A brief foreword: I believe wholeheartedly in feminist documentation. And so I have decided to write about Space International’s herstoric event, Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade. The following essay is a personal account –subjective and subject to human error. But it’s written with love, in sisterhood, and complete as I am able to make it. At points during women’s testimonies, I became too emotional to write down everything said. I have done my best to convey the essential facts, and pay tribute to each of the phenomenal women who spoke her truth.
This one is for Jenny, dedicated in the spirit of international Black feminist sisterhood.
On the 21st of February, Space International hosted Women of Colour Against the Sex Trade at Conway Hall. This event was the first of its kind to take place in Britain: Black, Asian, and Indigenous women – a mixture of survivors, campaigners, and service providers – sharing their perspectives on the sex industry. In mainstream feminist conversations about prostitution and pornography, women of colour tend to be spoken of rather than listened to. It was encouraging to find a feminist event where women of colour were centred without apology, something that opened up the space for a discussion about the symbiotic relationship between racism and sexism within the sex industry. So I booked a ticket and arranged a trip to London.
The journey south is blessedly uneventful. I crochet a hat and listen to The Color Purple on my headphones, a sense of calm nurtured by the magic of Alice Walker’s voice. This is the first time I have left the quiet, controlled environment of home for any significant length of time since experiencing a mental health crisis last September. But it feels important to learn from these women, and to show them support. Lots of other women feel the same way: the event is completely sold out. The hall fills up quickly. Many women attending are local to London, but there are sisters who have travelled across continents to be here – which puts my paltry six hours on a train into perspective. It’s a powerful feeling, to be in a room filled with women from all different backgrounds who are united in feminist struggle.
Taina Bien-Aimé, Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, is our moderator for the evening. She begins by pointing out that this event is historic, the “first time in the UK that women of colour have got together to talk about the legacy of colonialism found in the sex industry.” To Taina’s thinking, there is no strict binary between survivors and non-survivors – as women of colour we are all survivors in one way or another, living through the racism of white supremacy and the misogyny of patriarchy. I like her way of breaking down barriers between women. When feminists talk about the sex industry, there can sometimes be too much focus on making ‘expert’ and ‘survivor’ into two different categories – which ends up othering survivors in a way that is not only cruel but illogical, given that one in three women experiences violence in her lifetime.
In her opening remarks, Taina highlights that racism is a fundamental aspect of the sex industry. She shares a story of a brothel in Nevada, about an African-American woman whose pimp grew dissatisfied because she had fewer johns the white women in the group – and therefore made him less money. The politics of desirability favour white women with European features over women with distinctly African heritage. And so the brothel manager came up with a solution: he advertised KKK themed role play with the woman in question to boost her commercial attraction. This combination of racist and sexist domination appealed greatly to white, male sex-buyers.
The first member of the panel to speak is Rosemarie Cameron, a Black feminist activist with fifteen years of experience working in the women’s sector – five of which were spent working directly with Black women in prostitution. For Rose, it is very much a political choice to work within a feminist organisation. She makes a passionate case for the importance of BME-specific services, sharing the ways racist bias among mainstream services has put Black women in particular off accessing them. One woman Rose worked with had previously been told: “You don’t look as if you are a victim.” Because she was Black, a white woman was incapable of seeing her as vulnerable to or in need of protection from male violence. When a Black woman don’t fit the mould of a mainstream service , Rose says that it’s more likely that the organisation will be label her as ‘chaotic’ or ‘challenging’ rather than questioning why they are failing to meet her needs.
Workers who understand the challenges faced by Black women, the layers of stereotype attached to Black women, are essential. Yet BME services are experiencing a funding crisis. Research shows that the combined income of London’s 15 BME-specific organisations devoted to ending violence against women and girls is lower than the income of the main service provider in the city. London has the highest concentration of BME-specific services in Britain, fitting for a city where 40% of the population are people of colour. But, as Rose asserts, services geared towards women of colour are made to fight for scraps thrown down from the top table.
I’m hurt that this country doesn’t feel that BME women are important enough to deserve a safe place for us to live, breathe and work in – whether we’re seeking refuge from an individual violent partner within the same town, or whether we’re seeking refuge because another country has become unsafe for us. – Marai Larasai, Executive Director of Imkaan
During Rose’s talk, she gets emotional and pauses. The women on the panel and in the audience hold space for her. I love that Rose doesn’t pretend to be separate from the issues she’s discussing, that she has the integrity to acknowledge that racism and sexism are deeply painful rather than repressing her feelings to try and meet a white, male standard of supposed objectivity. I admire that even while she’s being watched by a room full of people, Rose takes the time to find her sense of calm before continuing.
Next up is Suzanne Jay of The Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution, a volunteer service group based in Canada. Suzanne reminds us that women are in prostitution because of the structural inequalities caused by racism, sexism, and enforced poverty. She observes that the prostitution of Asian women is a global phenomenon, including Canada and London. Finding my way to the venue, I noticed three different massage parlours nearby on Google Maps. Suzanne says that massage parlours, health and wellness centres, and nail and beauty salons are standard fronts for the brothels to which Asian women are trafficked. They’re beside shops, restaurants, and playgrounds, hiding in plain sight.
Many Asian women are caught in the double bind of racist stereotyping and poverty. Asian women are marketed as being small and delicate, with child-like features, to fulfil the racist fantasies of sex-buyers. The racist trope of Asian women as submissive and eager to please is used to justify their exploitation within the sex industry. Historically, Asian women have been targeted for the sex industry. Women and girls were forced into a life of sexual slavery by the Japanese Army before and during WWII – having ‘comfort women’ was, in Suzanne’s words, “a government sponsored war project.” When the US Army took over these ‘comfort stations’, it is estimated that at least 70,000 women were raped by American soldiers. This influenced the western practice of sex tourism.
Suzanne is consistently opposed to male violence against women, and objects to the revisionism behind re-framing trafficked women as migrant sex workers. Her organisation has identified a pattern of men recruiting women by going to Chinese villages, promising jobs or claiming to have arranged good marriages, securing documents for the women in question, and using their family ties as a form of coercion. When the women arrived in Canada, their documents would be confiscated by pimps. If they resisted being prostituted, the pimps would point out that their families were in desperate need of the money that was to be sent home. In this context, the concepts of ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ are meaningless.
The third speaker is Dr Vednita Carter, Executive Director of Breaking Free – an organisation devoted to helping women and girls exit prostitution. She is clear that the sex industry is “where racism and sexism intersect”, highlighting that the majority of women trafficked to be prostituted are of colour. Vednita shares a little of her own story, how she entered the sex trade by becoming a dancer – which really meant becoming a stripper. Although she joined along with a white friend, they were immediately separated – the white girl was assigned a venue with more security, while Vednita danced in more precarious places. Her experiences led Vednita to found the Breaking Free programme in her home state of Minnesota.
While Black people make around 10% of the Minnesotan population, Vednita is conscious that we are hugely over-represented in the sex industry there. This is a consequence of institutional racism. One woman to access the Breaking Free programme was picked up by a police officer, along with a white friend who was also in prostitution. The officer told her to “go back to what she was doing” – prostitution – but took the white woman back to the station with a view to helping her find an exit programme because “she had potential.” Black women are seen as natural candidates for prostitution by law enforcement, but made to pay a bigger penalty for it. “Racism in the courts results in Black women paying higher fines and facing more fail time than white women.”
When it comes to racist stereotyping, Vednita cites pornography as responsible for perpetuating the idea that Black women are hypersexual animals, which has a knock-on effect in shaping how we are understood and treated by others.
