In a tribute to American imperialism last New Year's Day, U.S.
secretary of state Colin Powell patted himself and his chief, George
W. Bush, on the back with these words: "In 2003 we freed thousands
from oppression through President Bush's program to combat human
trafficking.... We have saved lives and redeemed the enslaved, and
we will do more in 2004" (New York Times/, 1 January 2004).
The United States has indeed escalated its crusade against human
trafficking, "especially sex slavery," according to Congressman
Christopher H. Smith, the author of the Trafficking Victims Protection
Act. Since words like "freedom" and "redemption"
are American imperialist lingo for increased government repression
and the bloody military jackboot, just as liberation is Washington's
word for the colonial rape and occupation of Iraq, the pledge to
do more is a threat. Here, "redeeming the enslaved" means
unleashing the cops and courts in a multiple attack on immigrants,
women and sex.
Government sources claim that thousands of women and children each
year are coerced, kidnapped, smuggled across borders, and forced
into prostitution by gangs of criminals. The U.S. State Department's
Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, headed by former
Republican Congressman John R. Miller, features on its Web site
stories of rape, sexual abuse, beatings and coerced prostitution.
The media is pitching the story with dramatic headlines, pictures
and lurid stories.
What the government terms "modern-day slavery" is largely
debt bondage, where a worker is forced to pay off an onerous debt
to get and keep his job. Debt bondage is on the rise across the
world. Statistics are always unreliable for illegal activities;
in this case, they also reflect the politics of the researcher.
Unknown numbers of illegal immigrants who work as prostitutes are
indeed subject to exorbitant debts to the smuggler who got them
across the border, or ensnared in a criminal ring. It is generally
acknowledged that workers in debt bondage are primarily illegal
migrant agricultural workers, maids, nannies or hideously exploited
people in small industries in the Third World.
Kidnapping, debt bondage, sexual assault, beatings - for any purpose
- are horrible crimes. But there is a qualitative distinction between
this kind of coercion and the fundamentally consensual act between
a prostitute and her client to exchange money for sex. Part of the
anti-sex slavery agenda is to merge "human trafficking,"
"sex slavery" and prostitution together, to identify as
chattel bondage all exchanges of sex for money and all illegal border
crossing. All women immigrants are now possible "sex slaves."
The Bush administration's trick here is to recast sin and sex in
"human rights" terms, appealing to religious conservatives
while adopting a more modern turn of phrase. So, in a speech on
the subject at the United Nations last September, Bush intoned:
"Nearly two centuries after the abolition of the transatlantic
slave trade, and more than a century after slavery was officially
ended, the trade in human beings for any purpose must not be allowed
to thrive in our time" (www.usembassy.it). This from a man
whose attorney general is an open admirer of the slave-owning American
Confederacy! Nonetheless, media pundits such as New York Times
columnist Nicholas Kristof have hailed Bush's human rights imperialism.
Describing his experience of buying "sex slaves"
in Cambodia so he could "free them" (not with a lot of
success; one returned to the brothel and refused to leave), this
pro-Democratic Party liberal ended one column in praise of the current
right-wing administration: "President Bush's policies toward
women have often been callous, cutting off, for example, funds for
safe childbirth programs in Africa because of ideological disputes
with sponsoring groups. But on trafficking, this administration
has led the way" (New York Times, 31 January 2004).
Marching in tune with the crusade against sex trafficking are the
U.S. government's longtime partners in the "family values"
anti-sex witchhunt, the evangelical right and the bourgeois feminist
establishment. The sleight of hand that transforms all prostitution
into "sex slavery" is courtesy of right-wing feminist
organizations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
(CATW), which defines prostitution as "gang rape." The
CATW was instrumental in drafting both the U.S. Trafficking Victims
Protection Act (2000) and the United Nations "Protocol to Prevent,
Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons" (2001) as a supplement
to the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. These
documents laid the groundwork for an international police witchhunt
against illegal immigrants as "sex traffickers," which
will inevitably come down hardest on women.
The anti-woman backlash has already moved beyond cop repression.
