It is male violence against women that is the primary force used to crush the global collective revolt of women. And male violence against feminists, who seek a more peaceful, egalitarian and sustaining world, is pervasive. To challenge prostitution, to challenge objectification, to challenge hypersexualization of women is to often be threatened with rape. To challenge mining, to stand up to protect water, to assist a truth teller, if you are a woman, is often to be threatened with not only economic destitution but violence leading to prostitution.
We must as activists end that objectification of women and end male violence. If we do not, we will never have access to the ideas and leadership of women, and in particular women of color, which is essential to creating an inclusive vision for a better future. So while we must decry violence and exploitation against all of the oppressed, we must also recognize that male violence against women -- including prostitution and its promoter, pornography -- is a specific and separate global force. It is a tool of capitalism, it is often a product of imperialism and colonialism, but it exists outside capitalism, imperialism and colonialism. And it is a force that men in general, including, sadly, most men on the left, refuse to acknowledge, much less fight. This is why the struggle for women's liberty is absolutely crucial to our movement. Without that freedom we will fail.
Abuse and especially sexual abuse of women are commonplace in war zones. I interviewed Muslim girls and women who were forced into Serbian brothels and rape camps, usually after their fathers, husbands and brothers had been executed. And in preparing a Truthdig column headlined "Recalled to Life" I spoke with a woman who was prostituted on the streets of Camden, N.J. -- according to the Census Bureau the poorest city in the United States, a city where I spent many weeks with the cartoonist Joe Sacco doing research for our book "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt."
"They'd suck your dick for a hit of crack," Christine Pagano said of prostituted women on Camden's streets, adding that the men refused to wear condoms. "Camden was like nothing I had ever seen before. The poverty is so bad. People rob you for $5, literally for $5. They would pull a gun on you for no money. I would get out of cars, I would walk five feet up the road and get held up. And they would take all my money. The first time it happened to me I cried an hour. You degrade yourself. You get out of the car. And some guy pulls a gun on you."
"I gave up on everything at that point, I wanted to die," she said. "I didn't care anymore. All the guilt and the shame and leaving my son, not talking to my son, not talking to my family."
"The last time was the most brutal," she said. "It was on Pine Street near the Off Broadway [Lounge]. There's weeds on the side. I never took tricks off the street. They had to be in cars. But I was sick. I was tired."
A man on the street had offered her $20 to perform oral sex. But once they were in the weeds he pulled out a knife. He told her if she screamed he would kill her. When she offered some resistance he stabbed her.
"He was trying to stab me in my vagina," she said. He stabbed her thigh. "It's kind of bad because I actually never ended up doing anything about it [the wound]. It ended up turning into a big infection."
"He made me hold his phone that had porn on it," she said. "He never really pulled his pants all the way down. And at this point I'm bleeding pretty badly. I'm lying on glass outside of this bar. I had like little bits of glass in my back. I remember being really scared. Then it just got to the point where I was just numb. I asked him if he could stop at one point so I could smoke a cigarette. He let me. I got him to put the knife down because I was being good and listening to him. He stabbed the knife in the dirt. He said, 'Just so you know I can pick it up at any point.' I think in his head he thought that I was scared enough. In my head I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get outta there. And it occurred to me one of the things he kept asking me to do was lick his butt. And he was getting off on this. The last time he turned around and asked me to do this I pushed him. I had myself set up to get up."
She ran naked into the street. The commotion attracted the police. A passerby gave her his shirt to cover up. At 5 feet 5 inches tall she weighed only 86 pounds. Her skin was gray. Her feet were so swollen she was wearing size 12 men's slippers.
The years I spent as a war correspondent did not leave me untouched. I lost to violence many of those I worked with, including Kurt Schork, with whom I covered the wars in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. I was captured and taken prisoner in Basra during the Shiite uprising following the Gulf War and ended up in the hands of Iraqi secret police. I know a little of what it is like to be helpless and physically abused. And after Saddam Hussein drove the Kurds out of northern Iraq, my translator, a young woman, disappeared in the chaotic flight of the Kurds. It took me weeks to find her. And when I did she was being pimped out, numb with trauma. The experience of hearing her sobs would cure anyone of the notion that selling your body for sex is like trading a commodity on the stock market.
Imagine what it would be like for your mouth, your vagina and your rectum to be penetrated every day, over and over, by strange men who called you "b*tch," "slut," "c-word" and "prostitute," who slapped and hit you, and then to be beaten by a pimp. This is not sex. And it is not sex work. It is gang rape.
Before I arrived in Vancouver, some of the conference organizers issued a public message commenting on my condemnation of prostitution, saying that prostitution was "complex and multifaceted." The note went on to assure participants in the conference that the Institute of the Humanities at the university did not "take sides in this difficult and extremely contentious debate."
But there is nothing complex or multi-faceted about prostitution, not when you strip it down to its brutal physical act. It turns you into a piece of meat. It does not matter if it occurs in an alley or a hotel room. And the inevitable diseases, emotional trauma and physical injuries that arise for the women, along with a shortened life expectancy, are well documented in study after study.
Prostitution fits perfectly into the paradigm of global capitalism. The physical scars, diseases and short lives of the miners I lived with at the Siglo XX tin mine in Bolivia -- most of whom died in middle age from silicosis -- are yet another manifestation of the predatory nature of capitalism. No one chooses to die of silicosis or black lung disease. No one chooses to sell his or her body on the street. You go into the mines, just as you go into prostitution, because global capitalism does not offer you a choice.
"In Canada young women and girls of Native descent are forced into street prostitution in numbers far disproportionate to white women," I was told by Summer Rain Bentham, a Squamish Nation woman who lived and worked on the streets of the impoverished Downtown Eastside in Vancouver and who courageously rose from her seat in the lecture hall and joined me at the podium in solidarity after the talk. "Our lives are deemed less valuable because the Western world has decided that we are worthless. These racist views create a hierarchy based on race even within prostitution itself for women. This means some women are indoors in strip clubs or 'agencies' -- sometimes she might be educated, and in some cases she might actually believe she has [an] option other than prostitution. This racist hierarchy leaves aboriginal women on the bottom in this case in survival prostitution with no choices, experiencing a level of violence that is hard to fathom or comprehend. Violence that will never leave her and that is perpetuated by men not only because we are women, but because we are Native women. It is men's privilege, power and entitlement in the world that keeps women entrenched in prostitution. It is men who benefit from Native women continuing to be at the bottom. Prostitution is not what most women who have ever been prostituted or women who have never faced being prostituted would choose to do. Prostitution is not what we want for any women or girl."