A few weeks a go I watched a documentary on child sex trafficking called Redlight. The movie tells the story of several different children (mostly girls, but some boys) who have been victims of sex trafficking in Cambodia. It was incredibly difficult to sit through and I highly recommend you see it. As I listened to the horrific stories of these individuals and began to understand the scope of this problem, I felt a pit open up in my stomach. It was difficult for me to reconcile what I was doing (female empowerment through freedom of sexual expression!) with what was happening halfway around the world to these children. I became concerned that somehow, what I am advocating for could be used to justify some very ugly, very abusive behavior. In fact, many feminists have argued that the continued existence of sexual slavery is a reason why women should reign in their sexuality. Because if we show that women enjoy expressing their sexuality it will then lead to the conclusion that they must enjoy any sexual behavior that is subsequently thrust upon them, whether it was invited or not. And I suppose for some people, that train of thought seems quite logical.
The movie sheds light on the complicated issues that have allowed child sexploitation to happen on such a grand scale. One of the main points it makes is that there is a tremendous amount of money to be made in the human trafficking business. For countries like Cambodia, that in addition to having a very high poverty rate and massive amounts of psychological scarring in its population from the wars of the Khmer Rouge, also tend to view women as second-class citizens, sex trafficking is a quick way to make a lot of money. Although prostitution and trafficking are both illegal, it is incredibly difficult for the women to press charges against the brothel owners (who more often than not, kidnap them). Especially because once they have served as sex slaves, they are viewed as untouchables in their culture rather than as victims. Any charges that do make it to court are frequently thrown out because the brothel owners are able to buy their way out of a corrupt system. To give an example, there was a seven year old girl who was gang raped by four men. They cut her vagina open because it was too small for their penises. They were arrested, and when it went to court, the judge ruled in favor of the men because “the girl was young and would forget about it and the men were old and we should feel sorry for them.” Right.
In addition to the local issues that help to drive sex trafficking, the movie also makes the point that the demand side of sex trafficking is a major contributing factor to the problem. And unless that gets addressed the market will continue to thrive. According to the NGO, every year more than 250,00 sex tourists visit Asia, with 25% coming from the United States, 16% from Germany and 13% fro the UK and Australia combined. These tourists are generally seeking sex with children through the sex trade or simply targeting pre-pubescent children.
One of the things that struck me about this documentary is that it was as much about slavery as it was about sex work. The girls who work in the brothels in Cambodia are a far cry from “The Cat House” in Nevada. No one is there by choice. Everyone is physically tortured and abused and subjected to subhuman treatment. There are no “champagne nights on the pole” nor is there excitement about getting a client - on the contrary. They are slaves. In the past I have written about how a woman who chooses to do sex work because she has no other economically viable options is not really making a choice at all. In a sense, she is a slave too and her relationship to her work will reflect that. I do think it’s possible however to freely choose sex work – whether it’s stripping or even prostitution – because it’s WHAT you want to do. Nina Hartley, Carol Queene, Merri Lisa Johnson have all written on this topic. However, I think it goes without saying that it is virtually impossible for a child to make this choice. I bring it up now because it represents the polar opposite of what I saw in this documentary. And while it may seem distasteful to juxtapose these two very different perspectives on sex work, it’s important to acknowledge that both exist. Too often, people will rush to the conclusion that every woman who works in the sex industry in the United States is there because she is somehow psychologically broken. This can be as dangerous a conclusion to draw about a woman’s sexuality as the one I mentioned earlier because it assumes that a woman who is psychologically well would never want to share her sexuality outside of our very narrow socially sanctioned avenues. And that simply isn’t true.
When I think about some of the ideas and beliefs that exist in our world regarding sex - female virginity being a virtue, the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, women as second-class citizens - it doesn’t surprise me that violence against women and sexual slavery continue to thrive. And I wholly agree with the film that the demand for sex trafficking, particularly with children, has to stop. Pedophiles should not be flying to other countries to commit their crimes. Personally I cannot even begin to understand how it can be erotic to have sex with someone who you are basically raping, let alone a child.
With all of that said, there is also another shift that has to take place. We must create a space for women to express and share their sexuality without being shamed for it. The solution is not to deny our bodies and our sexuality, nor is it to keep our desire under wraps. The solution is to begin to see the value in the erotic, embodied female and to understand that eroticism, like anything else, is an art and a practice that can be taught and learned. I long for the day when the erotic female is not just an idea or an image to be admired, but a real practice that women engage in through breath, movement, reading and speaking, and of course sexual pleasure. And I think if we were able to view the women who taught and practiced such things as respectable teachers rather than whores a great deal would change not just for the women of the United States, but for women all around the world.
As I watched the movie I couldn’t help but wonder what these women’s relationships to their sexuality was like now. How do they learn about their own desire and what that feels like in their body after undergoing so much sexual trauma? Did they even want to have sex? Who did they choose to be their partners? During trauma the body will often shut down – the nervous system’s response to overwhelm – leaving the person with “frozen parts”. Accessing these frozen parts of the body can be psychologically overwhelming. At the same time, people with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) often find relief from treatments that incorporate the body and sensory awareness. In this case, a gentle form of erotic dance with the right instructor and support system could be an excellent form of therapy. In fact, I have had women who are survivors of sexual assault approach me and tell me that pole dancing has been extremely helpful way to reconnect with their sexuality – that they found it empowering. So perhaps what I am advocating (female empowerment through the freedom of sexual expression) is not so far removed from the child victims of Cambodia. As these children grow and hopefully heal from their childhood traumas, their relationship to sex and sexuality remains a question mark. One possible avenue of healing for the girls (when they become women) could be a gentle form of erotic dance to help reintroduce them to their bodies, to desire and to pleasure. And how wonderful would it be if they could engage in such a thing without reigniting the stigma of shame.
For more information on the movie go to: www.redlightthemovie.com
To find out more about what you can do to stop child sex trafficking check out the following websites: