Spartacist English edition No. 58
Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Woman, Anti-Sex:
U.S./UN Crusade Against "Sex Trafficking"
In a tribute to American imperialism last New Year's Day, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell patted himself and his chief, George W. Bush, on the back with these words: "In 2003 we freed thousands from oppression through President Bush's program to combat human trafficking.... We have saved lives and redeemed the enslaved, and we will do more in 2004" (New York Times, 1 January 2004). The United States has indeed escalated its crusade against human trafficking, "especially sex slavery," according to Congressman Christopher H. Smith, the author of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Since words like "freedom" and "redemption" are American imperialist lingo for increased government repression and the bloody military jackboot, just as "liberation" is Washington's word for the colonial rape and occupation of Iraq, the pledge to "do more" is a threat. Here, "redeeming the enslaved" means unleashing the cops and courts in a multiple attack on immigrants, women and sex.
Government sources claim that thousands of women and children each year are coerced, kidnapped, smuggled across borders, and forced into prostitution by gangs of criminals. The U.S. State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, headed by former Republican Congressman John R. Miller, features on its Web site stories of rape, sexual abuse, beatings and coerced prostitution. The media is pitching the story with dramatic headlines, pictures and lurid stories.
What the government terms "modern-day slavery" is largely debt bondage, where a worker is forced to pay off an onerous debt to get and keep his job. Debt bondage is on the rise across the world. Statistics are always unreliable for illegal activities; in this case, they also reflect the politics of the researcher. Unknown numbers of illegal immigrants who work as prostitutes are indeed subject to exorbitant debts to the smuggler who got them across the border, or ensnared in a criminal ring. It is generally acknowledged that workers in debt bondage are primarily illegal migrant agricultural workers, maids, nannies or hideously exploited people in small industries in the Third World.
Kidnapping, debt bondage, sexual assault, beatings—for any purpose—are horrible crimes. But there is a qualitative distinction between this kind of coercion and the fundamentally consensual act between a prostitute and her client to exchange money for sex. Part of the "anti-sex slavery" agenda is to merge "human trafficking," "sex slavery" and prostitution together, to identify as chattel bondage all exchanges of sex for money and all illegal border crossing. All women immigrants are now possible "sex slaves."
The Bush administration's trick here is to recast sin and sex in "human rights" terms, appealing to religious conservatives while adopting a more modern turn of phrase. So, in a speech on the subject at the United Nations last September, Bush intoned: "Nearly two centuries after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, and more than a century after slavery was officially ended, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed to thrive in our time" (www.usembassy.it). This from a man whose attorney general is an open admirer of the slave-owning American Confederacy! Nonetheless, media pundits such as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof have hailed Bush's "human rights" imperialism. Describing his experience of buying "sex slaves" in Cambodia so he could "free them" (not with a lot of success; one returned to the brothel and refused to leave), this pro-Democratic Party liberal ended one column in praise of the current right-wing administration: "President Bush's policies toward women have often been callous—cutting off, for example, funds for safe childbirth programs in Africa because of ideological disputes with sponsoring groups. But on trafficking, this administration has led the way" (New York Times, 31 January 2004).
Marching in tune with the crusade against "sex trafficking" are the U.S. government's longtime partners in the "family values" anti-sex witchhunt, the evangelical right and the bourgeois feminist establishment. The sleight of hand that transforms all prostitution into "sex slavery" is courtesy of right-wing feminist organizations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), which defines prostitution as "gang rape." The CATW was instrumental in drafting both the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000) and the United Nations "Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons" (2001) as a supplement to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. These documents laid the groundwork for an international police witchhunt against illegal immigrants as "sex traffickers," which will inevitably come down hardest on women.
The anti-woman backlash has already moved beyond cop repression. In January 2003 the Bush administration, through USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development), announced a new policy cutting funding to international projects perceived as supporting the decriminalization of prostitution and "legalization of drugs, injecting drug use, and abortion." Such policies have a widespread impact, especially in impoverished Third World countries, where women live in conditions of backwardness, weighed down by religious reaction and customs that maintain the yoke of family oppression. As Anna-Louise Crago, founding member of Montreal's sex worker political action group, said:
"Already in 2001, the Population Council and Asia Foundation jointly released a study that found that in Nepal, a country that receives a bulk of the anti-trafficking money from USAID, 'a common approach to controlling trafficking is to limit women's migration.' NGOs were found to use frightening messages to discourage women from leaving their villages while women and girls reported being prevented from crossing the border despite vehement protests of their free will."
—Alternet, "Unholy Alliance," 21 May 2003
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2003, has two main operational provisions: increased funding to "train border patrol guards and officials on identification of victims of trafficking," that is, to reinforce the border police; and strengthened provisions for U.S. sanctions against countries the State Department deems not to be in compliance with its anti-trafficking mandate. Trafficking "victims" are offered special visas, but only if they cooperate with government prosecutors; otherwise, they are subject to charges themselves as prostitutes and illegal aliens. Furthermore, the TVPRA adds "trafficking" as an offense chargeable under RICO, the frame-up law that allows the government to seize all assets so that suspects cannot defend themselves. The TVPRA also specifies that "No funds [will be] made available...to promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution."
