Prostitution Narratives, Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist, eds.
Prostitution Narratives: Stories in Survival in the Sex Trade, edited by Caroline Norma and Melinda Tankard Reist. Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex, 2016. 238 pages.
A powerful collection of stories written by women from various countries who survived their time in prostitution and are willing to talk about its violence, drug usage, and overall dehumanizing impact.
Australians Caroline Norma and Melinda Reist, a scholar and an activist, both have expertise about sexual violence. They know what prostitution looks like for those involved and have collected twenty stories and three articles to present their viewpoint and expose the seamy underside of the prostitution industry in developed nations.. Their purpose is to share stories that sharply contradict the rosy accounts of prostitution as ordinary work: stories spread by those who profit from it. In deliberate imitation of the American slave narratives, Norma and Reist believe that if the public faces the reality of prostitution, the practice can be ended. Reading their book, I see their point. I gained a troubling new awareness of the damage it does not only to the women who rent the use of their bodies, but also to the larger society in which prostitution is allowed to be practiced. I credit Prostitution Narratives for pushing me to think about prostitution differently.
Previously I had not realized the extent to which prostitution, like rape, is about violence. Women are used as objects, not simply for sexuality, but to absorb the physical abuse that angry men think they are entitled to use against them. Even if men do not hit or bite or choke, the female body is not meant to withstand penetration by a dozen or more men per night. I also had not considered the psychological cost of repeated sex with men who do not value women. As the stories repeatedly asserted, the way for woman to endure being a prostitute is to distance herself from what is happening to her body. Legal or illegal drugs may help her, but they take a toll on her, compounding the damage from sex itself. In addition, once caught up in prostitution it is very difficult to get out psychologically or practically.
Debates about prostitution and possible ways to end it allow all of us to distance ourselves into thinking about the practice as essentially harmless. Reading the stories of women who have lived through it changes that immediately. Even if we have no reliable statistics about the numbers of women who have been harmed, identifying with the victims gives us a seldom considered perspective and raises questions about why it is allowed even as an illegal, but tolerated practice.
After reading Prostitution Narratives, I began to consider the various ways in which prostitution is integral to how we as a society think. Those of us in “free” societies can be attracted to the libertarian view that men are free and entitled to do what they have the money to do. Men, perhaps, but not women. Prostitution exhibits the problem with that view. Nowhere else is entitlement of men over women taken to the extreme of his ability to buy time alone with a woman to abuse and harm her. Even boxing, proposed as a parallel example, is regulated to establish some measure of equality between the combatants.
Prostitution has long existed, of course, as a means for powerful men to exercise their dominance over those most powerless. Today the practice has been democratized, offering all men that privilege. Some prostitutes, like those working for the “DC Madam”, have created individual solutions to lessen the abuse through the wealth and visibility of the men who come to them. But as we know from other groups seeking paths out of oppression, success for a few does not guarantee survival of the whole group
Proponents of prostitution try to normalize its practices, emphasizing the happy prostitutes and describing it as “sex work.” They claim that to attack it is to deny women their “autonomy.” But, like much else in our capitalist world, being a prostitute is hardly a free choice. Proponents offer the hope that if prostitution were decriminalized the abuses, which they admit exist, could be regulated or negotiated away. As the book points out, in parts of Australia which have experimented with decriminalization, brothels are still brothels.
In their book Norma and Reist support the Nordic Model for dealing with prostitution. In it men who use prostitutes would be arrested and punished but the actual prostitutes would not. At least this would represent a move away from the idea that the women are to blame for “offering” themselves, and that they deserve what they get. But I am unsure that any legal measures would suffice, unless we as societies stop assuming that male domination is their birthright and women, some women at least, are disposable.
I didn’t mean to express the rage that Prostitution Narratives inspired in me rather than focusing on the book itself. This rage and my new thought about prostitution are perhaps the best evidence of the power of this book. I strong recommend it to all readers, whatever you think you understand about prostitution.