Why Abolitionists Should Talk About Pornography

As you are beginning to see, pornography extends far beyond its own borders and is a presence in many different parts of our modern world. One that I am particularly concerned about is its contribution to the sex industry and its relationship with sex slavery. To explore those links further, and plead with abolitionists to dare look into the issue of pornography, I present to you Saskia Wishart. 

Saskia is the European Coordinator for the Not For Sale Campaign and lives in Amsterdam; where she is assisting in the creation of a social enterprise that provides job skill training and opportunities to survivors of sex trafficking. She has been working with individuals exploited through human trafficking since 2008 and tweets @saskiacw.

 For many years I never thought much about pornography – to be honest, beyond a quick glance of a photograph ripped from a magazine by some curious boys at a school, I had never really seen pornography. Not until I began dealing with the issue of human trafficking. My exposure to the sex industry has been to combat the mess of exploitation that rips apart lives and families.

In Tel Aviv 5 years ago, my friends and I were walking along the beach in the evening, we passed an older man beside some bathrooms, with him was two young girls, maybe 14 years-old. He was photographing them in sexual poses. And we kept walking. One guy in our group of friends became angry, he wanted to go back and check on those girls, he wanted to interfere, to put a stop to something that looked very wrong. But we talked him out of it, I am ashamed to say, we walked on.

I remember when a child pornography case was busted open while I was working in Cape Town. The police told me of how the young girls exploited in this case were targeted by a business man in the community, a man who offered to assist families in financial need, a man who paid the school fees of young girls age 13 – 14 and in exchange lured them into a living hell, where he photographed and sexually exploited them. The police told me of the trauma the girls faced, girls who were so damaged from the experience, one continually tried to take her life. The 73 year-old man in this case pleaded guilty to 95 child porn charges last month, but his pleading guilty will not heal the emotional wounds that have been inflicted on his victims. The case was uncovered when neighbours began to question why this man was often being seen at the house he used as a ‘gym’ with underage girls. The choice of the neighbours to ask questions and call the police led to the arrest of this pedophile.

When I moved to Amsterdam and began working in providing nutrition to women in prostitution, I began seeing pornography weekly, it plays in the brothels and is advertised on the outside of sex shows. Last year I wrote apost exploring the angry emotions I had to face when seeing the lives of women and men destroyed by pornography. Triggered by a sign in a shop window advertising ‘rape-sex’ DVD’s, I started to research the links between pornography and human trafficking, pornography and child exploitation, as well as pornography, sexual addiction, and the abuse of women in prostitution.

As abolitionists we have a role in addressing the demand of sexual services; from protecting those who are underage to giving dignity to women who are vulnerable to exploitation.

Pornography and sexual addiction have become normalised in our culture, and many of us choose to ignore it, often by our own naivety of how serious the issue really is. Just like that day in Tel Aviv when we saw something that looked wrong, but choose to keep on walking, something is going wrong with the porn industry, and blinded by its allure and promise of satisfaction, we can choose to keep on walking, or we can stop and draw attention to some of its dangerous and exploitative aspects.

Some will say that not all pornography is linked to abuse, and this is probably true, but from where I stand the lines are too often blurred to justify what has happened around the world through the mass distribution of pornography.

One of the girls who is getting training in our project is a survivor of sex trafficking and has endured horrific abuse; one of the first things she did when she came into our building was point at the projector on the ceiling, and full of fear, she asked if the projector was a camera. For her, the reality of exploitation and slavery was intrinsically linked to being filmed while forced to perform sexual acts. Filmed for the purpose of making pornography that thousands of members of the general population consume over the internet.

Let us take a stand for freedom, even when it is uncomfortable. Let us not walk by a situation that isn’t right, but instead explore the complexities that allow the exploitation of others to go unnoticed.