The U.S. government doesn't appear to take even its own hype all that seriously, however. Bush plans to spend $1.5 billion to "promote marriage"; but Congress voted only $20 million a year for "prevention" and "protection and assistance" for "victims" in a $100 million annual anti-trafficking budget. This too underscores the repressive, ideological intent of the law, to beef up capitalism's trinity of oppression: the capitalist state; organized religion; and the institution of the family, the main source of the oppression of women in class society.
Imperialist Onslaught Tramples on Women
This repressive crusade is sponsored by the very forces responsible for the destruction of the former East European and Soviet workers states where, despite the deformations of Stalinist bureaucracies, planned economies meant that basic necessities were available to all. Much of the unprecedented level of worldwide immigration, legal and illegal, is a direct consequence of the capitalist counterrevolution in those countries. Not only were those countries devastated, but the Third World is now increasingly vulnerable to the depredations of world imperialism. The imperialists have reduced to a trickle the financial aid previously granted as a sop to many countries during the Cold War against the USSR. The escalation of the exploitation of labor, poverty, and war means that people are on the move as never before.
In East Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, capitalist counterrevolution has dragged women back decades. Once educated and employed at one of the highest levels in the world, they now face massive, chronic unemployment, while prostitution has soared. In post-Soviet Russia gross domestic product fell by over 80 percent from 1991 to 1997; according to official statistics, capital investment dropped over 90 percent. By the mid 1990s, 40 percent of the population of the Russian Federation was living below the official poverty line and a further 36 percent only a little above it. Millions are starving.
The atrocities that are still thriving worldwide in this reactionary social and economic climate include forced marriages, the buying and selling of children, forced segregation under the head-to-toe veil, female genital mutilation and "honor killings." Coerced prostitution, which has existed for thousands of years, is likely increasing. But the repressive measures adopted by capitalist states in the name of "human rights" and "protecting women" will only intensify these miseries through state persecution. Racist anti-immigrant laws guarantee vicious exploitation of immigrants, denial of social benefits, and lack of access to education and to legal recourse for victims of crimes.
On May 1, ten countries of economically devastated East Europe joined the EU with its supposed "open" borders, and the governments of West Europe have reacted with an anti-immigrant panic. With British tabloids claiming that 1.6 million Roma (Gypsies) from East Europe are supposedly waiting for the opening of British borders, the general fear of a massive influx of migrants from East Europe was so widespread that even the president of the European Parliament denounced it as "overblown" (Coventry Evening Telegraph, 19 February 2004). Every existing EU government passed specific measures to make people from the ten new member countries second-class citizens by restricting either the right to benefits or to work, if not both. These racist laws drive immigrants into the hands of border smugglers, since it is often the only way to get into the United States or Europe.
While vice laws in Europe are generally more relaxed than in the United States, each country has some form of legal limitation, regulation or prohibition that allows police harassment. A majority of the prostitutes on the continent are now immigrants. Compared to the tens of thousands of expulsions carried out each year in "Fortress Europe," the number of prostitutes deported is minuscule, but the vice laws give the police yet another weapon and serve to justify new laws that deny asylum to immigrant women fleeing persecution in their home countries.
In France, 40 percent of prostitutes come from the Balkans and 37 percent are of African origin. In Italy, estimates set the number of undocumented immigrants among streetwalkers at 90 percent. In 2002 Italy launched a nationwide crackdown in what Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has called a fight between good and evil. The Italian state deems the great saviors of "sex slaves" to be the Vatican and the carabinieri (police). Meanwhile, Italian authorities leave women and children from Albania and elsewhere to drown as they try to reach the east coast of the Italian peninsula.
While police harassment of prostitution has increased, it hasn't turned up much solid evidence of widespread "sex slavery." On 11 October 2003 Agence France-Presse reported a massive nationwide swoop in the Czech Republic, which the United Nations calls the hub of the sex trade, in a crackdown on "the white slave trade and forced prostitution." Some 4,500 police raided 435 erotic clubs and other premises across the country to look for women "being forced to work as prostitutes." Of the 96 people held for questioning, 17 were charged with pimping and 16 with "white slave trade." But of the 1,391 non-Czechs interrogated during these raids, the police found only three foreign prostitutes who asked to be repatriated.
European prostitutes have been fighting back against police harassment and abuse by criminals. In Spain, where most prostitutes are immigrants from South America, Africa and East Europe, the Collective in Defense of Prostitutes' Rights organized a demonstration in Madrid to demand labor rights, such as employer-paid social security benefits, which will help them in "trying to pay off their huge debts to mafias who got them into the country illegally," according to a spokeswoman (New York Times, 19 January 2004).
U.S./UN/NATO Out of the Balkans Now!
One damaging result of the hype is that it obscures the real crimes of coerced trafficking and prostitution that do exist. The situation is probably at its worst in the Balkans, where the devastation of capitalist counterrevolution was amplified by the bloody U.S./NATO imperialist war against Serbia in 1999. Murderous ethnic hatred, promoted by the breakup of the former multinational Yugoslav deformed workers state along national lines, erupts constantly. Refugees from war and ethnic strife are desperate to flee the area. At the same time military occupation by thousands of U.S./UN troops provides a fertile source of paying customers for prostitution.
