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Feminists Lose Ground Working With Social Conservatives On Trafficking

by Melissa Ditmore


Many people are surprised to learn that some contemporary feminists work with Right-wing Christians on the issue of trafficking in persons – actions that sell out the rights of other women, particularly those who freely work in the sex trade.

The term "trafficking" refers to the trade in persons by coercion, force and fraud for labor of all sorts, including in factories, sweat shops, construction, farm and domestic work, as well as for sexual services. But, most often, "trafficking" only conjures up women and girls forced into sexual slavery, and this has drawn some feminists, especially those from the old guard anti-pornography movement, to work hand-in-hand with the Religious Right. Sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein points out that these feminists and Right-wing Christians are united by their shared prescriptive and punitive moral agenda. Bernstein calls this "carceral" feminism for its reliance on government criminal justice models to punish some people and protect others.

In practice, this comes down to victims and criminals, discerning "good" girls and women from "bad" -- protecting innocent, preferably virginal, victims, and punishing prostitutes. Separating women into madonnas and whores is an old con.

Historically, feminists have made questionable alliances when addressing "trafficking," typically with Christian organizations. The laws and policies enacted during a century of such partnerships since the Victorian era have actually harmed many women. The problem with such policies is that they often have been used to restrict women's movement, as well as to promote other conservative agendas. For example, the majority of people prosecuted under the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910, which had been pushed by a coalition of women and religious figures, were women charged with conspiracy for traveling across state lines to meet up with men, including fiancées.

More recently, the chair of the department of Women's Studies at the University of Rhode Island described George W. Bush as the "first feminist president" because of his attention to trafficking in women, which she conflated with prostitution, as did the Bush administration. The melding of trafficking with prostitution by the Bush administration led to anti-trafficking raids that nearly always focused on prostitution, ignoring the women and men trafficked into any other employment.

The shared agenda of the "carceral" feminists and Right-wing Christians also promotes a specific sexual morality that equates the experiences of people forced into prostitution with other sex industry workers who experience good working conditions and employment.

But not everyone buys it. In Prostitution and Sex Work, I review the 400 years of sex work in the U.S.:

"In recent years the prescriptive tendencies ... have met with opposition from a number of feminists whose motivation comes from having witnessed the use of regulations 'protecting' women from themselves. They have grown suspicious of the negative effects of such policies. Their suspicions are congruous with those stemming from the protective legislation enacted to prevent women's overwork earlier this century. In protecting women by limiting their working hours, policy makers rendered it impossible for these women to support their families. Policy ostensibly aimed at improving women's conditions may often, whether through its conception or implementation, have the precisely opposite effect."

The feminists who make alliances with the Christian Right promote policies that are detrimental to some women – "bad girls," women who sell sex.

Why would feminists feel a need to harm sex workers? Sex workers should be at the top of the list of people that feminists want to engage: most sex workers are women, and sex workers face high rates of violence because of their work. This should generate significant feminist concern for sex workers' well-being.

Feminists would do better to adopt a truly progressive agenda, one that includes the voices and experiences of sex workers and that addresses labor violations in all sectors. As noted in Prostitution and Sex Work:

"After years of factionalism, it is time not only to address differing opinions, but to productively move forward toward making policy addressing sex work with the input of those most affected by it: Sex workers themselves .... This wider view could enable well-informed policy and affect the lives of many women for the better."

January 27, 2011

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Melissa Ditmore is a writer and researcher focusing on HIV/AIDS, sex work, migration and trafficking. She holds a doctorate in sociology and has written and edited numerous books on sex work. Her other publications include peer-reviewed journal articles, research reports, advocacy materials, and short pieces. See www.melissaditmore.com.

Also see "Stop Murder and Violence Against Sex Workers" by Melissa Sontag Broudo and Rachel Grinstein in the Cafe of On The Issues Magazine.

Also see "Women's Liberation: Looking Back, Looking Forward" by Carol Hanisch in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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