4 responses to “Why Abolitionists Should Talk About Pornography

  1. I think it is very important to look at the conditions of porn production with a clear eye, and not believe the propaganda of the sex trade on how “harm-free”.
    I was in the sex trade as an prostitute for round 14 years, and in my experience and now my work as an abolitionist – I know it almost impossible to separate porn from prostitution – and the vast majority of the women and girls (and some men) in both porn and prostitution are in conditions of mental, physical and sexual torture, the vast majority have their basic human rights stripped from them.
    Many exited women who have abolitionist have problems with the division between trafficked and non-trafficked inside the sex trade. This is because the conditions inside the sex trade are conditions of trafficking whatever the reason the woman/girl first enter was. These are conditions where she has no access to the language of no, and no rights to self-dignity. These are conditions where she is made so sub-human that it is decided she does feel pain – and therefore cannot be raped or have rights to safety.
    It is does not matter the “reasons” the prostitute or “actor” in porn is there – what matters is that by being the role of the prostituted class, she has no rights to be fully human. What matters is tackling the production of porn as torture and stealing of human rights. What matters is seeing that in all forms of prostitution – from street-based prostitution to so-called “high-class” escorting – are highly dangerous and ripped away the prostitute right to be any more sexual goods. There is no safe place in the sex trade for the prostituted -for it up to punter whether he will use violence or not, it is up to the porn producer how sadistic his porn will, and it is always up to sex trade profiteers how their sexual goods are sold.

    • Wow, thank you so much for adding your voice as a survivor to this conversation. It is so so so crucial that you are the a part of the discussion on exploitation. This line, “It is does not matter the “reasons” the prostitute or “actor” in porn is there – what matters is that by being the role of the prostituted class, she has no rights to be fully human.” – ABSOLUTELY resonates, so well put.
      I have a question for you, obviously there are many women currently in prostitution/porn who feel defensive towards the claim that this is an exploitative industry. As prostitution is one of the easiest jobs for women to get in the Netherlands, and it is a legal form of work, there are women who made a decision (of course most often through complicated situations) to enter prostitution, and now that they are in, it becomes harder and harder to contemplate exiting. But they do not want to be placed in the same category as trafficking or to be considered a victim. I see that you’ve commented that many who have exited do not like the separation between trafficking and ‘non’-trafficking, but what about the women who currently do not agree with that. How would you as a survivor recommend that we provide space for those women to be where they are at while still highlighting the dangerous aspects of the sex industry?

  2. Saskia – it is very hard to answer that question – for when you are embedded inside the sex trade, you are more than likely also closed from the “real” world. It is an environment where you surrounded by sex trade profiteers and consumers of the porn/prostitution who say it is empowering and liberating for the prostituted class.
    It is also vital for survival not to know your own reality. Most women in porn/prostitution will not have the language of rape, abuse and lack of safety – heck, most women embedded in the sex trade have no access to the language of no or having basic human rights. Instead to survive and to keep a degree of sanity – it is translated to being empowering, being their own choice, that they have power over the men, that it a good way to get rich and independent. I do not know of any women in long-term indoors prostitution who does not cut off her reality, and invent an alternative and often dangerous reality for herself.
    She does this being dead inside, by forcing herself not to feel or remember degradation or pain or terror, by being a role of the “whore”. This is makes her highly vulnerable to any violence and hate that punters, profiteers or porn producers put into her – for she survive by making herself sub-human, into goods.
    It is natural that women will speak as the “Happy Hooker” to outsiders, for it is almost impossible to trust or believe in the goodness of others when trapped inside the sex trade. It is easier to give out a hard veneer, and try to alienate others.
    The thing is that nearly every exited woman I know would say that when they were in the sex trade they would defend their “choices” – but several years after exiting, trauma is the crashing in that there no real choices, just survival in the sex trade.

    • Wow, Thanks for your thoughts on this, you have an ability to reflect and articulate! I think these are words only you can speak, which is why your voice is so important to this conversation. Ugh, I totally get what you are saying, we see exactly what you are describing all the time in the windows. I guess for me the focus is to give each woman space to be where she is at, as most are in the state that you describe, and I would rather use language they are comfortable with until they are ready to recognise the exploitation, but it is so complicated! Which is why it is so important for people who can speak from having come through and recognise their trauma, to do so. I appreciate your insight!

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