These factors converge to make the Balkans ground zero for human trafficking in Europe. Traffickers bring women in from Russia and other East European countries to staff the brothels, while Albanians and others try to find their way out to the capital cities of West Europe. The U.S. government claims that criminal rings are driving the "sex slave" trade, but trafficking in the Balkans has been linked directly to U.S./UN/NATO personnel. In a 24 April 2002 statement to the House Committee on International Relations, David Lamb, a human rights investigator in the Balkans who looked into forced prostitution there, blamed the trade on UN collusion and cover-up: "The sex slave trade in Bosnia largely exists because of the UN peacekeeping operation.... Trafficking of women for forced prostitution, and the prostitution trade, are controlled by organized crime war-lords, most of whom came to power as aggressive and ruthless military or militia commanders during the war." In describing the difficulties in investigating these abuses, he said, "Whenever involvement of UN personnel surfaced during investigations, support from UN headquarters stopped.... My investigators and I experienced an astonishing cover-up attempt that seemed to extend to the highest levels of the UN headquarters."
Press reports have detailed the involvement of personnel from both the United Nations and the Pentagon military contractor DynCorp in running sex rings in the Balkans; women were brought into Bosnia from East Europe and had their passports confiscated ("America's For-Profit Secret Army," New York Times, 13 October 2002; "Bosnia: UN Police Accused of Involvement in Prostitution," Associated Press, 19 June 2001). As far as the other NATO forces go, an article in Junge Welt, "The Child Brothel of Tetovo: Covered-Up Sex Scandal Among Bundeswehr Soldiers in the Balkans" (1 March 2001), revealed discussion within the German Social Democratic/Green coalition government of possible "soldiers' brothels" organized by the army. Reportedly, Green Party spokeswoman Angelika Beer expressed the government's "concern for the psychological well-being and thus the combat-readiness" of the German armed forces abroad as a reason to set up brothels of German mädchen to protect the troops from the presumed diseased and under-age Balkan women. The proposal was all too reminiscent of the state-controlled brothels administered through the concentration camp system by the Wehrmacht in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The U.S. rants about "sex slavery" when the worst instances of coerced prostitution exist precisely in a U.S./UN military occupation zone. When in 1993 Democrat Bill Clinton threatened military intervention against the Serbs amid all-sided interethnic slaughter, some of the loudest war cries came from the pro-imperialist feminists, who exploited the reports of mass rape and sexual brutality in Bosnia to call for the American jackboot to "save" Bosnian Muslim women. The National Organization for Women even called for sanctions by the International Monetary Fund, the hated international bankers' cartel which for decades has subjected hundreds of millions of Third World poor to brutal starvation policies.
War inevitably spawns prostitution; it is only a question of the degree of brutality. From U.S. Civil War general Joe Hooker, who is commonly believed to have given American English a new word for the world's oldest profession, to the R&R stations established in Thailand for U.S. servicemen on leave from the bloody imperialist war against Vietnam, prostitution is an inevitable part of the army's train.
Harking back to an earlier imperialist war, author Lujo Basserman wrote:
"When Queen Victoria's haughty phrase to the effect that the existence of prostitutes constituted an affront to Her Majesty was reported in Berlin, a registered whore named Christine Leichtfuss remarked..., 'I'd rather be the loose character I am than have Victoria's responsibility for the Boer War'."
—The Oldest Profession: A History of Prostitution (New York: Dorset Press, 1967)
For Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!
The ruling class does not want to eliminate immigrants from the labor force, rather it aims to benefit from immigration by whatever means possible. For example, in the U.S. immigrants from Mexico serve as part of the reserve army of labor; they are necessary particularly for California agriculture, but when the economic need dries up, they can be quickly deported. Immigrants also fill especially onerous and underpaid jobs that those who are able to work legally in the U.S. won't do for the pittance those jobs pay. How desperate they can be is the subject of the movie Dirty Pretty Things, where illegal immigrants sell their kidneys for passports and young women give slimy bosses blowjobs to stay employed in wretched sweatshops. Many immigrants send a large part, if not most, of their earnings home to support their families. Half of the world's 120 million legal and illegal migrants are women, who generally work as nannies, maids or other kinds of domestics, and sometimes in the sex trade.
In Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), the introduction describes a government program in Sri Lanka that encourages women to migrate in search of domestic work, leaving their own children with relatives back home. One author reports that 34 to 54 percent of the population of the Philippines is sustained by remittances from migrant workers, whose funds are the economy's largest source of foreign currency, almost $7 billion in 1999. Two-thirds of Filipino migrant workers are women.
While Bush has declared it "a special evil," the fact remains that for many women, prostitution can well be a better job prospect than indentured servitude in the fields at home, or backbreaking factory labor or the other dismal prospects for an "illegal" immigrant abroad. Millions of immigrant women clean the toilets and floors, change the beds and bedpans, feed the babies and the elderly, and labor in the most wretched of sweatshops at the most menial, despised work while enduring racist and anti-woman abuse. Starvation wages, no benefits, long hours and beatings and sexual assault are all too common.
