Bodies for sale: sex, violence, and the need for a new narrative
We live in a society that normalizes the voyeurism and exhibitionism present in sex work. We are deeply accustomed to viewing the human body scripted within the narrative of sexual commodity. What better way to market products than to link them to the release of dopamine associated with sexual stimulation found in the most primitive regions of our brain?
Bodies for sale: sex, violence, and the need for a new narrative
“That will be $37.00,” the woman behind the counter tells me.
I pay in cash and place my ticket in the back pocket of my jeans. I am 22-years-old and on my way to Nelson, British Columbia. The bus station is quiet. Only a handful of travelers mill about the terminal. One of them is a young woman my age.
I see her standing by two large bags. She has dark hair and is my height and build. I am casually dressed. She is far more sophisticated in heels, sparkling earrings, and a black miniskirt. With confidence, she approaches.
“I’m heading to Canada,” she smiles. “My names Jeanette. What about you?”
“I am going to Nelson to meet up with friends I met at a meditation center in India.” I reach out to shake her hand. “My name is Amy.”
“That’s awesome. I need to learn how to meditate!” She laughs. I like her enthusiasm and warmth.
Together we wait for a 10:30AM departure from Spokane, Washington. Soon, the minivan serving as our bus arrives. As we get on board, Jeannette tells me, “I got a great offer to dance in Vancouver. I’m tired of life in New York. I’m starting over.” The van is empty. Jeannette sits down next to me and continues. “Yes, I’m starting over in Canada. I’m done with the States.”
Within 20 minutes of our departure, Jeannette suggests that we “toast to a new beginning.” She winks and reaches into her bag pulling out a fifth of vodka.
“No thanks,” I say. “I don’t like vodka.”
“OK,” she shrugs. “Well, I do!” Jeannette smiles and unscrews the cap. I wonder if I should have sat in a different seat.
The heavy-set, middle-aged driver catches our attention in the rearview mirror. “Hey girls,” he clears his throat, “no alcohol allowed.” Jeannette looks directly at him and takes a drink. For some reason, he ignores her overt disregard for the rules. Over the course of the next hour, she downs half the bottle.
At first, Jeannette just wants to connect. For example, she insists that I wear one of her earrings. “You wear one and I wear one,” she states. “That way we will always be friends.” I smell the vodka on her breath.
Soon, her stories take on a darker dimension. Jeannette spent the better part of the year hitchhiking across the US working at various strip clubs. Her experience with truckers involved a great deal of sexual abuse. “I hate truckers!” she dramatically shouts. “Do you hear me? I haaate them!” At this point, it’s clear that my new traveling companion is drunk.The driver and I exchange glances of concern. The Canadian border is just a few miles away. “They won’t let her in,” he tells me. “Customs is always on the look out for runaways or young women heading to Vancouver to work as strippers.”
Jeannette glares at him. Then, she slowly places her hands together forming the shape of a gun. With tears of rage streaming down her cheeks, she points her “gun” right at the driver’s head.
“Bang! Bang! Bang!” she screams. Her voice is full of excruciating pain.
The entire experience is beyond surreal. It’s scary. The driver no longer looks at us. The muscles around his eyes tighten as he focuses on the road. I watch Jeanette. She isn’t picturing our driver’s death alone. The memory of every heartless trucker is conjured up in her mind as she empties the chamber of her imaginary gun.
“You. Are. Dead.” Jeannette declares. She laughs uncontrollably through a multitude of tears.
“We are at the border,” I tell her softly. I want to wipe away her tears, her pain, and her troubled past. I want her to start over in Canada. I know that’s not going to happen.We pull up to the checkpoint window. “Passports, please,” says the border patrol officer. Beyond inebriated, Jeanette struggles to find the required document while wiping smears of mascara off of her face. “Miss, please step outside,” he sternly requests.
“Shhure thing,” Jeannette replies with as much confidence as she can muster. The officer walks over to the van. As he opens the side door, a vodka bottle rolls out and lands at his feet.
They won’t let her cross. Jeannette curses and swears. She cries and yells. It takes three border patrol officers to take her bags and escort her stumbling body inside. There’s no opportunity for me to say goodbye. Within a few minutes, we drive off. My journey to Nelson continues with one earring in my ear.
“What’s going to happen to her?” I ask the driver.
“They’ll drop her off at the truck stop across the border,” he answers and then he is silent. The van drives on for about ten minutes. We are both lost in thought. “The world is full of too much pain,” he finally says shaking his head.
Access to view Jeannette’s naked body required cash. Access to the pain in her mind and heart simply necessitated alcohol. Today, her story still haunts me. Throughout human history, sex has been sold. There always have been “fallen women.” But I didn’t see Jeannette this way. As she shot her imaginary gun, I saw her aching to reclaim her dignity. More than an object to use or abuse, she was a young woman trying to find her way in this world. Given a radically different set of experiences and choices, Jeannette could have been me -- and I could have been her.
