trafficking of children have been the most successful, though even that degree of success has been pathetic. Since the average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 13 in the U.S. — and is between 9 and 12 here – how successful can they be? Even if they were, how could one look at an 18-year- old who has survived this dangerous life for six or so years, and say sorry, I could have offered you an alternative yesterday, but today you are on your own? What is happening globally is that females in the sex trade are being pulled in younger – partly because of a perception that they are less likely to have AIDS – or even most surrealistic of all, that sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. Also son preference in, say, China has resulted in a skewed sex ratio in the population, and that has resulted in deception and force to bring girls and women from, say, North Korea. Indeed, this importation of women takes place from south to north within India.

 But the force of the global women’s movement has also been weakened by a division that has been used to divide and diminish our strength, and put us into two false categories not of our own making. These have been created by two huge and deep forces in the patriarchal world.

First, there is patriarchal religious power. It condemns as wrong and sinful all sexual expression that cannot end in conception and isn’t within marriage. Its restrictions are especially turned against females, since the very definition of patriarchy is controlling females as the most basic means of production, the means of reproduction

Second, is the equally patriarchal but secular and “masculine” idea that freedom and democracy and even human rights are defined as the maximum sexual availability of females to males – under male terms. This view doesn’t have the cultural force of religion behind it, but it does have the force of the huge sums of money in the sex industry, and also the ubiquitous power of pornography that normalizes the sexual domination of women. It’s different from erotica, as is embedded in the word itself. Porne means female slaves, while eros, which means love, has an implication of mutual pleasure and free choice.

So women’s movements that have fought for the fundamental rights of sexual autonomy, orgasm, pleasure, and self-determination, have been condemned as sinful by patriarchal religions. Individual women have suffered terrible punishment, from shaming to honor killings.

At the same time, women’s movements that have fought prostitution and sex trafficking — or just tried to make clear that pornography is as different from erotica as rape is from sex — have been condemned as anti-sex by the secular patriarchal groups, and some women have been punished by exclusion from this patriarchal, secular, academic and political world.

The saddest part to me is that a few feminists have begun to mistrust each other. Those inside patriarch religions – and they are all patriarchal including Buddhism, though the oldest part of each still retains a universal pre-patriarchal spirituality from the Sufis to Kabbalah – so some women of faith have come to feel excluded by feminism.

Meanwhile some secular feminists have come to support commercialized sex – even legalized prostitution and sex trafficking as “facilitated migration” – and feel that if they don’t, they will be criticized by the patriarchal left or will be taking survival sex or even a form a sexual freedom away from some prostituted women.

But like most polarization of complex reality, that division into two is false. Actually, the very idea that there are only two sides to a every question comes from the false motion that the full circle of human qualities can be divided and polarized into “masculine” or “feminine.”

I’m glad to say that a third and women’s view is emerging by consensus among women’s movements on every continent who are offering support, friendship and alternatives to our sisters who have been trafficked or prostituted.

First, it’s hard to find any activists who think that a prostituted woman should be arrested. She is the victim, not the criminal. Yet that has been the practice of law enforcement, and has only strengthened brothel owners and trafficker who can accurately say that jail is a prostituted woman’s only alternative.

 Second, there is a growing emphasis on honoring women with alternative ways of surviving, of supporting the children, and of finding a community of understanding rather than blame. This is not as simple as outsiders might think. A prostituted woman is often rejected by a biased world, has her own Stockholm Syndrome to overcome, and has such low self-evaluation that attempting anything else seems hopeless. That is especially true if, like many, she has been sexually abused as child and has come to believe she has no other value, or if she belongs to a group that has been historically prostituted. But it is a tribute to the human spirit – both among activists and prostituted women – that in my country, groups like GEMS ,and in yours, groups like Apne Aap, are seeing women transform from objects to self-willed human beings.

Third, there is at least the beginning of a recognition that some groups of women and children are more at risk at being prostituted than others – for instance, sexually abused children, runaways, job seekers in another country, discriminated-against racial, caste, and ethnic groups and simply the poor – and there are efforts to warn and inform them.

Fourth, women’s movements and some enlightened countries are focusing on the market without which none of this would exist: the men who pay to get sex under unequal conditions. They are by no means the majority of men. Most studies have shown that a third of men or less patronize prostitutes; thus prostitution and sex trafficking are neither natural nor inevitable. They are functions of inequality combined with a false view of “masculinity.” Prostitution is not the oldest profession, it is the oldest oppression.

