Days of Revolt: The Moral Bankruptcy of the Left on Prostitution
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and anti-prostitution advocates Lee Lakeman and Alice Lee discuss the Left’s absence in confronting male violence against women, and the role of colonialism in perpetuating prostitution.
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt.
We are in Vancouver speaking with two activists today about the failure on the part–primarily among groups on the left, to confront male violence against women.
And with me in Vancouver are Alice Lee, who is one of the cofounders of Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, and Lee Lakeman, a longtime member of the Vancouver collective Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter.
Thank you very much.
I’m going to begin by reading a quote from the great radical writer Andrea Dworkin, in which she says:
“Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the commodity is the whore; profit is not wicked or cruel when the alienated worker is a female piece of meat; corporate bloodsucking is not wicked or cruel when the corporations in question, organized crime syndicates, sell cunt; racism is not wicked or cruel when the black cunt or yellow cunt or red cunt or Hispanic cunt or Jewish cunt has her legs splayed for any man’s pleasure; poverty is not wicked or cruel when it is the poverty of dispossessed women who have only themselves to sell; violence by the powerful against the powerless is not wicked or cruel when it is called sex; slavery is not wicked or cruel when it is sexual slavery; torture is not wicked or cruel when the tormented are women, whores, cunts. The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die. The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.”
She wrote that a couple of decades ago, Lee. And I suspect you would argue that things are worse.
LEE LAKEMAN: I would argue things are worse, much more confused, much more clouded. The industry itself is much larger, and the excuses for it are much more complex.
HEDGES: What have you seen happen within the left, and in particular within self-identified feminist groups?
L. LAKEMAN: Well, I don’t think it’s particularly within feminist groups, but I do think there’s a split where although we seem to have succeeded in winning some compassion for the imagined prostitute, the real prostituted women can’t get the support of the left, particularly in the form of legal interventions. We can’t get men to stop buying–so far. And we can’t get the men of the left to denounce the buying of women.
HEDGES: How much of this is an infusion of a neoliberal ideology into the left itself?
L. LAKEMAN: Boy, if I could nail it down, I’d say 90 percent. It’s an argument that women’s liberty is a matter of choice. It’s an argument that each individual woman should choose her form of living in the belly of the beast. And it’s a refusal to deal with the collective women and to understand that to allow the prostitution of women is to allow the degradation of all women and the impossibility of actually imagining women as whole.
HEDGES: And we’ve seen among self-identified feminists activities that I think would appall Dworkin, you know, slut walks, the idea that pornography itself is a form of liberation.
L. LAKEMAN: Yeah, but they’re two different things. The slut walk, I think, was the young trying to be saucy and then–you know, by turning the words on patriarchy. But it’s the people with more power who abuse that impulse of the young and twist it around to make support for pornography and support for identifying and for encouraging women to perform prostitution, whether or not they’re getting paid.
And on the other hand, people who were pornographers started announcing themselves as feminists because it clouded the discussion. So you have people like Carol Leigh, who was a fundamental player, who–she invented the term sex work as far as we know. And when I met her, she was already pimping, and continues to be a pimp, and makes no bones about that. But those were never feminists. They thought they could take the term and use it–and with that credential themselves–as doing something other than participating in sexual slavery.
But for me there’s another part, which is that you have to be a pretty thin leftist to not recognize the imperialism and the colonialism in prostitution. You have to be working at being stupid to not get that connection, it seems to me.
HEDGES: Well, let me read this great quote from Edward Said–and maybe I’ll get Alice to respond to this–when he defined sexual exploitation as a fundamental feature of Orientalism, which he said was a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Orientalism, Said wrote, views “itself and its subject matter with sexist blinders. (…) [The local] women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” Moreover, he went on, “[w]hen women’s sexuality is surrendered, the nation is more or less conquered.” The sexual conquest of indigenous women, Said pointed out, correlates with the conquest of the land itself.
ALICE LEE: Well, I think this quote is right on about imperialism and colonialism in that it takes over a country’s culture and redefined the worth of women in that culture. And I think with neoliberalism it’s worse for women of color, indigenous women, because now a sort of–they use an excuse of subjugating women and the exploitation of women of color and indigenous women almost as if it was a viable option for women–that’s the only thing that we’re good for. So it really puts us to being not human, in a way that it dismisses us and all the contributions that women make in those countries.
HEDGES: How does it affect women who are not being prostituted who are of color?
A. LEE: Well, we just can’t escape the relentless stereotypes of women. Even though I grew up here in the West, I can’t escape those in my daily life. In my personal life, in my home life, the people that I work with, every interaction is colored by those stereotypes.
HEDGES: Give me some examples.
A. LEE: I think it’s harder for us to–in a workplace, I think there’s expectations placed on us that is very pervasive and subtle. You’re expected to perform in a way that isn’t expected of other women. And when we’re having personal relationships with men, those are all the stereotypes that we carry.
HEDGES: Which are what?
A. LEE: Which are the Asian women or [indigenous (?)] women are available sexually. I mean, we’re on both sides: we’re either prudes or we’re totally sexually available and exotic and we want sex all the time. So there’s no–it’s really difficult to access any kind of–define and express ourselves as whole, full human beings.
HEDGES: Now, one of the facts–and I may have heard it from you–is that within pornography, a disproportionate amount of scenes of torture, actual sort of replication of torture, is carried out against Asian women.
A. LEE: It’s all women of color. In pornography and prostitution, there is a racial hierarchy, just like racism. So, for instance, Asian women are mostly depicted with torture, black women often as–with a lot of violence. And so each race have a way of being depicted, the women. And that’s what men choose. That’s how you choose. And pornography is the same. Prostitution is the same thing. It’s like a pizza menu where a man can choose the race and the stereotypes that go along with the race. In fact, prostitution and pornography uses racism to sell women.
HEDGES: Let’s talk a little bit about the left. I’ll begin with you, Alice, and then ask Lee. What has been, as an activist for a few decades now–I think you were 17 years with Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter before starting–was it ten years ago?–Women Coalition Ending Prostitution. So what has been your frustrations with group self-identified groups on the left on this issue?
A. LEE: Well, I think for women of color the difficulty in participating in movements, particularly on the left, is oftentimes we’re sort of the token activists or the token–you know, we are pushed into a–instead of having a full analysis of the impacts in the oppression of women, we’re often put in the position where we are the token person of color and we have to represent every single issue. And it’s an impossible situation, because you’re either–you know, either we’re lucky because we’re the person of color and we get special attention, or we just can’t do right, ’cause our analysis and our intellectual thinking isn’t valued if you’re a woman of color. So we get it both ways. It’s very difficult to participate. And in the movement of the left, I think for women-of-color activists we get denied our analysis of being–of women, or oppression of women, as well as being a person of color. So there’s an extra burden.
HEDGES: And, Lee, what has been your frustrations with–?
L. LAKEMAN: I have a long list.
HEDGES: Good. There you go.
L. LAKEMAN: I think international labor organizations kidded themselves that they were going to organize prostitutes into unions, which is so much nonsense I can hardly–
HEDGES: Can you just say why?
L. LAKEMAN: –countenance it, because most women who are prostituting (a) don’t want to identify as prostitutes, because who would want to? And it’s not because of the feminists denouncing prostitution. It’s because nobody wants to identify as a prostitute.
HEDGES: Let me just throw in there that if you look in Germany and Australia, which has legalized, there’s still massive illegal prostitution for precisely that reason.
L. LAKEMAN: Exactly. Also, soft liberal-headed leftists will argue that we are being confining or restrictive or somehow prudish by arguing that there is a question here of the dignity of men going around buying women. So we get denounced for that because that’s not an economist argument. So the economic reductionism on the left leaves us with no way to talk about this is disgusting behavior. Could you stop? So there’s that problem.