The sex industry, comprised of stripping, pornography, and prostitution, is a lucrative business. When it comes to the production of legal pornography alone, US sales result in an estimated $12 billion in annual revenue. There are over 3,500 strip clubs in the US raking in $3 billion a year. The recent emergence of an adult webcam industry is also profitable, netting $1 billion and growing. None of these figures take into account worldwide sales or proceeds generated from criminal syndicates involved in child pornography, prostitution, or human trafficking. As long as men are willing to pay for sex, or for access to project sexual fantasies on naked bodies, there will be a market base to cultivate/exploit to the tune of billions.
We live in a society that normalizes the voyeurism and exhibitionism present in sex work. We are deeply accustomed to viewing the human body scripted within the narrative of sexual commodity. What better way to market products than to link them to the release of dopamine associated with sexual stimulation found in the most primitive regions of our brain? One need only glance at the Halloween costumes being sold to young women or the popularity of pole dancing fitness classes to see that much of the culture associated with sex work is now mainstream.
Consider the seniors at an affluent high school who planned a dance entitled “G.I. Joes and Army Hoes.” Once the principal caught wind of the theme, the students changed it into something more tasteful. However, these young people wanted to model only what has been marketed to them. Viewing the body as sexual commodity is the dominant narrative shaping the sexual expression of our youth. While most of the young men present at the dance will fuel the sex industry in one form or another, few of the privileged young women who planned to dress like “Army Hoes” will go on to make money as sex workers. Rather, it’s girls like Jeannette who find their way spinning around a pole in a thong. The experience of poverty, substance abuse, mental illness, and a history of sexual abuse are all present at higher rates for women in the sex industry than in the general population.
Is the prevalence of our consumer-based sexual narrative liberating or sex-positive? Or, have we bought into a narrative that reduces a person’s worth to her or his ability to be a sexual turn-on, primarily for men? According to educator and activist Tony Porter, co-founder of the nonprofit organization “A Call to Men: The National Association of Men and Women Committed to Ending Violence against Women,” life as a man in contemporary America involves being taught, through peer and media cultures, that women are sexual objects to control and exploit. For Porter, this isn’t sex positive. His provocative reflections have been viewed over a million times on Ted Talks.
Do the majority of men who fuel the sex industry view women as sexual objects to exploit and control? When men watch women like Jeannette strip on stage, do they wonder about the path that brought her to that moment? Would they affirm the vocation of sex work for their own wives, daughters, or sons?
In her interview with Random House, journalist Elizabeth Eaves describes her feelings about the men who used to watch her strip. “I don’t have a lot of respect for these men,” she states. “I’m bothered by the idea that women are for sale.” Eaves chronicles her experience working as a stripper in “Bare: The Naked Truth about Stripping.” She reflects upon the regulars who came to watch her strip and argues that they have “an addiction.” These men returned week after week “paying—and paying and paying and paying—for the girls to dance and talk to them. It seems a sad substitute to forming an actual connection with someone.”
It is this lack of connection, and the jarring awareness that he had an addiction to masturbating to sexual imagery, that inspired blogger Dan Mahle to document what his life would be like if he gave up porn for a year. In his article, “My Year Without Porn,” Mahle writes, “I am often able to stay more present with women now, rather than projecting fantasies onto them.” Most tellingly, he describes an important change in his sexuality. His year without porn allowed him to “shift (his) sexuality from physical detachment to true intimacy, presence, and embodiment.” Such an integrated vision of sexuality provides a needed counter narrative to those that drive the sex industry.
At any given time in history, dominant narratives of the body exist. For example, Jamake Highwater, author of “Myth and Sexuality,” argues the “body as machine” metaphor dominated cultural understandings, even impacting medical practices, during the industrial age. Once western capitalism was in full swing, the “body as commodity” narrative took hold. Scantly clad figures were used, and continue to be used, to sell everything. Highwater ends his book by warning that the “body as weapon” narrative is beginning to dominate our culture’s vision of sexuality. He points to the normalization of violence present in the sex industry to make his point.
Money, Sex, and Violence
During my last year in college, I worked at a busy, German strudel house restaurant. One of my fellow waitresses was a single mom in her mid-twenties. We became friends and she confided in me that she worked as a stripper at nights to pay the bills.
“I don’t know what to do,” she sighed. “My son just turned 7 and he’s beginning to understand what I do at night. I don’t want him to remember me this way.” But it was hard to find another job that paid as well. She was a single mother with a high school degree. “Where else can I make this kind of money? Waitressing alone won’t cut it.”
Our conversation unfolded before stripping in front of a computer camera was an option. Today, the Internet and adult webcam industries are transforming sex work. Women and men who never have stepped foot into a strip club can purchase -- and sell -- sexual imagery from the privacy of their own home. For sex workers, choosing to become a “CamGirl” entails many advantages. An important element of control is present with the use of webcam technology. If a dancer finds a customer offensive, she doesn’t have to navigate walking off stage or finding a helpful bouncer to toss the offender off of the premises. Now, at the touch of a computer button, she can simply change screens.
Before proclaiming the Internet as a boon equalizing the power disparity present in exchanging sex for cash, consider the words of Canadian journalist Victor Malarek and the reflections of 17-year-old high school student and blogger Clara Bennathan.