 I cannot emphasize enough how important this realization is: prostitution is not an inevitable or natural part of human nature. Think of the eras before when, say, rape – or even monarchy or smoking – were considered inevitable or even normal. Now, what is succeeding are efforts to penalize those who buy another human being, and also to give them the facts of the harm they are doing to others — and to themselves. Fifth, the centerpiece of the prostitution industry itself – legalization – has completeky failed to deliver on its promises of no underage prostitution or less violence or less disease. For instance: the 10 counties in Nevada where prostitution is legal turned out to be places where sex trafficked and underage girls are taken to be broken in. I saw once that food being thrown over the high fence by a neighbor to feed the women kept behind it. In Germany, where prostitution is legalized and called “hospitality work,” women hd to show they applied and were willing to take such jobs before getting unemployment benefits. The same thing happened with welfare in Nevada. Only massive efforts by women’s movements stopped this obvious use of legalization as a form of recruitment.

In 2003, the mayor of Amsterdam where prostitution is famously legal said, “it appears impossible to create a safe and controlled zone for women that was not opened to abuse by organized crime.” It also hasn’t been possible to independently document any diminishing incidence of AIDS or child prostitution despite payment to brothel owners and keepers to distribute condoms, and despite claims of so-called unions that claim to bar children. Where I have been on Sonagachchi for instance, I have looked inside doors and seen the children, who theoretically are being kept out. But then, unlike Bill Gates, I did not announce that I was coming.

Nor do studies show that indoor prostitution is less traumatizing than outdoor, or that buzzers in rooms prevent injury by sadistic customers. The overall rate of life expectancy for prostituted women is comparable to men in combat. Indeed it turns out that body invasion is even more traumatizing than beating. Our skin is our defense, our body is our domain and sense of self.

Sixth: While it may or may not be legal for an individual adult women or man to sell her or his sexual services — providing they pay income tax — it should not be legal to sell the bodies of others. Thus pimps, brothel keepers and certainly traffickers should be pursued with the full force of law.

In Sweden, Norway ad other Scandanavian countries, it is not illegal to sell sex but it is illegal to buy it. This is not irrational, it is simply a recognition of unequal power ad thus unequal responsibility.

It is crucial to understand that only this recognition of reality has resulted in a lessening of prostitution and sex-trafficking.

We have reached a crucial place in history. We know that prostitution is bot inevitable, that it is a function of unequal power and the cult of gender that perpetuates it. Yet in my country, there are girls and women-especially women of colour and Native American women, who are tattooed with a pimp’s distinguishing mark so other pimps will be warned away; sometimes a tattoo that is itself a code. We have a long way to go. And we must at listen and never think there is only one or even any pre-determined solution.

 For instance, I went to Ghana and Zambia for conferences on sex trafficking within Africa, and also to Europe.

Visiting friends who live on the Zambizie River, I ended up sitting on a tarpaulin in the middle of a hot and dusty field, talking in a circle with twenty or so village women. They were shy, our languages were diverse, and thought: this is one time when the magic of women in a circle isn’t to work.

 Then one woen began to say the unsayable-that her husband was beating her and she did not know what to do. The others began to tell the truth too. Gradually,I learned that what sent the women to Lusaka to be sex-trafficked was the hope of money to buy food and ay their childre’s school fees. Crops had been cut be two third because the World Bank had damned the Zambizie River, in order to produce electricity, promised irrigation systems, but never delivered. The women were carrying water in buckets to grow maize, only to find that the elephanst ate it.

What they needed was an electric fence to keep the elephants out, and grow enough grain to be self-sufficient.

So I went home and raised a few thousand dollars for suc a fence, not a lot. When I went back the next year, the women had pulled up weeds on many acres by hand, carried buckets of water, and raised a bumper crop of maize, enough for food security for a year and school fees. We sand songs to the maize. We danced to the maize.

If you had asked me what a cure for sex-trafficking was, I never would have said, “ an electrified fence.” But that is just what it was. We have to listen to each other. We have to be together in fields like that and rooms like these.

 And we must protect our own and each other’s rights to self-determined sexual expression. Where even some groups of women are sexually exploited in order to perpetuate and keep “pure” a particular race or class or caste, women of supposedly lower class/caste or race will be sexually exploited.

One of the reasons I have faith in change is coming to know original cultures-for instance the 500 or so native Tribes that were on my continent before patriarchal Europeans took over or the Ku orthe San in Africa-where rape and prostitution were unknown. Indeed, their language didn’t even have gender. Women and men, people and nature, were linked rather than ranked. Women controlled their own bodies and fertility. That way of life accounted for 95 % of human history. What we think of as inevitable-gender roles-accounts for less than 5 %.

We can go back and forward to a time when sexuality was about procreation only if you chose, and when it was also about mutual pleasure and free choice. Sex was is and will again become an expression of human freedom and community. Sex will be its own reward.


Gloria Steinem,
JNU, New Delhi
2 April, 2011

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