Some of the most brutally exploited women workers on the American continent work in the maquiladoras, the border-area "free trade" zones in Mexico that have been the source of huge profits to the imperialist corporations. Women there, many as young as 16, suffer exposure to poisonous chemicals, pain and finger deformities caused by the repetitive mechanical movements of assembly lines. Many endure degrading strip searches; some have been compelled to offer proof that they are not pregnant as a condition of employment. United class struggle by workers on both sides of the border is urgent as U.S. capitalists continue their "free trade" rape of Mexico.
Prostitution: What's in a Name?
While most people would say that they know what it is, the definition of prostitution reflects the perspective of the respondent. The renowned experts on human sexuality William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson comment, "Prostitution is difficult to define since humans have always used sex to obtain desirables such as food, money, valuables, promotions, and power" (Sex and Human Loving [Boston: Little, Brown, 1988]).
The status of the prostitute is related to the status of women generally in society, itself a measure of a society's advancement. Thus the conditions faced by the prostitute vary greatly with time, place and class. In the industrialized world, where women have greater access to education and jobs, prostitutes tend to be among the poorest and most desperate. Statistics vary widely, but some trends do emerge: in the U.S. at least, a large percentage of prostitutes are unskilled and without a high school education. Given the vicious racism of American society, it's no surprise that black women are overrepresented in prostitution—especially among those who are arrested and jailed. In San Francisco, according to the Sex Workers Outreach Project, 57 percent of the prostitutes are black (the city as a whole is only 8 percent black). One striking fact is confirmed by most sources: runaway teenagers, who in fleeing a miserable family situation have very few other choices indeed, often become prostitutes.
There is a world of difference between the luxury and easy living of a Hollywood madam like Heidi Fleiss (who got locked up all the same) and the AIDS-infected, drug-addicted streetwalker in an impoverished ghetto, with no options and no way out. Nonetheless, all prostitutes are subjected to the general social opprobrium of bourgeois moralism and hypocrisy, which sets them up for abuse, beatings, rape and theft. Prostitutes take the brunt of hatred of women. For example, in the 1980s the "Green River killer," Gary Leon Ridgway, murdered 48 women in the Seattle, Washington area; most were street prostitutes, targeted because he thought he could get away with it.
In economically backward societies, as a woman's status is lower and her options more limited, to that degree is prostitution a more attractive alternative to virtual family bondage. Only the most beautiful and cultured women became geisha in ancient Japan, for example.
A "Crime Without a Victim"
Because it is generally illegal or heavily regulated under capitalist law, Marxists consider prostitution to be a "crime without a victim," like drug use, gambling, pornography, homosexual sex and "statutory rape." Such activities are labeled crimes in the U.S. because bourgeois Christian morality deems them sins. From the standpoint of the working class, the act of performing sex for money is not a crime on the part of either the prostitute or the john. While we recognize that prostitution is more often than not degrading and exploitative, we make no moral judgments on it, whether practiced by a high-priced call girl or a woman forced into the trade by a debt to a criminal gang or by the hard, mean, racist reality of capitalism.
Some argue that prostitution is not a "crime without a victim" because the prostitutes themselves are victims. The leader of the Russian Revolution, V.I. Lenin, identified the source of the prostitute's victimization: "They are unfortunate double victims of bourgeois society. Victims, first, of its accursed system of property and, secondly, of its accursed moral hypocrisy" (Clara Zetkin, "My Recollections of Lenin," in The Emancipation of Women [New York: International Publishers, 1934]). But prostitutes are not the victims of the act of prostitution itself. As Masters and Johnson explain, "The detrimental side of female prostitution is not the sexual activity itself but the evils that often accompany prostitution: exploitation by organized crime and/or pimps, sexually transmitted disease, drug addiction, the physical risks of 'kinky' sex or assault by a customer, and the inability to save money for future needs." We would add that in many societies the stigma of "immoral" sex (which means anything outside of marriage) can lead to permanent ostracism or even murder, as in the "honor killings" of women who have "disgraced" their families.
The very criminalization of prostitution forces the prostitute into a lumpen milieu, which complicates or denies her access to social services and where she is more vulnerable to organized crime and to the whims of her pimp. It also serves as a source of police corruption and individual victimization. We oppose all laws against "crimes without victims" and fight for the separation of church and state. We are opposed to government interference in people's private, sexual lives, as well as to any categorical criminalization of a sex act, such as the reactionary "age of consent" laws that try to dictate a sexless existence to teenagers. We advocate the concept of effective consent, that is, mutual understanding and agreement is what matters in all sexual acts.
In calling for an end to these laws we do not believe, however, that these practices should be a matter of indifference to the socialist movement. Recreational drug use is nobody else's business, but widespread drug addiction and alcoholism sap the revolutionary energy of the working class and other sections of the oppressed. The social oppression that breeds alcoholism and drug addiction among the poor should be fought through the moral authority of the proletarian socialist movement, and not through state coercion. The government's anti-drug witchhunt has unleashed massive cop terror in the ghettos and barrios and imprisoned many hundreds of thousands.