In January 2003 the Bush administration, through USAID (U.S. Agency
for International Development), announced a new policy cutting funding
to international projects perceived as supporting the decriminalization
of prostitution and "legalization of drugs, injecting drug
use, and abortion." Such policies have a widespread impact,
especially in impoverished Third World countries, where women live
in conditions of backwardness, weighed down by religious reaction
and customs that maintain the yoke of family oppression. As Anna-Louise
Crago, founding member of Montreal's sex worker political action
Already in 2001, the Population Council and Asia Foundation
jointly released a study that found that in Nepal, a country that
receives a bulk of the anti-trafficking money from USAID, 'a common
approach to controlling trafficking is to limit women's migration.'
NGOs were found to use frightening messages to discourage women
from leaving their villages while women and girls reported being
prevented from crossing the border despite vehement protests of
their free will.
-Alternet, Unholy Alliance, 21 May 2003
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act
(TVPRA), passed by the U.S. Congress in December 2003, has two main
operational provisions: increased funding to "train border
patrol guards and officials on identification of victims of trafficking,"
that is, to reinforce the border police; and strengthened provisions
for U.S. sanctions against countries the State Department deems
not to be in compliance with its anti-trafficking mandate. Trafficking
"victims" are offered special visas, but only if they
cooperate with government prosecutors; otherwise, they are subject
to charges themselves as prostitutes and illegal aliens. Furthermore,
the TVPRA adds "trafficking" as an offense chargeable
under RICO, the frame-up law that allows the government to seize
all assets so that suspects cannot defend themselves. The TVPRA
also specifies that "No funds [will be] made available...to
promote, support, or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution."
The U.S. government doesn't appear to take even its own hype all
that seriously, however. Bush plans to spend $1.5 billion to "promote
marriage"; but Congress voted only $20 million a year for "prevention"
and "protection and assistance" for "victims"
in a $100 million annual anti-trafficking budget. This too underscores
the repressive, ideological intent of the law, to beef up capitalism's
trinity of oppression: the capitalist state; organized religion;
and the institution of the family, the main source of the oppression
of women in class society.
Imperialist Onslaught Tramples on Women
This repressive crusade is sponsored by the very forces responsible
for the destruction of the former East European and Soviet workers
states where, despite the deformations of Stalinist bureaucracies,
planned economies meant that basic necessities were available to
all. Much of the unprecedented level of worldwide immigration, legal
and illegal, is a direct consequence of the capitalist counterrevolution
in those countries. Not only were those countries devastated, but
the Third World is now increasingly vulnerable to the depredations
of world imperialism. The imperialists have reduced to a trickle
the financial aid previously granted as a sop to many countries
during the Cold War against the USSR. The escalation of the exploitation
of labor, poverty, and war means that people are on the move as
In East Europe and the ex-Soviet Union, capitalist counterrevolution
has dragged women back decades. Once educated and employed at one
of the highest levels in the world, they now face massive, chronic
unemployment, while prostitution has soared. In post-Soviet Russia
gross domestic product fell by over 80 percent from 1991 to 1997;
according to official statistics, capital investment dropped over
90 percent. By the mid 1990s, 40 percent of the population of the
Russian Federation was living below the official poverty line and
a further 36 percent only a little above it. Millions are starving.
The atrocities that are still thriving worldwide in this reactionary
social and economic climate include forced marriages, the buying
and selling of children, forced segregation under the head-to-toe
veil, female genital mutilation and "honor killings."
Coerced prostitution, which has existed for thousands of years,
is likely increasing. But the repressive measures adopted by capitalist
states in the name of "human rights" and "protecting
women" will only intensify these miseries through state persecution.
Racist anti-immigrant laws guarantee vicious exploitation of immigrants,
denial of social benefits, and lack of access to education and to
legal recourse for victims of crimes.
On May 1, ten countries of economically devastated East Europe
joined the EU with its supposed "open" borders, and the
governments of West Europe have reacted with an anti-immigrant panic.