A variety of the worst, most harmful tropes are used and amplified within porn: tropes that we are steadily attempting to get rid of from the big screen for good. The submissive Asian woman, the spicy Latina, and sassy Black woman that we’re gradually pushing out of the mainstream continue to have a home on porn sites. And just like mainstream films, the majority of those at the production end of mainstream porn are white men – though that doesn’t seem to bother many within this context. – Yomi Adegoke
Vednita concludes by asking how the feminist movement can claim to care about Black women when so many self-proclaimed feminists are prepared to ignore the racist violence taking place within the sex industry.
We are then fortunate enough to have Roella Lieveld talk to us by video link. She thinks that people outside of Amsterdam have a romanticised view of what legalising the purchase of sex looks like. Roella shares research which found that 96% of women in prostitution experience violence in Amsterdam – since buying sex was legalised with the goal of reducing violence against women, she considers this policy to have failed. Femke Halsema, Amsterdam’s first female mayor, is beginning to challenge the sexism of the Red Light District – but Roella fears she is more concerned with what image it presents to locals than listening to the voices of trafficked Black women. While the Netherlands has a progressive reputation, in Roella’s eyes the country “consistently fails women forced into the sex industry.”
Before the interval, we have a brief Q&A. The most pressing question, one which I nearly asked the panel, is this: what one thing could we do that would make the biggest difference to the lives of women in prostitution? Rose advocates the provision of secure, ample funding for women’s organisations becoming standard procedure. Suzanne argues that a basic income would improve women’s quality of life, meaning women are less in men’s control and therefore less vulnerable to abuse. Vednita encourages us to end the buying and selling of women and girls by lobbying politicians, campaigning, and throwing our weight behind existing abolitionist organisations.
Another woman asks the panel their thoughts on the terminology of ‘sex work’. Rose doesn’t mess about. She says that “If I hear the term ‘sex work’ one more time I’m going to lose my will to live. She’s a woman, not an object to be bought or sold.” Suzanne sees ‘sex work’ as “a liberal guilt phrase”. She believes people say ‘sex work’ in an attempt to “show respect for women”, but is not convinced: “if you want to respect women, you stop men from buying them.” Vendita sees the term ‘sex work’ as a way of covering up the reality of coercion, abuse, violence, illness, and exploitation.
When asked about the profile of sex-buyers, the panel were unanimous: mostly white men, many of whom are middle-class with a high income and respected profession.
Session Two: Survivor Leadership
When she introduces the second panel, Taina tells us about a recent news story of 20,000 Nigerian women and girls being trafficked through Mali as one group. She connects it with the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, describing this as the middle passage of a journey, and points out that inter-governmental corruption is required to enable systematic mass-trafficking. In the face of all this harm, Taina reminds us of the importance of feminist organising: “What gives me hope is this survivor-led movement. They are called survivors because of what they survived, and because of all the sisters they left behind.”
Ally-Marie Diamond is the first to share her testimony. Ally was first abused by her uncle when she was five years old. He spoke words that are familiar to countless women around the world: “Nobody will believe you.” And because of her status as biracial in an otherwise white family, nobody did believe Ally. Racism and sexism built a wall of disbelief. Children at school would ask if her family could afford soap, because Ally was “brown and dirty” in their eyes. This racist bullying escalated to sexual abuse. Nobody listened to Ally or intervened on her behalf, with words like “easy” obscuring frequent sexual abuses and justifying the failure of adults in authority. “I quickly learned that the only thing men wanted from me was sex.”
A pimp recruited Ally by promising her safety, love, and security. Of her time in prostitution, Ally says that “men paid for the right to beat, sodomise, rape, and abuse me.” A white john who was well respected in the community told Ally “that’s all you’re worth.” Since men have been raping women throughout history, Ally rationalised what was happening to her by telling herself it was better to be raped and paid for it than raped and not paid. Ally’s conclusion is met with a storm of applause: “Sex work is a glorified term for paid rape. The sex industry is a sustained, international attack on women and girls.”