In the case of immigrant prostitutes, it is also necessary to fight against racist deportations and for full citizenship rights for all in the country where they live, however they got there. Domestic workers and prostitutes are especially vulnerable since they are isolated in their employers' homes or on the street, separated from social production and the labor movement. Yet immigrant women workers form a part of the growing and increasingly combative immigrant sector of the American working class. The contradiction is captured in Ken Loach's film Bread and Roses, the story of the fight to organize the largely undocumented workers who clean the corporate office buildings of Los Angeles. The movie focuses on immigrant Latina sisters, one who sleeps with the boss to get her sister a job, the other who leads the unionization effort for the Service Employees International Union "Justice for Janitors" campaign. Far from being helpless victims, immigrant women workers will play a powerful role as revolutionary fighters in the multiracial, internationalist party of the working class that we Marxists are striving to build. Such a party would also fight against all instances of women's oppression as part of its mission to link the needs of the most downtrodden and degraded victims of capitalism to the social power of the proletariat.
A Necessary Institution of Capitalist Society
In his classic Marxist text on women's oppression, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (New York: International Publishers, 1972), Friedrich Engels says of the status of women in ancient Greece:
"In Euripides [Orestes] a woman is called an oikurema, a thing (the word is neuter) for looking after the house, and, apart from her business of bearing children, that was all she was for the Athenian—his chief female domestic servant. The man had his athletics and his public business from which women were barred; in addition, he often had female slaves at his disposal and during the most flourishing days of Athens an extensive system of prostitution which the state at least favored. It was precisely through this system of prostitution that the only Greek women of personality were able to develop, and to acquire that intellectual and artistic culture by which they stand out as high above the general level of classic womanhood as the Spartan women by their qualities of character. But that a woman had to be a hetaera before she could be a woman is the worst condemnation of the Athenian family."
In his book Engels, basing himself on the scientific information then available, traces the development of the institution of the family from primitive communist tribes or clans through the division of society into classes. Ancient hunter-gatherer society was one of equality between men and women, where the necessary division of labor, based on women's childbearing role, entailed no subordination by sex. Since only the mother of a child was known, kinship was generally determined through the female line. But with the development of a patriarchal property-owning ruling class, it was necessary to have a sure means for the inheritance of property and power, and that meant the enforced fidelity of the wife to determine the paternity of the children. The state arose to ensure the dominance of the ruling class by force. Thus was born the monogamous family in which marriage meant the subjugation of women by men and the destruction of mother-right. As Engels said, "the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property" brought about "the world historical defeat of the female sex."
Engels critiques bourgeois marriage customs of his own time, when the nubile daughters of the ruling class were hawked to the highest bidder in the marriage mart (the subject of many 19th-century European novels). He comments:
"This marriage of convenience turns often enough into the crassest prostitution—sometimes of both partners, but far more commonly of the woman, who only differs from the ordinary courtesan in that she does not let out her body on piecework as a wage worker, but sells it once and for all into slavery. And of all marriages of convenience Fourier's words hold true: 'As in grammar two negatives make an affirmative, so in matrimonial morality two prostitutions pass for a virtue'."
It is the institution of the family that brings money into sexual relations. Whether it's renting a prostitute by the hour or a wife by the lifetime, the family and the oppression of women are founded on private property, and the religious codes of morality and capitalist law are all that distinguish the wife from the prostitute in this fundamental sense. It is a matter of statistical record that many women suffer a decrease in their standard of living as a result of divorce, while access to health care in the U.S. depends on a job or being married to someone who has a job. While the dowry and bride price are no longer common in Western societies, obvious examples today of the relationship between money and marriage are palimony, pre-nuptial agreements and the divorce law business, the subject of the screwball comedy Intolerable Cruelty.
In capitalist society today, one purpose of the institution of the family is to impose on the working class the burden of rearing the next generation. The mother is subjugated to domestic drudgery and the care and nursing of the young, the old and the sick, and the children are raised to be the next generation of wage-workers and taught to respect authority. The family also has a conservatizing hold on the man, who is supposed to support his family as part of the very definition of manhood. That a large section of the population—if not the majority—does not live this way only serves to drive the bourgeoisie into a frenzy of "family values" reaction as it attempts to shore up its tottering institution.
The "conjugal partnership of leaden boredom, known as 'domestic bliss'," Engels tells us, has yet another result: "Together with monogamous marriage and hetaerism, adultery became an unavoidable social institution—denounced, severely penalized, but impossible to suppress." The difficulty is that our group-living mammalian species adapts to lifelong heterosexual monogamy about as well as you can stop a volcano from erupting. Despite punishments as cruel as stoning to death (for example, as mandated in the Bible), people persist in flouting the mandated "correct" sexual behavior, and they are remarkably imaginative about it. From this conflict between the demands of class society and the most intimate personal feelings and desires comes the alienation, the ugly hypocrisy, the misery and frustration, and the tales of ecstatic love, that are the subject of works of art from Lancelot and Guinevere to La Traviata and The Hours.