With British tabloids claiming that 1.6 million Roma (Gypsies) from
East Europe are supposedly waiting for the opening of British borders,
the general fear of a massive influx of migrants from East Europe
was so widespread that even the president of the European Parliament
denounced it as "overblown" (Coventry Evening Telegraph,
19 February 2004). Every existing EU government passed specific
measures to make people from the ten new member countries second-class
citizens by restricting either the right to benefits or to work,
if not both. These racist laws drive immigrants into the hands of
border smugglers, since it is often the only way to get into the
United States or Europe.
While vice laws in Europe are generally more relaxed than in the
United States, each country has some form of legal limitation, regulation
or prohibition that allows police harassment. A majority of the
prostitutes on the continent are now immigrants. Compared to the
tens of thousands of expulsions carried out each year in "Fortress
Europe," the number of
prostitutes deported is minuscule, but the vice laws give the police
yet another weapon and serve to justify new laws that deny asylum
to immigrant women fleeing persecution in their home countries.
In France, 40 percent of prostitutes come from the Balkans and
37 percent are of African origin. In Italy, estimates set the number
of undocumented immigrants among streetwalkers at 90 percent. In
2002 Italy launched a nationwide crackdown in what Prime Minister
Silvio Berlusconi has called a fight between good and evil. The
Italian state deems the great saviors of "sex slaves"
to be the Vatican and the carabinieri (police). Meanwhile,
Italian authorities leave women and children from Albania and elsewhere
to drown as they try to reach the east coast of the Italian peninsula.
While police harassment of prostitution has increased, it hasn't
turned up much solid evidence of widespread "sex slavery."
On 11 October 2003 Agence France-Presse reported a massive nationwide
swoop in the Czech Republic, which the United Nations calls the
hub of the sex trade, in a crackdown on "the white slave trade
and forced prostitution." Some 4,500 police raided 435 erotic
clubs and other premises across the country to look for women "being
forced to work as prostitutes." Of the 96 people held for questioning,
17 were charged with pimping and 16 with "white slave trade."
But of the 1,391 non-Czechs interrogated during these raids, the
police found only three foreign prostitutes who asked to be repatriated.
European prostitutes have been fighting back against police harassment
and abuse by criminals. In Spain, where most prostitutes are immigrants
from South America, Africa and East Europe, the Collective in Defense
of Prostitutes' Rights organized a demonstration in Madrid to demand
labor rights, such as employer-paid social security benefits, which
will help them in "trying to pay off their huge debts to mafias
who got them into the country illegally," according to a spokeswoman
(New York Times, 19 January 2004).
U.S./UN/NATO Out of the Balkans Now!
One damaging result of the hype is that it obscures the real crimes
of coerced trafficking and prostitution that do exist. The situation
is probably at its worst in the Balkans, where the devastation of
capitalist counterrevolution was amplified by the bloody U.S./NATO
imperialist war against Serbia in 1999. Murderous ethnic hatred,
promoted by the breakup of the former multinational Yugoslav deformed
workers state along national lines, erupts constantly. Refugees
and ethnic strife are desperate to flee the area. At the same time
military occupation by thousands of U.S./UN troops provides a fertile
source of paying customers for prostitution.
These factors converge to make the Balkans ground zero for human
trafficking in Europe. Traffickers bring women in from Russia and
other East European countries to staff the brothels, while Albanians
and others try to find their way out to the capital cities of West
Europe. The U.S. government claims that criminal rings are driving
the "sex slave" trade, but trafficking in the Balkans
has been linked directly to U.S./UN/NATO personnel. In a 24 April
2002 statement to the House Committee on International Relations,
David Lamb, a human rights investigator in the Balkans who looked
into forced prostitution there, blamed the trade on UN collusion
and cover-up: "The sex slave trade in Bosnia largely exists
because of the UN peacekeeping operation.... Trafficking of women
for forced prostitution, and the prostitution
trade, are controlled by organized crime war-lords, most of whom
came to power as aggressive and ruthless military or militia commanders
during the war." In describing the difficulties in investigating
these abuses, he said, "Whenever involvement of UN personnel
surfaced during investigations, support from UN headquarters stopped....
My investigators and I experienced an astonishing cover-up attempt
that seemed to extend to the highest levels of the UN headquarters."
Press reports have detailed the involvement of personnel from both
the United Nations and the Pentagon military contractor DynCorp
in running sex rings in the Balkans; women were brought into Bosnia
from East Europe and had their passports confiscated ("America's
For-Profit Secret Army," New York Times, 13 October
2002; "Bosnia: UN Police Accused of Involvement in Prostitution,"
Associated Press, 19 June 2001). As far as the other NATO forces
go, an article in Junge Welt, "The Child Brothel of
Tetovo: Covered-Up Sex Scandal Among Bundeswehr Soldiers in the
Balkans" (1 March 2001), revealed discussion within the German
Social Democratic/Green coalition government of possible "soldiers'
brothels" organized by the army. Reportedly, Green Party spokeswoman
Angelika Beer expressed the government's "concern for the psychological
well-being and thus the combat-readiness" of the German armed
forces abroad as a reason to set up brothels of German mädchen
to protect the troops from the presumed diseased and under-age Balkan
women. The proposal was all too reminiscent of the state-controlled
brothels administered through the concentration camp system by the
Wehrmacht in Nazi-occupied Europe.
The U.S. rants about "sex slavery" when the worst instances
of coerced prostitution exist precisely in a U.S./UN military occupation
zone. When in 1993 Democrat Bill Clinton threatened military intervention
against the Serbs amid all-sided interethnic slaughter, some of
the loudest war cries came from the pro-imperialist feminists, who
exploited the reports
of mass rape and sexual brutality in Bosnia to call for the American
jackboot to "save" Bosnian Muslim women. The National
Organization for Women even called for sanctions by the International
Monetary Fund, the hated international bankers' cartel which for
decades has subjected hundreds of millions of Third World poor to
brutal starvation policies.
War inevitably spawns prostitution; it is only a question of the
degree of brutality. From U.S. Civil War general Joe Hooker, who
is commonly believed to have given American English a new word for
the world's oldest profession, to the R&R stations established
in Thailand for U.S. servicemen on leave from the bloody imperialist
war against Vietnam,
prostitution is an inevitable part of the army's train.
Harking back to an earlier imperialist war, author Lujo Basserman
"When Queen Victoria's haughty phrase to the effect
that the existence
of prostitutes constituted an affront to Her Majesty was reported
Berlin, a registered whore named Christine Leichtfuss remarked...,
rather be the loose character I am than have Victoria's responsibility
for the Boer War'."
-The Oldest Profession: A History of
Prostitution (New York: DorsetPress, 1967)
For Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!
The ruling class does not want to eliminate immigrants from the
labor force, rather it aims to benefit from immigration by whatever
means possible. For example, in the U.S. immigrants from Mexico
serve as part of the reserve army of labor; they are necessary particularly
for California agriculture, but when the economic need dries up,
they can be quickly deported. Immigrants also fill especially onerous
and underpaid jobs that those who are able to work legally in the
U.S. won't do for the pittance those jobs pay. How desperate they
can be is the subject of the movie Dirty Pretty Things,
where illegal immigrants sell their kidneys for passports and young
women give slimy bosses blowjobs to stay employed in wretched sweatshops.
Many immigrants send a large part, if not most, of their earnings
home to support their families. Half of the world's 120 million
legal and illegal migrants are women, who generally work as nannies,
maids or other kinds of domestics, and sometimes in the sex trade.
In Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New
Economy, edited by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild
(New York: Henry Holt, 2002), the introduction describes a government
program in Sri Lanka that encourages women to migrate in search
of domestic work, leaving their own children with relatives back
home. One author reports that 34 to 54 percent of the population
of the Philippines is sustained by remittances from migrant workers,
whose funds are the economy's largest source of foreign currency,
almost $7 billion in 1999. Two-thirds of Filipino migrant workers
are women.While Bush has declared it "a special evil,"
the fact remains that for many women, prostitution can well be a
better job prospect than indentured servitude in the fields at home,
or backbreaking factory labor or the other dismal prospects for
an "illegal" immigrant abroad. Millions of immigrant women
clean the toilets and floors, change the beds and bedpans, feed
the babies and the elderly, and labor in the most wretched of sweatshops
at the most menial, despised work while enduring racist and anti-woman
abuse. Starvation wages, no benefits, long hours and beatings and
sexual assault are all too common.
