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Notes from the Portland Feminist Meetup – December Edition

December 16, 2012

The first Sunday of every month, a group of feminists meets in the In Other Words space to discuss current issues through a feminist lens. The topic for Sunday, December 2nd was “Sex Trafficking and Prostitution.” IOW volunteer Susan was kind enough to take notes at the meeting.

Please note that this discussion is the result of an independent group, and the opinions expressed do not reflect those of In Other Words. If you’re interested in joining in on these talks, the Feminist Discussion Group meets the first Sunday of each month at In Other Words; the next meeting will be Sunday, January 6th. You can join the facebook group for more information.

The discussion topic was going to be “Feminism and Fiction,” but we got deep into a different topic, so I’m saving that for next month.

A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Even in high school about ten years ago: a school didn’t touch on history within the past hundred years. When I was in school, we never got beyond 1900 before the school year ended, and history was taught from a powerful white male perspective—including “manifest destiny” crap. There was no mention of the institutionalized racism and imperialism that exists in our society through modern times. To this day people go to reservations and rape native women. They’re not getting prosecuted. This isn’t just from history—it’s going on right now in South Dakota.

1960s Canada: forcing Native children to go to boarding schools. The priests were raping and murdering the children at the boarding schools. Even children who were four or five years old. Children would go missing and it was pushed under the rug; the government didn’t care about these kids.

That reminds me of the film Whistleblower, about post-war Bosnia. A U. N. woman in Sarajevo discovered that teen girls were being taken across the border and were sex slaves, raped and imprisoned in the basements of bars. Men working for the U. N. were major clients.

Human trafficking—a lot of the victims come from families who are poverty-stricken and sell their daughters to traffickers. Girls will go on their own under false pretenses (they’re promised a nanny or modeling job). Their passports are taken and they’re kept on drugs and are forced to have sex. The west coast of the United States is a major place where trafficking takes place, though it also takes place in other parts of the world, such as poor girls from Nepal taken away to brothels in India under false pretenses. Poor girls in Thailand are sent off to brothels while their brothers get a monastic education; the girls often donate money to the Buddhist monasteries that they earned through prostitution.

Portland and Seattle are big human trafficking places: they have underground houses where girls are moved from place to place. The cops treat them as prostitutes and prosecute them like prostitutes instead of like victims. They’re put in prison after their captors basically imprisoned them. They don’t know where to go and end up with their captors again (just like beaten wives returning to abusive husbands). Pimps are the ones who should be punished and charged, but in the US they’re not treated as harshly as the prostitutes.

In Scandinavia they do punish the pimps more, and it’s considered controversial. In Sweden prostitution is legal but they’re making it hard for women to prostitute themselves safely; this is similar to France and the Netherlands. In France prostitution is legal, but you shouldn’t be actively on the street, shouldn’t be visible on the street—so they make it really dangerous for prostitutes. It’s difficult to come up with accurate figures because people giving figures are biased and are not necessarily going to be honest.

In some countries, the prostitutes have to pay taxes on their income. It’s legal but it’s made almost impossible to be a prostitute (at least safely).

Except in Scandinavia: Prostitutes can be very exploited. Society is cool with having prostitution but doesn’t care about the prostitutes themselves.

Trafficking is a crime, and it’s also fraud because they’re telling the victims one thing and getting them on false pretenses. Women and girls from different parts of the world end up being trafficked in the US, such as in Portland and Seattle. The situation may be just as bad at home – they came to the US for a reason, to get away from their abusive family or poverty or whatever. If the police find them, they could send them back to their original country, because they’re considered illegal immigrants.

Nevada: Moonlite Bunny Ranch is a legalized brothel; they’re legal in some parts of Nevada. The figures have shown that the women have to be tested every month for STDs. The houses have to pay taxes and the women have to pay taxes. The taxes support schools and roadwork and such. The brothels are regulated. They can make a lot of money and survive. But it could be hard on self-esteem, and it’s generally short-term employment because popular opinion is that the clients don’t find older women attractive.

Women might become prostitutes because they’re into drugs—they’re addicted. A lot of strippers become drug addicts in order to live with what they do for a living.

Someone has said that being a prostitute can make you hate men. Someone else said that women who hate men become prostitutes. It’s possible that situations can lead to this jaded perspective.

At the strip clubs of Portland: The owners of the bars where they work don’t pay them. They’ll pay the bars because they’re considered a subcontractor. The bar owner is benefiting from them. They should at least get minimum wage. They’re employees and aren’t getting paid.

It’s frustrating for women to have little or no marketable skills and the only way to get money/work is by selling their bodies. The current economy is really harsh and it’s hard to get a job. It can be next to impossible to make ends meet at a minimum-wage job with several children when the father is in jail or otherwise not contributing money to the family. Women in these situations sometimes go into prostitution.

This reminds me of a Bollywood film about a young woman who goes job hunting in Mumbai and keeps getting fired until she becomes an escort. It’s called Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, or Journey of a Woman.


In the Victorian era, Victoria Woodhull described marriage as prostitution. Back in the 1950s and the 19th century there was pressure to be a “prostitute” for one man, the role of a housewife could be viewed as a kind of sexual slavery—the basics of being an unpaid servant and baby making machine. Sometimes housewives have to go job hunting after their children have grown up, and they don’t have a lot of marketable skills. Currently there’s a retro movement to be like the 1950s—encouraging women to be more domestic, now that the current economy makes it so hard to find jobs.

There’s a trend in teenage pregnancy. A 16-year-old gives up everything—potential career or jobs, higher education, social life, independence—in order to have babies. There’s a current trend to get teen girls to think having a baby is cool, a good thing. It’s a backlash against feminism, one of the elements of conservatives wanting our society to be like the 1950s again.

Times of crisis = getting more scary, backlash attitudes about women’s roles.

In the 1950s, if a woman worked (at least from a white middle-class perspective) it was considered shameful, because the husband wanted to be the only wage-owner. Black women had careers raising other people’s children (as in The Help by Kathryn Stockett). The culture was, “My family was so poor that my mother had to work.”

Betty-FriedanThe Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, 1963—first book to come out of the Women’s Movement that criticized the status quo and advocated for women’s entry in to fulfilling careers.

betty draperIt’s been postulated that Betty Draper in the show Mad Men is named after Betty Friedan. She’s a bored, frustrated, miserable housewife.

A medical doctor claimed to have patients who seemed to be calm and cool but all of a sudden they went out in the streets yelling and screaming because they were so bored and frustrated. So basically, being a frustrated and bored housewife is similar to being an inmate in a sanitarium.

Housewives experience so little social recognition for their work, are always in the service of other people, and don’t have a social life other than being hostess for her husband. They were coking women all the time—giving out speed in the form of diet pills  – this was ordinary for 1950s housewives. They were given speed for all kinds of things, including low blood pressure. It’s dangerous and highly addictive. In the nineteenth century it was opium, often in the form of laudanum; so nineteenth century housewives were often addicted to opium.


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