The prostitute is a player at all levels. On the sexual level, she compensates for the hangups and fears that can keep especially women from enjoying sex. Many customers come to prostitutes for "kinky" sex—the kind of thing you want to hide from your wife, neighbors, family and associates. Certainly gay male prostitution is a prime example of this. As social historian Hilary Evans says in Harlots, Whores and Hookers: A History of Prostitution (New York: Dorset Press, 1979), it is necessary to "recognise what perceptive madams and prostitutes have known for years: that, except at the lowest level, the prostitute is providing much more than just a physical body to meet a physical need."
The German Marxist August Bebel said in his classic work Woman in the Past, Present and Future, "Prostitution becomes a necessary social institution, just as much as the police, the standing army, the church, the capitalist." While we oppose the criminalization of prostitution under capitalist law, we see prostitution as a component of the oppression of women, an analogue to the institution of the family. Under socialism, the family will be replaced by communal childcare and housework, enabling women to participate fully in economic, social and political life. Job training and education will be open to all, with a stipend for all students, which will enable teenagers to live independently of their families. Birth control and abortions will be free and on demand, with free, quality health care for all. Sex will be free from the snooping of preachy busybodies and corrupt cops. The liberation of the prostitute can't be separated from the liberation of women as a whole, and prostitution will die only as the institution of the family is replaced. For women's liberation through socialist revolution!
The "White Slavery" Panic in the U.S. and the Status of Women
Splashed on the cover of the New York Times Magazine on 25 January 2004, Peter Landesman's "Sex Slaves on Main Street: The Girls Next Door" painted a sensationalist picture of seemingly normal family homes on every other block harboring women who are held in "sex slavery" and are "sometimes killed." It turns out that Landesman manipulated or left out some facts. Among other problems, he neglected to mention that one of his main sources, the former "sex slave" Andrea, who can't remember her real name or her age, is recovering from multiple personality disorder. The controversy over Landesman's article resulted in a formal acknowledgment by the New York Times that some errors had been committed. The sensationalist cover of the magazine, showing the body and knee-socked legs of a school girl, was misleading; the Times admitted that the girl is actually 19 years old, and the photo was retouched to remove her school insignia, in violation of the Times' policy against altering photos. However, the Times stated that it stood by the facts in Landesman's article. Now a movie based on the article is in the works, with a script by Landesman and to be directed by Roland Emmerich, known for such sci-fi thrillers as Independence Day.
Landesman's over-the-top sensationalism could have come right out of the "white slavery" hysteria that swept Europe and the United States 100 years ago. When populations not of Protestant Northern European extraction began to dominate immigration into the U.S., this development ignited profound racist and nativist reactions with accompanying hysteria over sex, religion and culture. Thus, while official government policy toward immigration is largely determined by the labor needs of the economy, social and cultural questions play an important role.
This was probably most dramatically seen first in reaction to the Chinese immigration in the American West, particularly with regard to women. The federal Page Law of 1875 forbade the entry of Chinese, Japanese and "Mongolian" contract laborers, and of women for the purpose of prostitution. This exclusion effectively banned all Chinese women from joining their husbands, except for the families of merchants, from 1882 to 1943, when the law was finally changed. So a lively trade in prostitutes from China arose, where someone could buy a girl and ship her overseas to a brothel—real sex slavery.
In some cases, when impoverished Chinese families sold their daughters into American prostitution, the women faithfully sent hundreds of dollars home to help their families. The women often stunned social workers by refusing to leave their sexual bondage for Christian missions. Real prostitutes have always had more complicated hopes and fears than the mythic creatures the moral reformers went forth to rescue.
Prostitution became a national obsession during the Progressive Era, roughly from 1900 to 1920, when a period of capitalist reform made the vice laws what they are today. Progressivist reformers sought to clean up what they considered to be the worst abuses of capitalist exploitation in the urban centers, from lack of health care to slum housing and dangerous working conditions. Some of the political attributes of Progressivism are well illuminated by its anti-prostitution drive, which was actually a debate about the status of women in society and is documented in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, by John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
The new wave of immigration after 1900 was largely from South and East Europe; for example, Italians, Polish Jews and Russians. At the same time, birth rates were going down among white Protestants as the divorce rate went up, prompting cries of "race suicide." This was also the period of an unprecedented entry of women into the workforce other than domestic service. From 1900 to 1910 the number of female wage earners went from 5.3 to 7.6 million, a 43 percent increase, concentrated in office, telephone and factory work. At the same time unionism and political activism grew among women workers—which was definitely not to the credit of the racist, anti-woman AFL craft union bureaucracy. In New York City, for example, on 8 March 1908 women workers on the Lower East Side first celebrated what was to become International Women's Day. In 1909 shirtwaist workers went on strike in the city.
This growth of wage work meant the emergence of a layer of young, independent, working-class women in the cities. It's the classic Marxist point that the entry of women into the labor force represents the first step in their liberation from the family yoke. In 1914, a report by the Massachusetts Vice Commission put it this way: "The early economic independence of working girls brings temptations, and makes them intolerant of restraint. It has become the custom of young women to go about freely, unaccompanied."