Some of the most brutally exploited women workers on the American
continent work in the maquiladoras, the border-area "free
trade" zones in Mexico that have been the source of huge profits
to the imperialist corporations. Women there, many as young as 16,
suffer exposure to poisonous chemicals, pain and finger deformities
caused by the
repetitive mechanical movements of assembly lines. Many endure degrading
strip searches; some have been compelled to offer proof that they
are not pregnant as a condition of employment. United class struggle
by workers on both sides of the border is urgent as U.S. capitalists
continue their "free trade" rape of Mexico.
Prostitution: What's in a Name?
While most people would say that they know what it is, the definition
of prostitution reflects the perspective of the respondent. The
renowned experts on human sexuality William H. Masters and Virginia
E. Johnson comment, "Prostitution is difficult to define since
humans have always used sex to obtain desirables such as food, money,
valuables, promotions, and power" (Sex and Human Loving
[Boston: Little, Brown, 1988]).
The status of the prostitute is related to the status of women
generally in society, itself a measure of a society's advancement.
Thus the conditions faced by the prostitute vary greatly with time,
place and class. In the industrialized world, where women have greater
access to education and jobs, prostitutes tend to be among the poorest
desperate. Statistics vary widely, but some trends do emerge: in
the U.S. at least, a large percentage of prostitutes are unskilled
and without a high school education. Given the vicious racism of
American society, it's no surprise that black women are overrepresented
in prostitution - especially among those who are arrested and jailed.
In San Francisco, according to the Sex Workers Outreach Project,
57 percent of the prostitutes are black (the city as a whole is
only 8 percent black). One striking fact is confirmed by most sources:
runaway teenagers, who in fleeing a miserable family situation have
very few other choices indeed, often become prostitutes.
There is a world of difference between the luxury and easy living
of a Hollywood madam like Heidi Fleiss (who got locked up all the
same) and the AIDS-infected, drug-addicted streetwalker in an impoverished
ghetto, with no options and no way out. Nonetheless, all
prostitutes are subjected to the general social opprobrium of bourgeois
hypocrisy, which sets them up for abuse, beatings, rape and theft.
Prostitutes take the brunt of hatred of women. For example, in the
1980s the "Green River killer," Gary Leon Ridgway, murdered
48 women in the Seattle, Washington area; most were street prostitutes,
targeted because he thought he could get away with it.
In economically backward societies, as a woman?s status is lower
and her options more limited, to that degree is prostitution a more
attractive alternative to virtual family bondage. Only the most
beautiful and cultured women became geisha in ancient Japan, for
A "Crime Without a Victim"
Because it is generally illegal or heavily regulated under capitalist
law, Marxists consider prostitution to be a "crime without
a victim," like drug use, gambling, pornography, homosexual
sex and "statutory rape." Such activities are labeled
crimes in the U.S. because bourgeois Christian morality deems them
sins. From the standpoint of the working class, the act of performing
sex for money is not a crime on the part of either the prostitute
or the john. While we recognize that prostitution is more often
than not degrading and exploitative, we make no moral judgments
on it, whether practiced by a high-priced call girl or a woman forced
into the trade by a debt to a criminal gang or by the hard, mean,
racist reality of capitalism.
Some argue that prostitution is not a "crime without a victim"
because the prostitutes themselves are victims. The leader of the
Russian Revolution, V.I. Lenin, identified the source of the prostitute'
victimization: "They are unfortunate double victims of bourgeois
society. Victims, first, of its accursed system of property and,
secondly, of its accursed moral hypocrisy" (Clara Zetkin, "My
Recollections of Lenin," in The Emancipation of Women
[New York: International Publishers, 1934]). But prostitutes are
not the victims of the act of prostitution itself. As Masters and
Johnson explain, "The detrimental side of female prostitution
is not the sexual activity itself but the evils that often accompany
prostitution: exploitation by organized crime and/or pimps, sexually
transmitted disease, drug addiction, the physical risks of 'kinky'
sex or assault by a customer, and the inability to save money for
future needs." We would add that in many societies the stigma
of "immoral" sex (which means anything outside of marriage)
can lead to permanent ostracism or even murder, as in the "honor
killings" of women who have "disgraced" their families.
