If You Had to Choose…


Nigerian women being prostituted in Italy (Flickr / Creative Commons)

by Kristyn Komarnicki

When you talk to people as often as I do about sexual exploitation and the sex "industry" (everything from stripping to sex trafficking), you often hear prostitution called "work" and discussed as a "choice." This is based on some fairly common misconceptions (fueled mostly by the entertainment industry, which has offered us films like Pretty Woman and songs like Rihanna's "Pour It Up"). I try to explain why it's not the world's oldest profession but the world's oldest oppression, as abolitionist Norma Ramos calls it.

But it's especially disheartening when someone within the abolitionist movement talks out of both sides of his mouth. Sadly, this is also common. I offered the following comment to a 2011 article written by Amy Ernst on Nicholas Kristof's New York Times blog, and I share it here because I think it helps explain why the double-speak that persists, even among co-abolitionists, is so unhelpful. Kristof won is Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author, along with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, of the bestselling 2009 book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. He has done an enormous amount of good in exposing the realities of sex trafficking, but troublesome language remains, as revealed in the above-mentioned article he hosted on his blog.

Dear Ms. Ernst,

In your article "Notes From a Young American in Congo: Sex Workers," you write about "sex work," saying, "I've realized it's not a job, it's a desperate last resort."
I'm an editor, and words are my meat and potatoes. You and Kristof are writers, so you will understand what I mean when I say how important, and how powerful, words are. They either point to the truth, or they obscure and mislead. With this in mind, I really struggle with calling these women 'sex workers.' Work implies a level of dignity and choice that is completely absent from these women's lives.
If you had to choose between eating rotten, maggoty food and starving to death, would you call that food a meal?
If you had to choose between sleeping under a plastic sheet on a rainy night and sleeping exposed to the rain, would you call that sheet a home?
If you had to choose between marrying your rapist and being stoned to death (as in some traditional Muslim cultures), would you call that rapist a husband?
Can we honestly call any of these acts—eating rotten food, sleeping under a sheet, marrying your attacker—"choices" in the sense that this word is commonly understood?
I take issue with calling prostitution "work." I take issue with lots of things I read in the newspapers, as in the all-too-common headlines announcing an arrest for "having sex with a child" (that's actually called "rape," and for good reason). But when people like you and Kristof, who clearly CARE about these women, use the wrong words, it really makes me mad.
In his video "The Madonna and the Whore," Kristof uses the word "whore" to describe a woman he only seconds before says was lured by a promise of legitimate work before being trapped and held against her will in a brothel—that's called kidnapping and sexual trafficking.
Calling victims derogatory names or calling the pitiable situations they are forced into "work" is wrong and does a disservice to us all, because it puts a legitimate sheen on criminal oppression and sends the unconscious message that these Congolese women—or any of the world's downtrodden, prostituted women, children, and men—have choices. The people who have choices are the johns and the traffickers, and the choices they make every day are deadly to the world's most vulnerable people. Please align your words with what your heart already clearly believes.
Thank you,
Kristyn Komarnicki

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