At this time prostitution was formally illegal but generally tolerated in most American cities. Each city had its red-light district, such as Storyville in New Orleans, the Levee in Chicago, the Barbary Coast in San Francisco, where vice flourished. Of course the reform movement went after them first. Anti-vice crusaders held marches and outdoor prayer meetings in red-light districts.
In 1909 a sensationalist panic burst on the scene, launched by the Chicago magazine McClure's, which described an "international Jewish white-slavery organization." The hysteria spread like lightning as articles and books with titillating titles and lurid illustrations poured out, charging a conspiracy to abduct and force women into prostitution. This "white slave trade" was described as an international, organized syndicate run by foreigners who brought foreign prostitutes into the U.S. and also lured or kidnapped thousands of innocent American maidens into a life of slavery and sin.
Dozens of cities launched investigations into prostitution and "white slavery." A prime example is a Chicago Vice Commission report of 1911, "The Social Evil in Chicago," which adopted as its motto, "Constant and Persistent Repression of Prostitution the Immediate Method: Absolute Annihilation the Ultimate Ideal." Historian Mark Thomas Connelly describes these reports as identifying "clandestine prostitution" as "almost any premarital or nonmonogamous female sexual activity," i.e., any sex act deemed a violation of bourgeois morality (The Response to Prostitution in the Progressive Era [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980]). The solution was to discourage women's departure from traditional roles, and various measures were pursued to try to force this to happen. Campaigners attacked ice cream parlors, restaurants, dance halls, saloons and the automobile and demanded censorship of movies, while they urged families to keep their daughters home and out of the workforce. Since the "social evil" was linked with alcohol in the reformers' minds, the movement for Prohibition, which became law in 1920, gained much momentum. Despite the hysteria, very little evidence of a traffic in "white slaves" was ever uncovered, and none at all of an organized international syndicate.
Prostitutes faced intimidation, exploitation and violence, which only increased under this persecution. Those who were immigrants suffered further. Racist reformers indignantly warned "respectable" women to enter those "dangerous" Chinese laundries only with an escort, lest they be ensnared in a Chinese brothel (James A. Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003]). By 1920 a panoply of laws had shut down the red-light districts and driven prostitution underground and onto the street. Control of prostitution changed hands from madams and prostitutes to pimps, mobsters and cops. Physical violence rapidly increased.
The witchhunt came to a head with the outbreak of World War I, when fears of sexually transmitted disease prompted government legislation to "protect" military recruits from prostitutes. By the end of the war some 30,000 women had been apprehended on suspicion of prostitution and incarcerated, often without the benefit of due process, trial, or legal representation. The law permitted the government to incarcerate any woman suspected to have a sexually transmitted disease, and her lifestyle or rumored sex life could be reason enough for a medical examination.
The Mann Act and the American Witchhunt
The most potent witchhunting law emerging from the "white slavery" scare was the Mann Act (1910), which made it a federal offense to transport women across state lines for "immoral purposes." Over the next eight years, the Justice Department obtained almost 2,200 convictions for trafficking in women. The act's official title is the White Slave Traffic Act, but according to historian David J. Langum, the first arrest was a madam escorting five willing prostitutes from Chicago to Michigan (Crossing Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994]). The Act was soon interpreted by the Supreme Court to apply to noncommercial sex as well. In the 1917 Caminetti case, two young married guys from Sacramento, California got arrested for taking a train to Reno, Nevada with their girlfriends. Enforcement of the Mann Act began the transformation of the tiny Bureau of Investigation from a small Washington office into the nationwide FBI.
One of the first victims of the Mann Act was heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was a hero to the oppressed black masses across the country when he won his title. But the racists were not going to allow Johnson to rest on his laurels, particularly since he was known for his relationships with white women. When federal agents persuaded white prostitute Belle Schreiber to testify that Johnson had paid for her travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago for "immoral purposes," the way was paved for an indictment under the Mann Act. In May 1913 an all-white jury convicted Johnson, who was sentenced to one year in prison.
The Mann Act is still law in the United States. While it has been amended so that it cannot be so easily used against unmarried couples who travel across state lines, other amendments have strengthened its clout. It now applies to male "victims" as well, and it has been used to crack down on gay prostitutes in Washington, D.C.
Unholy Alliance of Feminists and Religious Right
Today, stories of the perils of ice cream parlors and the like are reserved for the witchhunt against a supposed national epidemic of child abuse, which conflates everything from the brutal rape and murder of Megan Kanka to consensual sex with a person under 18. It was not very long ago that even more ludicrous charges of sex crimes grabbed headlines and mobilized police to persecute innocent people. Throughout the 1980s dozens of people went to jail, charged with crimes that never happened, in the panic over "Satanic ritual abuse" of children in day-care centers. This hysteria was also braintrusted by the capitalist state, the religious right and the U.S. feminist movement.
