Slutshaming for a Cause Still Sucks

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I have a real problem with this video.

The problem does not lie with the dancers – frankly, from a purely choreographical perspective, they are pretty good (especially if they are actually in shut-off booths – that’s hard!). Nor from the idea of subversive street art: from Banksy to Blue Man Group to that guy busking on the corner singing Nickelback, I’m all for public performances.

Well, maybe not Nickelback.

No, my problem lies with five simple words: “Sadly, they end up here.” The implication being that, after being promised a career as a “dancer” in Western Europe, women who are lured to the Red Light district end up just dancing in a window for the pleasure of the men passing by.

I’ve had some twitversations with people who feel that this is a grand thing, a clever way to use few words to draw attention to the problem of sex trafficking. I disagree; I think that instead, the words imply first that the shop (and by implication, the entire red light district) is filled with women who have been trafficked, and second, that anyone who uses their body sexually to make a living is at best a deluded victim of the patriarchy.

Both of those are very slippery slopes.

It’s Her Body

If you agree with that statement in terms of reproductive rights, it seems imperative to me that you agree with it in terms of ALL reproductive rights – such as “I’m going to cash in on people’s urge to reproduce with me to make a living.” Any evidence I give from a personal point of view – the many friends I have who do that – would be suspect as anecdotal, but let’s look at articles like this one, where New Hanover County Assistant District Attorney Lindsey Roberson asked “Find me a college educated, well adjusted woman who’s had tons of opportunities in her life, who understands what a healthy relationship is and who’s actually experienced one and then chooses to sell her body for sex.” In the first ten comments, ten women did exactly that.

Especially in places like Amsterdam or Australia, where prostitution is at least somewhat legal and regulated, it’s just another job.Models Escort Agency” will provide a pleasant adult companion for your evening, and the odds are you’ll be able to have a conversation as well as physical pleasure from the exchange. But for some reason the idea that there is sexual attraction involved means this is somehow “shameful” – whereas if you paid a lifecoach to pretend to like you for an hour, that’s fine. Or a masseuse to put their hands on your naked body and make you feel good – that’s fine.

But while you’re traveling, tired and weary from the road, if you hire Sydney Select Escorts to help you relax? OMG!! Suddenly you’re part of a worldwide conspiracy of sex traffickers, contributing to the “sad” state of affairs these poor women are trapped in!

I got news for you: it’s not the sex industry that is the “sad state of affairs.” It’s the entire economic structure of the world.

“Yer Gonna Serve Somebody”

Bob Dylan had it right: it doesn’t matter who you are, there’s somebody higher on the totem pole that you’re going to try and please because you need what they have. Riddle me this: if you take “sex” out of the equation, how is a smart young woman stripping at a club worse than a smart young woman sitting at a desk doing data entry? Or a smart young man waiting tables? Or a divorced mother working a register at Wal-Mart. “No girl dreams of becoming a stripper” is a common refrain, but you know what? When I was a National Merit Semi-Finalist getting Rotary Scholarships in high school, I didn’t dream of becoming a short-order cook, working double shifts in a greasy kitchen.

You want demeaning, try cleaning out the drain trap, full of soggy bagel, old scrambled eggs, and cockroaches, just before walking out to the parking lot to pick up people’s cigarette butts. How is that somehow better than spending an hour making someone feel good about their body?

I know a young woman who, when she turned 18, had a choice between working at Starbucks or working at Visions, the local strip club. For her, it was a no-brainer: “I can make more money in one night at Visions than I make in two weeks at Starbucks.” How is being paid less for being on her feet and making lattes supposed to be more fulfilling or dignified than taking money from eager viewers (men and women, let’s remember) unless you feel sex is somehow to blame?

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the next stop is a flash mob at a Hollywood restaurant, where the waitstaff all burn their B.A. diplomas in Film Studies because they were promised acting careers. Or it’ll be a group of bloggers and podcasters at NewMediaExpo, demanding the freedom to write unsponsored posts instead of press releases and content filler.

