Whore. The word is a threat held over every woman’s head, a dark promise of what she will become if her sexuality is hers alone. Whore, every woman knows, is irredeemable—there is no coming back from it. Once a whore, always a whore. And if the woman should be a literal prostitute? Heaven help her, because no one on earth will. The word, though it hurts all women, hurts women of color most deeply, for imperialist patriarchy has chosen the non-white woman as the receptacle for its most virulent hatred, its most callous indifference. And this pain is not only metaphorical—it is brutally literal, as women the world over are sold into sex slavery. Adolescent girls are regularly taken for this purpose—a mother’s baby, stolen, raped, called a whore, and forgotten.
This is the situation that nearly 300 Nigerian girls face as I write this. When I learned of their plight, I was reading Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Lorde describes what it is like to live a life in which you know you are loathed by society, simply for existing—a life in which you have been branded the world’s whore. As she puts it, “We were not boys and we were not white, so we counted for less than nothing, except to our mommas.” I have seen—we have all seen—the faces of grieving Nigerian mothers in the last few weeks, and so many of us have wanted to scream, “When will we intervene to stop this suffering, and when will we claim black girls’ lives as human, and worth saving?” Twenty female senators asked that question loud enough that they have engendered action—US Secretary of State John Kerry has offered to send a team of officials to help find the girls. I hope and pray that other countries join us, and that we do indeed save our girls. I pray that those mothers get their babies back, and do not spend a lifetime imagining what is happening, what has already happened. Because that is what a mother does.
I also hope that this situation marks a turning point in the way we view prostitution. We must, as a global community, recognize that our perception of prostitutes, and our unwillingness to explore that perception, allows sex slavery to continue. And the way we prosecute prostitution is a big part of the picture. A brave and inspiring woman named Ruth Jacobs taught me that.
Ruth is a writer, activist, and broadcaster who lives in the UK and advocates for the Merseyside model of prosecuting hate crimes against prostitutes. When a prostitute is raped and beaten, she often doesn’t report the crime because she risks being arrested herself, while her abuser goes free. Police in the Merseyside area changed the way they handle this situation. Here are Ruth’s words about it: “In Merseyside, crimes against people in prostitution are being reported, the victims are being treated like victims and not criminals, and the perpetrators are being convicted.” The numbers here are astounding. According to Ruth, “…in 2009, police convicted 90% of those who raped sex workers. In 2010, the overall conviction rate in Merseyside for crimes against sex workers was 84%, with a 67% conviction rate for rape. 6.5% is the national average conviction rate for rape.” When we stop thinking of prostitutes as whores—dirty, inhuman, beneath contempt—and think of them as victims, things change.
There is some movement on this issue in the United States as well. In a recent article for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof discusses the connection between prostitution and sex trafficking in the States: “There’s a growing awareness that sex trafficking is one of the most serious human rights abuses around, with some 100,000 juveniles estimated to be trafficked into the sex trade in the United States each year.” Police are responding to this awareness by arresting the men who are soliciting sex rather than the women who are being paid for it. But to really change things, we must go after the infrastructure around prostitution—the pimps. If pimp was a dirtier word than whore, the machinery of sex slavery would grind to a halt. And authorities are beginning to target pimps—in 2009, the FBI recovered 52 children and arrested 60 pimps involved in child prostitution, and Henrico county, VA has been focusing on prosecuting pimps for a number of years. This is progress, but it is just a beginning.
We must continue to wash away the stigma of the word whore, to deconstruct the way it constructs us as a society—the way it shapes our view of sexuality, and of women. Listening to the stories of women who have survived prostitution can help do that. Ruth shares these stories via her Voices of Prostitution Survivors. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women is also a great resource, as is Rebecca Mott’s expression of the need to see prostitution as slavery here.
Even thinking about this issue for a few minutes—the time it takes to read an article—can begin to change our perception, so that whore becomes a reason for action rather than shame. And that is what we need to save our girls—all of them.