This unholy alliance began in the 1980s when Women Against Pornography declared porn to be the "cause" of violence against women, and Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon drafted a law (later ruled unconstitutional) that redefined pornography as the "sexually explicit subordination of women." Feminist ideology played a major role supporting and justifying the government censorship drive for busts that closed down mom-and-pop stores that rented x-rated videos and spurred attacks on erotic art. Meanwhile, anti-abortion bigots were torching clinics and threatening abortion doctors with death, but the reaction of the mainstream feminist movement was to call on the racist, anti-woman state to "protect" abortion rights. Today the feminists call on that same state to supposedly "liberate" prostitutes and "sex slaves" through the anti-trafficking campaign.
The feminist guru of the crusade against "sex slavery" is Kathleen Barry, professor of sociology in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her book Female Sexual Slavery (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1979) is considered the seminal work in the anti-trafficking movement. Barry later updated her views to cut a wide swathe indeed in the definition of "sex slavery":
"Female sexual slavery includes not only women in prostitution who are controlled by pimps but wives in marriages who are controlled by husbands and daughters who are incestuously assaulted by fathers. My definition...breaks away from traditional distinctions between 'forced' and 'free' prostitution and between wives and whores. When women and/or girls are held over time, for sexual use, they are in conditions of slavery....Slavery is one aspect of the violation of women and children in prostitution, in marriage, and in families."
—The Prostitution of Sexuality (New York: New York University Press, 1995)
Just in case she left anything out, Barry argues that whatever isn't "sex slavery" is sexual exploitation. Women, you see, believe in love, but men just want sex. She wrote a 381-page book just to rehash that old tripe.
The voluminous anti-trafficking literature is peppered with references and footnotes to Barry's writings, which give the cachet of academic respectability to what is simply anti-sex ranting. But Barry is no mere theoretician. She conducted her first international meetings on the subject in 1980, moving on to an international conference in Rotterdam in 1983. In 1988 she founded the CATW, which lobbies mightily to change anti-prostitution laws so that, as is now the law in Sweden, it's the customer who is penalized instead of the prostitute.
The Network of Sex Work Projects, an organization that fights for the rights of sex workers, organized a demonstration in protest of CATW policies at the July 2002 International Conference on AIDS in Barcelona. Their leaflet, "The Anti-Sex Work Anti-Trafficking Agenda: A Threat to Sex Workers' Health and Human Rights" (www.nswp.org), states in part:
"CATW recently published a 'hit list' of organisations receiving US funding, accusing them of 'promoting prostitution.' This hit list includes well-known and well-respected organisations providing essential HIV care and prevention services."
The CATW was one of 13 feminist organizations that lobbied the U.S. Congress for the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act; others included the Feminist Majority, the National Organization for Women and Equality Now. They joined forces with anti-abortion bigot Congressman Chris Smith, a sponsor of the bill, and the International Justice Mission, a group of Christian missionaries that launches raids on Asian brothels to "liberate" the prostitutes, while the Dateline NBC cameras roll. As a reward for the feminist contributions, Laura Lederer, director of the anti-trafficking Protection Project and editor of the anti-pornography bible Take Back the Night, was given a prominent position in the U.S. State Department's trafficking office.
For Women's Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
In functioning as an ideological prop of the capitalist state, the American feminist establishment is simply fulfilling its role as the voice of those bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women whose only quarrel with capitalist society is that it denies them full access to the boys' club of ruling-class power. But for most women the system of capitalist imperialism means unemployment, homelessness and lack of health care, or for Third World women, oppressive practices like female genital mutilation or enforced segregation under the veil. In the Third World, most women get to watch their children die and die young themselves, often in childbirth or after some botched abortion. To single out prostitution as somehow a problem towering over this brutality can only play into the hands of the bourgeois ideologues backing up U.S. imperialism.
The "sex slavery" crusade is a cynical and dangerous business because it both legitimizes government persecution of immigrants and invokes state authority to intervene as moral arbiter in our most intimate affairs. It bolsters the anti-sex witchhunt as a whole and deflects attention from the real violence perpetrated every day against women and children under this class system. The social alienation of a system in which the mass of people are tools for the enrichment of the very few is compounded by the institutionalized inequalities of race, religion, nationality and sex. Violence against women springs in part from the deep sexual insecurities fostered by repression and social irrationality.
Women have fought in the front ranks of every revolutionary struggle on this planet, from the women of Paris who marched on Versailles at the beginning of the Great French Revolution of 1789 to the women workers who sparked the Russian Revolution on International Women's Day 1917 with a march demanding food for their starving families. Today the struggle for women's rights has assumed even more political importance after the capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR and East Europe. The International Communist League looks to organizing the courage and dedication of militant women workers under the banner of the revolutionary proletarian party. The precondition for women's emancipation is the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order, which exploits women as workers and oppresses them as household drudges.
As we said in "The 'Date Rape' Issue: Feminist Hysteria, Anti-Sex Witchhunt" (Women and Revolution No. 43, Winter 1993-Spring 1994):
"To create genuinely free and equal relations between people in all spheres, including sex, requires nothing less than the destruction of this class system and the creation of a communist world. In a classless society social and economic constraints over sexual relations will be non-existent, and in the words of Frederick Engels, 'there is no other motive left except mutual inclination'."