Sex Workers – Sex Slaves and a Novel

Sociology superstar Sudhir Venkatesh analyzes how networking technologies have changed and professionalized sex work in New York City:

“The economies of big cities have been reshaped by a demand for high-end entertainment, cuisine, and “wellness” goods. In the process, “dating,” “massage,” “escort,” and “dancing” have replaced hustling and streetwalking. A luxury brand has been born.

These changes have made sex for hire more expensive. But luxe pricing has in turn helped make prostitution, well… somewhat respectable. Whereas men once looked for a secretive tryst, now they seek a mistress with no strings attached, a “girlfriend experience,” and they are willing to pay top dollar for it.

Technology has played a fundamental role in this change. No self-respecting cosmopolitan man looking for an evening of companionship is going to lean out his car window and call out to a woman at a traffic light. The Internet and the rise of mobile phones have enabled some sex workers to professionalize their trade. Today they can control their image, set their prices, and sidestep some of the pimps, madams, and other intermediaries who once took a share of the revenue. As the trade has grown less risky and more lucrative, it has attracted some middle-class women seeking quick tax-free income.”

The data that got attention was this:

Facebook changes everything, now, doesn’t it? Whither Craiglist and strip clubs.

And this as well:

This is not exactly surprising but in all this talk of high-tech and professionalization, and redundancy of pimps (not a surprising trend in the current labor market) and “hookers are joining the information age” demonstration, there is this:

“Some things haven’t changed: Even women who don’t work on the street report hiding their activities from their families and being abused.”

Yeah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose:

“When police turned up at the Shangri-La, it was quiet. Marinela Badea was catching up on sleep and was awoken by the commotion. Minutes later, on a grey Manchester morning, she and half a dozen other women were handcuffed and marched out of the red-brick massage parlour in Openshaw in the east of the city.

Marinela, 17, was terrified. Trafficked from Romania, she had been coerced into prostitution by a pimp who beat her with numbing regularity. Now there was something new to fear. “I didn’t even know where I was going,” she says now. “I couldn’t trust anyone, I had no idea of the law. I was so scared.”

The sex crimes unit of Greater Manchester police arrested her for prostitution-related offences, but at least Marinela was safe behind bars. Her first day in custody was the first since her arrival in England six months earlier that she had not been forced to have sex. She had been raped by different men 50 times a week on average, often violent, drunken strangers. And if she was released from prison, Marinela was convinced she would be murdered by the gang who trafficked her.

Eventually police would discover that Marinela was an innocent victim of Bogdan Nejloveanu, 51, and his son Marius, 23, a Romanian trafficking team who last month received the longest sentence for trafficking in UK history. Her extraordinary story, revealed here for the first time, offers a troubling insight into Britain’s vast “off-street” prostitution trade. It also raises questions about the apparent indifference of the authorities to tackling trafficking and protecting vulnerable women imported into Britain as sex slaves.

Victims are notoriously reluctant to describe their experience because of the shame, fear and stress. It is even rarer for such women to agree to be identified. Motivated by a courageous desire to expose this sordid, violent world, Marinela has revealed the full horror of her ordeal in an account that should reopen the debate about how Britain deals with its sex industry.”

For anyone who has read Victor Malarek’s The Natashas or watched the PBS Frontline program, Sex Slaves, this is a familiar story.

And speaking of sex work and trafficking, I cannot recommend enough Sofi Oksanen‘s Purge. It is no wonder that the book got the Fémina literary prize in France (along with other awards). The Fémina award is attributed to novels that authored by women and about women.

Now, I am not the literary type so, I can’t comment on the strict literary aspect of the novel. But I think it is a powerful three-generation story, of four related women from Estonia who end up suffering parallel fates at the hand of patriarchal systems. be they the Soviet occupation of Estonia or the post-communist era with the trafficking of women from the former USSR to Western Europe.

The novel “navigates” between two time period, the 1990s, when a disheveled and obviously abused young woman shows up at the door of Aliide Truu, an elderly Estonian living in the village where she has spent all her life, and the 1940s-50s, the War and post-war period with the Soviet occupation, when Aliide was a young woman.

The novel is great for the seamless weaving of personal decisions in social contexts: Aliide’s jealousy as filtered through communist rule with devastating consequences.

Of course, no matter what political system under which these women live, patriarchal rule means that sexual abuse and violence for both Aliide and Zara (the young woman landing on her doorstep). And survival involves, for both of them, doing unconscionable things. But the book perfectly illustrates C.Wright Mills’s idea of personal trouble versus public issues.

The problems these women face have no solution except some degree of surrender to patriarchal oppression, and then, having to live with the consequences (such Aliide having to marry a repulsive Communist official, with devastating consequences). Throughout the book, patriarchal power looms large like a persistent dark shadow over these women’s lives, and every decision they make , or what they let happen, is with respect to that power.

The power of this tale is not just the criss-crossing of fates between different generations of women, but also the very organic and gritty style, the very physical nature of power imposed these women. I don’t know how she did it, but Oksanen does a frightening job of conveying the bodily nature of power and powerlessness. For instance, at some point, during the Soviet occupation, Aliide gets taken to the town hall for interrogation. There, she is tortured and raped, like many other women. Then, she is released:

“She recognized the smell of women on the street, the smell that said that something similar had happened to them. From every trembling hand, she could tell—there’s another one. From every flinch at the sound of a Russian soldier’s shout and every lurch at the tramp of boots. Her, too? Every one who couldn’t keep herself from crossing the street when militiamen or soldiers approached. Every one with a waistband on her dress that showed she was wearing several pairs of underwear. Every one who couldn’t look you in the eye. Did they say it to those women, too—did they tell them that every time you go to bed with your husband, you’ll remember me?

When she found herself in proximity with one of those women, she tried to stay as far away from her as she could. So no one would notice the similarities in their behavior. So they wouldn’t repeat each other’s gestures and double the power of their nervous presence. At village community events, Aliide avoided those women, because you never knew when one of those men might happen by, a man she would remember for all eternity. And maybe it would be the same man as the other woman’s. They wouldn’t be able to help staring in the same direction, the direction the man was coming from.” (Loc: 1846)

So, she makes the decision to marry a communist official (she picks one who didn’t rape her) to protect herself against something like that happening again:

“There were always bits of onion between Martin’s teeth, and he had a hearty appetite. He had heavy muscles, loose skin hung from his arms, and the pores in his armpits were almost bigger than the ones on his forehead. His long armpit hair was yellowed with sweat and funguslike, in spite of its thickness, like rusted steel wool. A belly button like a cavern and balls that hung almost to his knees. It was hard to imagine that he had ever had a young man’s firm balls. The pores in his skin were full of oil with a smell that changed depending on what he had been eating. Or maybe Aliide was just imagining that. In any case, she tried to make food without onions. As time went by, she also did her best to look at Martin the way a woman looks at a man, to learn to be a wife, and gradually she started to be able to do it when she observed how he was listened to when he had something to say. Martin had fire and power in him. He got people to listen to him and believe in themselves almost as well as Stalin did.” (Loc. 1870)

There is, of course, much more narrative intricacies involved and a bit of a mystery to be solved. But this is a powerful book to feel the bodily and physical nature of gender power and violence.

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