In “The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade,” Malarek argues that nothing has done more to increase the power of criminal syndicates involved in the nefariously cruel world of human trafficking than the use of the Internet. Trafficked women and girls, marketed for sex, are bought and sold through websites. Unless consumers are mindful about the source of sex images online, they could be inadvertently masturbating to photos, or to live feed, of individuals sold like property and kept like prisoners in the illegal networks of modern slavery.
Upon reading Clara Bennathan’s reflections about navigating life as a teenage girl in an age of Gonzo-style porn, one wonders if such knowledge would matter. According to Bennathan, violent pornography is instantly available and routinely viewed by to her male peers on their iPads, Smartphones, and computers. “A very popular image is a close-up of a woman’s face with tears streaming down caused by her being choked whist performing oral sex,” she writes. Bennathan laments the impact these images are having on her male peers “the decision-makers, thinkers, writers, husbands, and fathers of tomorrow.”
Even when considering the prevalence of “body as weapon” narratives in sexual discourse today, it’s important to remember that not all women and men involved in sex work are there against their will. Nor do all of them carry painful legacies of abuse. Some, like my waitressing friend, are solely economically motivated. But whatever the motivation, according to Mark Cromer, Hustler Video Producer, “the dirty little secret” of the sex industry is that if one person won’t perform a particular act, there are dozens standing outside of the studio door who will.
There’s a haunting scene in a PBS Frontline documentary on pornography. A young woman, barely out of adolescence and still in braces, tells the interviewer that she tried anal sex once and found it “awful.” Nevertheless, she signed up to participate in a contest entitled “Porno Boot Camp.” As part of the contest, she will have anal sex with six men. If she can be the most “enthusiastic” participant of her peers, she wins $15,000. At one point, the young woman looks directly at the camera and declares that she is doing this solely for “the money.” We can only imagine why detested anal sex with six men would be worth $15,000. No wonder that the consequences of economically motivated consent are numbed with muscle relaxers, drugs, alcohol, and self-serving narratives of empowerment.
In my yoga teacher training, one of my fellow students was a professional dancer. She wanted to experience what stripping was like as a dance style. So, she got a job at a strip club and worked there for a week. She remembers two things. One, she found that the routine performance of sexiness to be pretty exhausting. And two, she was stunned by all of the cocaine used by the dancers backstage.
A New Narrative
Every spiritual tradition asserts that there is something sacred and wondrous at the heart of life. Sexual energy is one way to approach this mystery. It should be honored and celebrated. We must never return to a repressive approach to sex, characteristic of much of our Victorian and Puritan past. Yet, we would be wise not to nurture the other extreme. We are more than sexual commodities, regardless of what advertisers, pimps, or porn producers proclaim.
The voyeuristic hunger to consume vast quantities of increasingly violent sexual imagery represents a serious disjuncture of heart and mind, body and soul. Is it possible to change the “body as commodity” narrative so prevalent in our culture? Can we stem the tide of the “body as weapon” narrative that leaves only pain in its wake?
As we reflect on these questions, it’s important to remember that the body and sexuality are not the problem. Rather it’s the narratives of meaning we spin around our primal energies that free or damage us. Narratives matter. The human erotic template is highly malleable. As Highwater writes, “What we want or what we do, in any society, is to a very great extent what we are made to want and what we are allowed to do.” When woven into the fabric of a mindfulness and compassion, sexual expression can bring great joy. If enough of us integrated our sexual energies thus, much would change.
For myself, I embrace the natural beauty of the human form. I’ve modeled naked for college art classes and I love to dance. But combining the two to make money never interested me. Even as a young woman, I rebelled against the hyper-sexualized narratives projected onto my body. There’s something about the unholy alliance of capitalism and patriarchy that turns the sensuality of a woman dancing freely into a scripted performance for nameless voyeurs. Such a narrative is one I reject and feel compelled to challenge -- if not for my own sake then for the young people I teach and the children I love. When I watch my two-year-old son play with his toddler friends, I wonder. What narratives of sexual expression will shape them come adolescence? For their own wellbeing and the integrity of a life well lived, I pray that Gonzo-style porn is not in the picture.
I saw Jeannette once more after the episode at the border.
Upon leaving Nelson, a familiar van driver greets me with a smile. I ask if he has any update on Jeannette. “Nope, not a word,” he replies.
Once across the border, the driver stops to refuel. I get out of the van to stretch my legs. Then I see her. “Jeannette!” I yell. “Jeannette!” I jog over to where she is standing.
She is subdued and withdrawn. Her face is pale. She smokes a cigarette. I’m happy to see she’s alive. “It’s Amy. Remember, you met me a month ago at the bus station in Spokane. I have your other earring.” I smile at her. I want to hug her. She just looks at me.
“Keep it,” she shrugs.
“How are you? I thought so much about you.”
“I met an OK trucker and I’m staying with him over there,” she points to a collection of small motel rooms behind the gas station. “You know,” she takes a drag off of her cigarette, “I’m still going to Canada.”