But we also have some manipulative maneuverings going on. We certainly do in our city, in Vancouver. I got told last night after this speaking engagement about some new interferences, where people are trying to bring unions onside on the question of not charging men who are buying women or running brothels because–. Sorry. The issue is that they’re trying to bring it in through unions under the heading of sexual rights and reproductive rights.
HEDGES: You mean the brothel owners?
L. LAKEMAN: Well, obviously the brothel owners are [gaining (?)] from that. Whether they’re manipulating it or not I don’t know, but there is definitely going to be a campaign. There were women last night coming saying, come and help us within the movement because it’s getting to be a bigger deal within the union movement.
But what I notice is you don’t hear leftist organizations standing onside with feminists saying this is unacceptable behavior, stop it, that no man of the left should be seen buying women or children and nobody should be promoting this nonsense.
The only place it gets complicated is: what should we do with law? And I think to give people a point, there’s a question, a debate to be had about whether or not criminalizing the behavior of men is the thing to do in this period where states are so malevolent on every other level. But we can’t afford, feminists, women can’t afford to do without the alliance of the state. If we don’t have the alliance of the men of the left, we’re stuck with it. Otherwise, every woman is on her own with a person who is endowed with more power–physically, socially, legally, politically, economically, he’s got more. And so somebody’s got to tip the balance. And feminists are choosing to stand with the dispossessed women. And we expect the men of the left to do the same.
HEDGES: Do you–if you look back a few decades, do you think that groups on the left were more receptive to standing up against male violence against women or not?
L. LAKEMAN: There’s a set of three great documentaries that were done on, quote, the sin cities. They’re Canadian documentaries. You can find them on the internet.
The one that talks about what was happening in Germany prewar is the one that I find the most troubling (although all three are) on the question of prostitution. In Germany what happened was that prostitution and such behavior was used to split the people from the countryside and the people from the city, and both began to exaggerate each other. And it is a left-right split. And I see the same thing going on. So, as long as leftists are careless with their thinking and are willing to promote this kind of sacrifice of women, we’re going to be stuck with the accusations of the left of being unprincipled, undignified, unworthy of the support of ordinary people.
HEDGES: You had mentioned just, I think, an important point when we had spoken earlier, that as we see the increase of migrations, failed states, disintegrating societies, often the primary victims are girls and women, making this particular call to eradicate male violence even more of an imperative.
L. LAKEMAN: Absolutely vital. I mean, Hannah Arendt was observing it, trying to figure out what to do with it. Beauvoir was trying to figure out what to do with that. And they didn’t even know how normal violence against women is yet. But they could see that in the migrations during and after the Second World War, and even in the imposition of fascism during the war, sexual degradation of women is essential. It’s an essential part of it, I think, partly because it does corrupt the men, but also I care first about the women, and I’m sticking with that.
We see now migrations of indigenous people from the rural to the urban ghetto and back. We see the migrations of people trying to escape the degradations of land everywhere in the world. And every time you observe those migrations, you also observe the increased trafficking in women, the increased prostitution of women, the economic predatory behavior of men in those situations. It’s important not to separate that from the everyday that’s going on in the city, that when a man cruises the downtown ghetto in our urban centers, he’s doing exactly the same thing as the trafficker or the predatory man cruising the camps, exactly the same thing, and he’s reinforcing all the ideas and all the behaviors and all the danger. And women are dying from it.
A. LEE: And I just want to go back to your point, Lee, about the left being unethical. I think making the economic argument, they’re making part of their argument that reinforces imperialism and colonialism, when worldwide we know as poor women, women of color who are being trafficked and prostituted, now we have countries where generations of women are being prostituted. So–.
HEDGES: I think you were in–was it Cambodia?
A. LEE: Yes, in Cambodia.
HEDGES: Where were you in–just–.
A. LEE: For instance, in Cambodia we were in a neighborhood where we were talking to a group that was working with women in prostitution, and they said women age [out] at 21, and 90 percent of women that grow up in that neighborhood ends up in prostitution. And that’s what we are seeing. We’re seeing women that are growing up into prostitution, generations of women in prostitution. And that is a never-ending supply of women that are being trafficked and prostituted for the use of Western men.
