Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Exchange On Feminism and Trafficking

In response to a reader's comment

Hello Anonymous - Thanks for commenting - I love being able to have a conversation and share ideas this way! I want you to know that I genuinely appreciate the tone of your post, and the latitude you afforded my beliefs - and I hope you read my response (and respond!) in a similar light and as part of the important dialogue process that you mention. Now, as far as a response, first let me say that I think you brought up a lot of good points regarding the causes of trafficking and what needs to be done to stop it. I do want to clarify my perspective on being a feminist and fighting trafficking.

You mentioned that you do not believe they can go together, but for me being a feminist is an important part in my personal fight against trafficking so I wanted to elaborate a little on that point. I will spare you an entire dissertation on what feminism means to me (although, after having composed what comes below, maybe I haven't really spared you at all) - but as far as it relates to trafficking, I believe that women deserve equality and a life free of exploitation, especially based on their gender/sex. The commercial sexual exploitation that happens to women who are trafficked is so fundamentally wrong there aren't enough negative words for me to use in describing it. (please note: I'm not ignoring labor trafficking - simply focusing on sex trafficking for the moment, although there is for sure overlap).

I want to respond to your comment in 2 parts - first on feminism and trafficking, and second on the more substantive issues of trafficking that you mentioned. First - I know that feminism and moral values is another matter, but I do want to address your statement that feminists are part of the human trafficking problem because they do not yet have moral values and want to impose their individual values/goals on others. As I mentioned above, I think that for me and probably many others who would identify as feminists, the belief in the rights of women is an important part of the drive to fight against trafficking.

So the question is, how does that belief end up being connected to trafficking in a negative way as part of the problem? To answer that, I think that sometimes feminism and the idea of women's rights - namely personal autonomy (which is at the core of my feminist beliefs) - can often get confused with the idea of sexual liberalization and the separate idea of promiscuity and immoral sexual activity. I think that all of these terms (which, for this sentence at least I take no position on) can get caught up in a polarized moral debate and produce an outcome where feminists stand for the idea of frequent, careless, and meaningless sex. This in turn can lead to a belief that feminists are all pro-prostitution, pro-abortion, and in general espouse beliefs that some consider immoral. (Again - I take no position on this for the moment - and I hope I am managing to set out the argument in objective, if overly simplistic, terms.) From that standpoint, I can understand how feminism could be part of the problem of trafficking - the argument would be something along the lines of feminism promoting a more open and embracing attitude of sex and sexuality for women, which leads to more sex and possibly more meaningless sex and 'hookups', which is not only immoral but also contributes to moral debasement in society, and in turn contributes to both the supply and demand of things like prostitution an pornography, which are forms of trafficking. All together then, these things create a cyclical relationship and an ever enlarging problem with trafficking.

Now, having stated what a potential argument could be that connects feminism and trafficking, let me make one point, and then I will leave the feminism/morality debate for another day (although I would still love to talk about it with you - I am very open to hearing what you have to say). Firstly (and I do realize that this is sort of a blanket statement so there are bound to be numerous problems, from all sides, with it), I think that the idea that feminists in general support promiscuity and immoral sexual activity, that in turn feeds supply and demand for trafficking, must necessarily fail because it does not take into consideration the fact that trafficking is a non-consensual occurrence. Even if one accepts that feminists do promote that sort of thing, and that promiscuity is bad and immoral, that one instance of immoral behavior on the part of a woman does not excuse any subsequent immoral and illegal behavior on the part of another person wherein she is a victim and not a willing partner, and it certainly does not mean that she deserves to be a victim of someone else's immoral or illegal behavior.

A related point to this is whether you can have consensual prostitution - or whether all prostitution is in the end a form of trafficking (which all depends on your definition of consent. On that subject, I think Catharine MacKinnon makes an excellent point when she asks whether an act of prostitution or participation in pornography was truly consensual, or a result of lack of choices). I will leave that point for a later post or discussion.

Basically what I am saying is that even if feminists do try to impose their view on others, and even if their view espouses immoral behavior as far as sex, it still does not excuse the immoral and illegal behavior on the part of the traffickers, pimps, and johns who create the supply and demand for trafficking. Thus making a connection between even a feminism that does espouse such views and trafficking doesn't work in my mind. The underlying goal here - which I believe is a goal of feminism - is personal autonomy. People should have control over their own bodies, and do not have the right to infringe on anyone else's autonomy. When a woman is forced into prostitution or any other form of trafficking, her personal autonomy is violated.

Now, for the second part of my response I will keep it short. As far the substantive issues on trafficking that you brought up, I would say that I agree with you entirely. I think that the Archbishop summed up the problem quite well in the quote you included. I have made similar statements on my own many times. Trafficking is a symptom of a much larger problem (and maybe even more than one problem). From my perspective trafficking is intimately tied to poverty as well as the increasing levels of sexually graphic material that we are confronted with in everyday media and the commodification of women. Women and children who grow up in economic poverty have historically been much more vulnerable to exploitation, and these days with the rise of the internet and the bombardment of sexually explicit images everywhere you look, the scope trafficking victims is widening to include people that many would never suspect such as middle class suburban teens.

All of these things are topics I plan on posting on in the future, and I welcome your feedback/comments/dialogue and hope others join in too.


Comment posted by Anonymous

When you said that you consider yourself to be a feminist but are at the same time trying to fight human trafficking, my first impression is that the two cannot go together... so please forgive me if I will say something that may sound offensive to you.

I would like to first say, one of the things I have learn over the years and which I also often keep forgetting is that there is two sides to a story, for example we may feel very strong about something but we are not necessarily seeing the other side of the story.

You probably have seen this happening before when you/someone writes about something, and unintentionally someone else is either offended or has a more plausible explanation then what was written.

My first impression about you, because of the statement where you consider yourself to be a feminist but feel very strong to want to tackle the human trafficking issue is that you may not truly understand what being a feminist is... or at least what I consider a feminist to be (The word feminism means many things to many people)... What matters is that you seem to be a person with moral values... feminists to me are part of the human trafficking problem as they are persons who do not yet have moral values but what to impose their individual values/goals onto others... and this is very dangerous for society.

Read the full comment here

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