But no, that’s not as sexy as a bunch of half-naked women dancing in a window. Which is my final problem with this method: they are using the fact that sex sells to protest the selling of sex. They are deliberately using the provocative dancers to draw attention and support for their message. If you tell me that the dancers chose to be there of their own free will, then I guess we finally agree that yes, women can choose to use their bodies in this way for whatever cause they feel is right. And sometimes that’s putting food on their table.

But if you feel that the only trafficking worth fighting has sex at it’s core, then you are, in my opinion, slut shaming. At which point I say: shame on you for taking the easy way out. You have an important message: find a better way to express it.

Addendum: Eithne Crow has a much more eloquent analysis of what is wrong with this video in her piece “Why This Video Needs to Fuck Off.” Better comments, too, so read ’em!

6 thoughts on “Slutshaming for a Cause Still Sucks

  • I’m not sure I can agree with this post.
    A lot of the history of sex trafficking, going back to WWII era (maybe earlier) is “oh we’ll give you a better job/better options/modeling gig/dancing gig” etc and they end up being sold. I’m pretty sure that’s the objection here.
    They already had an audience for the message they were trying to send, and were already sexualized. Not all women in the Red Light District are there against their will, to be sure, but…
    That would be why they’re directing the issue at trafficking, would it not?
    “Maybe the next stop is a flash mob at a Hollywood restaurant, where the waitstaff all burn their B.A. diplomas in Film Studies because they were promised acting careers.”

    Pretty sure trafficking is a wee bit of a different scenario, y’know?

    That said-not all prostitutes are there against their will, and shaming anyone for choosing to do so is a tad reprehensible.

    • I’m not saying it’s not worth fighting trafficking; it’s just that saying “they end up here” is like trying to fight domestic violence by pointing at BDSM. Is there DV there? Sure, as there is in many other places-churches, schools, whatever. But BDSM makes a sexy, easy target. So does sex work.

      You want to stop traffic, don’t fight sex work. Fight trafficking.

      • Hmmmm. I was going to growl at you….

        But then I actually had time to read the article you linked and that made several interesting points.
        I liked the video because it was attention grabbing and I suppose often I see sex trafficking delegated to the whole “starving children in Africa” thing people do.
        I.E. “Well this isn’t a PRIORITY, but I guess I can give money.”
        TL;DR-it gave an important issue a bit of a grandstand, and given the way the internet spreads things, that’s good.
        But then there’s that whole “bodily autonomy” thing and the objection to treating people like objects and thus trying to control things.


  • I had seen that video before, and hadn’t really thought of in the light of slut shaming. As a slut who is sometimes ashamed about that, I found this was a valuable perspective.

    I have no issue with strippers, legal prostitution, etc. but I do have a big issue with trafficking, which to me means unpaid, non-consensual slavery, whether it is for sex or factory or farm work.

  • Thanks for posting this, and for the links.
    Oddly, something that stuck out to me in your writing was this “I’m going to cash in on people’s urge to reproduce with me to make a living.”
    You described it as a “reproductive choice,” but unless the payment was for sperm, ova or surrogacy services it’s inaccurate.
    It’s a common enough misnomer, but since we have reached a point where we can biologically separate sex and sex work and body rights from reproductive functionality through birth control, shouldn’t we make the next step to distinguish them verbally?
    Not sure where this train of thought I just bought a ticket for will take me, but I’d be curious to hear you thoughts.

  • My problem with the ad is context. I get they were trying to do something eye catching and shocking to get their point across, but it is almost impossible to convey the nuance of sex trafficking in so few words.

    The part that bothers me the most is the “Sadly”. It makes a value judgment against the people who chose to work the red light district freely of their own will. It discredits the point that, actually, being an escort can be just a job someone wishes to have, not a situation forced upon them.

    I think I would have less of a problem with the ad if they drop dropped the adverb, though still the absence of nuance is always going to make a dramatic show like this lack the depth the subject needs.

    If they had just written, “Some of them end up here.” followed by the End Trafficking website, the viewer would still then assume the workers of the red light district are sex slaves when in fact it is my perception (and limited knowledge) that most of them are not.

    It’s a difficult subject, I get that, but still I think they could’ve done better. Of course, having said that, I don’t offhand know how.

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