HEDGES: Can I ask you little bit about colonialism? Because the subjugation, the violence, the prostituting of women is, I think, as Said correctly points out, absolutely fundamental to colonialism itself.
L. LAKEMAN: Yes. Yes.
A. LEE: Yes.
HEDGES: And just address that as an Asian woman, and then I’ll ask Lee.
A. LEE: Yeah. I think women play many roles in society: we’re caretakers, we’re a part of the production of food, we take care of all the children–many different aspects. And when women are relegated to prostitution, we are unable to participate democratically in a civil society. And I think it’s not an accident in war that women are often raped and pillaged, and it’s that the nation–men knows that that’s the way to sort of control the nation in terms of–’cause we are half the population, with a very valuable contribution to society.
HEDGES: And this essentially is a way to silence. I mean, if the specter of male violence is something that especially poor women of color have to cope with, which they do, it is a way of shutting the doors on their participation, isn’t it?
A. LEE: That’s right.
L. LAKEMAN: I think it’s important that we be understood to be saying that this happens to all women and that it’s intensified with women of color and poor women. And numerically, the majority of the women of the world are poor and brown. So you’re overlapping systems of oppression when you engage race and class in this situation.
But there’s no question that we’re talking about the domination by men of women worldwide. And the prostitution is an instrument in that. It’s clearly an instrument in that.
HEDGES: But isn’t it true that in countries like Germany, or even Canada, women–it is primarily numerically poor women of color who are trafficked into these countries to satiate the demands or desires of Western wealthy–.
L. LAKEMAN: I think it’s increasingly true. I’m going to go back, though, to the colonial point that–I mean, in Canadian history, the first Western men who came here gathered women around them around–you know, first they came with the armies, and then they set up the forts. And we know now by talking to each other around the world–for instance, the Japanese women make it clear to us that first there was the military camps and the takeover of Okinawa; then Okinawa becomes the tourist center after they [boot (?)] the military out. It’s the same relationship of men to women, only one time they come with a gun, and the next time they come destroying your economy and coming with money.
HEDGES: Extraction industries.
L. LAKEMAN: And the extraction industries. Exactly. Women in Guatemala are making it clear: part of how they take over, part of how the imperial powers take over, is by bringing in the man camps and destroying the culture of the women by being the only men with money and with cash. It’s clear everywhere.
But we have a long history of it here. And it’s–the indigenous women are not a tad confused about all that. That’s why there’s so much less debate in the indigenous community about whether or not men should be arrested for buying sex and for running brothels and running–. Also, they realize that all the hierarchies of sexism and capitalism get reinforced in the course of the exchange. So indigenous women get beat up, they get killed more often in the consequence of the prostitution than anybody else does, ’cause they have less access to police, less access to anybody else supporting them.
And that’s why for us this is where the rubber hits the road. Like, if you’re not willing to arrest men for endangering the prostituted indigenous women in the Downtown Eastside, how the hell do you call yourself a leftist or a revolutionary? How do you call yourself a decent human being? And if the people around you don’t rat on that and don’t call you out and don’t make a difference on that, who are you to say you’re leading us to the future of a better life?
HEDGES: Let me just ask a question, Alice. If you could succinctly deliver a message to groups on the left that have not taken a stance on male violence, what would it be?
A. LEE: Well, partly why this issue is so important to me is that I think that as First World countries, leftists fighting the environment, fighting racism, fighting whatever issue, they’re choosing to leave us behind. And I find that totally unacceptable. I see them as deliberately, actually, reinforcing the tenets of imperialism and colonialism and actually making arguments and theories that sustain colonialism and imperialism. So I want them to shape up and fight for us too, because we’re not going to [take that (?)].
HEDGES: Great. Thank you, Alice.
L. LAKEMAN: Thank you.
HEDGES: Thank you, Lee.
And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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