The Sad-Go-Round of Sexual Exploitation
The latest issue of the New Internationalist — a journal I read and recommend — featured an exposé of one of the most tragic and demoralizing — and growing — crimes of our world: trafficking women and girls for various kinds of exploitation. If ‘globalization from above’ describes the cancerous corporate system that is pushing aside nations and peoples, and ‘globalization from below’ describes the way civic society and indigenous peoples are connecting into networks to build a more human- and life-friendly planet, what shall we call this? The U.S. Government estimates that as many as 800,000 people are ‘trafficked’ across international borders each year, from 127 countries.
It made heartbreaking reading.
Two approaches were cited as attempts to contain, or possibly reverse this practice, the ‘supply-side’ legal means of apprehending traffickers and ‘demand-side’ methods like educating girls who are at risk or placing beer mats in British pubs that have enticing sex-worker ads on one side but, when you turn them over, the harsh truths about how the woman you visit may have been coerced and basically deprived of her humanity, raped and beaten if she tries to escape.
Neither is working very well. As nonviolence people we would place much more hope in the demand-side methods, which are further ‘up-stream’ toward the real source of the violence. The parallel to drug trafficing is patent: would you rather try to eradicate coca crops (and anything else in your path) in Colombia or give people something to live for so they don’t take to drugs in the first place? Likewise, rousing people’s lust and then showing them the unpleasant flip side doesn’t strike me as all that different from rousing people’s lust culture-wide, which we do by endlessly advertising sex by itself, or to sell everything from clothes to cars, and then demonizing people who express it in ways that are harmful.
I am being very controversial, I know. Let me give a little background on this particular form of exploitation before I go on. The trafficking of human beings, aka slavery, has a deep past. Émile Benveniste, a brilliant philologist who wrote a ground-breaking work on ‘the vocabulary of Indo-European Institutions,’ showed that the earliest words for buying and selling in the IE vocabulary (the Indo-European languages were the ancestors of most languages spoken from Iran to Ireland, and now the world) implied the buying and selling of human beings — slaves. There was a special word in ancient Greek, aikhmalotēs, ‘spear-captured,’ to denote the status of women or men captured in war. As we all know, it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the awareness of the horror of treating a human being as a thing to be bought and sold reached high enough levels that the practice was made illegal, by stages, in Europe and America. This means that quite apart from the sexual aspect (and not all women being trafficed end up in brothels — some are forced into general slavery), the world is going backwards morally by thousands of years.
I’ve already suggested where we might find the answer. The upstream answer, the compassionate and sensible but also very difficult answer, is to stop exploiting sex. At one point when modern feminism was developing women put bright yellow stickers on ads that used allure to sell things, saying This Exploits Women. It does. I was sorry they stopped. But until they start again, or some comparable campaigns are dreamed up, let’s remember that we can all do something. Ever since a New York bus rolled up in front of my face with a larger-than-life frontal-nudity ad I vowed I would never buy anything more from the company that paid for it, which was Calvin Klein. Literally and metaphorically, ‘don’t buy it.’ Live simply, have lots of close relationships, and discover that happiness cannot be bought because it doesn’t come from outside us in the first place.
This is Gandhi’s svadeshi: local action. It builds a platform from which we can in time mount campaigns, get laws passed, and let women and girls have their freedom and their life. Of course, this form of dehumanization is only one of many. If we want to get really upstream we will have to stop poverty, and commercialism. Those will be subjects of articles to follow.