Bridget Perrier, co-founder of Sex Trade 101, is next to give testimony. At 12 she was lured into prostitution from a group home, which is the average age of entry for Indigenous girls. The johns were overwhelmingly white, male, and wealthy. Bridget cites Pocahontas as the first documented example of a woman from her community being trafficked. In Canada, First Nations women are massively over-represented in the sex industry. 52% of women in prostitution are Indigenous. Intergenerational trauma, poverty, and displacement are all factors behind this systematic abuse. Bridget describes generations of women falling victim to the sex industry – grandmother, mother, and daughter. Despite all that she has faced, Bridget ends on a note of resistance, reading a poem by her daughter which challenges genocide. Bridget has raised a fierce young feminist.
Ne’cole Daniels echoes Bridget’s point about intergenerational trauma, describing herself as “a third generation prostitution survivor.” She is clear that intergenerational trauma is passed on as a consequence of men’s sexual violence. Ne’cole’s mother was raped by an uncle, sent away, her first child put up for adoption. She ran away at 14, and was picked up by an “infamous pimp.” Ne’cole herself was raped by a family friend who was “around all the time.” He told Ne’cole that she needed to get better at pleasing men. So in the third grade, Ne’cole performed sexual acts with boys from school. The school didn’t question that a child of her age, eight or nine, understood sex acts. They suspended Ne’cole, and her mother beat her.
Within African-American families, Ne’cole says, there can be a mentality that you “don’t air your family’s dirty laundry.” In Britain, we have a similar thing – from a young age, lots of Black kids are told that we need to behave in front of the white people otherwise they’re going to think we’re all [insert racist stereotype]. Ne’cole thinks this approach leaves girls vulnerable to sexual abuse, because the silences that are allowed to grow end up shielding men’s violence.
Ne’cole’s mother told her that “as long as you have a vagina, you’ll never be broke.” But it was the urge to protect her own young daughter that gave Ne’cole the strength she needed to exit. She found “no services for a person like me, no services run by a person who looked like me”, but ultimately moved into a shelter because there at least they would both be safe from men.
Mickey Meji, the advocacy manager at Embrace Dignity, is our final speaker. She grew up in Sea Point, South Africa, where her mother worked as a maid. The men who owned the houses would strip in front of Mickey’s mother while she cleaned – at least one forced her to watch as he masturbated. Mickey says that South African feminists describe prostitution as a gendered, racialised apartheid. It is overwhelmingly poor Black women who sell sex, and almost entirely wealthy white men who buy it. The women who go into prostitution are in desperate need of money, but according to Mickey they come out even poorer. Instead of accumulating money, they acquire physical, mental, and emotional scars. Mickey spent nine years in prostitution.
The earliest South African brothels coincided with the arrival of white imperialist settlers. Black women’s bodies were objectified and commodified. Like some hellish inversion of the Nordic Model, South Africa criminalises the selling of sex – but not the buying. Mickey informs us that white madams escape legal repercussions even as the Black women prostituted in their brothels are arrested, as the police “had no reason” to consider a white woman “involved in prostitution.”
Mickey resists attempts to separate prostitution from trafficking: “Women wouldn’t end up in all sorts of locations if men didn’t want to buy them.” Poor Black women are not seen as valuable enough to be worth protecting in South African society, or anywhere else. Black women are not seen as important enough to merit meaningful intervention where the sex industry is concerned. She finishes by challenging the racialised power dynamic at the heart of the sex industry: “When you look at who is spearheading the drive to legalise prostitution, it is always privileged white men and white women – never poor Black women.”
Above the stage in Conway Hall is painted a popular quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true.” Every woman who spoke was true to herself, and generous enough to share her truths with others. Only by breaking the silences maintained around sexual violence can we hope to change the culture that enables it.
Our chair, Taina, drew the evening to a close by asking every man in the audience to raise his hand. There were six in total. She requested that those six talk to the men in their lives and communities about the harm done by purchasing women for sex. This is, I think, how change will happen – by taking action and using our voices wherever possible.