The very criminalization of prostitution forces the prostitute
into a lumpen milieu, which complicates or denies her access to
social services and where she is more vulnerable to organized crime
and to the whims of her pimp. It also serves as a source of police
corruption and individual victimization. We oppose all laws against
"crimes without victims" and fight for the separation
of church and state. We are opposed to government interference in
people's private, sexual lives, as well as to any categorical criminalization
of a sex act, such as the reactionary "age of consent"
laws that try to dictate a sexless existence to teenagers. We advocate
the concept of effective consent, that is, mutual understanding
and agreement is what matters in all sexual acts.
In calling for an end to these laws we do not believe, however,
that these practices should be a matter of indifference to the socialist
movement. Recreational drug use is nobody else's business, but widespread
drug addiction and alcoholism sap the revolutionary energy of the
working class and other sections of the oppressed. The social oppression
that breeds alcoholism and drug addiction among the poor should
be fought through the moral authority of the proletarian
socialist movement, and not through state coercion. The government's
anti-drug witchhunt has unleashed massive cop terror in the ghettos
and barrios and imprisoned many hundreds of thousands.
In the case of immigrant prostitutes, it is also necessary to fight
against racist deportations and for full citizenship rights for
all in the country where they live, however they got there. Domestic
workers and prostitutes are especially vulnerable since they are
isolated in their employers' homes or on the street, separated from
social production and the labor movement. Yet immigrant women workers
form a part of the growing and increasingly combative immigrant
sector of the American working class. The contradiction is captured
in Ken Loach's film Bread and Roses, the story of the fight
to organize the largely undocumented workers who clean the corporate
office buildings of Los Angeles. The movie focuses on immigrant
Latina sisters, one who sleeps with the boss to get her sister a
job, the other who leads the
unionization effort for the Service Employees International Union
"Justice for Janitors" campaign. Far from being helpless
victims, immigrant women workers will play a powerful role as revolutionary
fighters in the multiracial, internationalist party of the working
class that we Marxists are striving to build. Such a party would
also fight against all instances of women's oppression as part of
its mission to link the needs of the most downtrodden and degraded
victims of capitalism to the social power of the proletariat.
A Necessary Institution of Capitalist Society
In his classic Marxist text on women's oppression, The Origin of
the Family, Private Property, and the State (New York: International
Publishers, 1972), Friedrich Engels says of the status of women
in ancient Greece:
"In Euripides [Orestes] a woman is called
an oikurema, a thing (the word is neuter) for looking after
the house, and, apart from her business of bearing children, that
was all she was for the Athenian - his chief female domestic servant.
The man had his athletics and his public business from which women
were barred; in addition, he often had female slaves at his disposal
and during the most flourishing days of Athens an extensive system
of prostitution which the state at least favored. It was precisely
through this system of prostitution that the only Greek women of
personality were able to develop, and to acquire that intellectual
and artistic culture by which they stand out as high above the general
level of classic womanhood as the Spartan women by their
qualities of character. But that a woman had to be a hetaera
before she could be a woman is the worst condemnation of the Athenian
In his book Engels, basing himself on the scientific information
then available, traces the development of the institution of the
family from primitive communist tribes or clans through the division
of society into classes. Ancient hunter-gatherer society was one
of equality between men and women, where the necessary division
of labor, based on women's
childbearing role, entailed no subordination by sex. Since only
the mother of a child was known, kinship was generally determined
through the female line. But with the development of a patriarchal
property-owning ruling class, it was necessary to have a sure means
for the inheritance of property and power, and that meant the enforced
fidelity of the wife to determine the paternity of the children.
The state arose to ensure the dominance of the ruling class by force.
was born the monogamous family in which marriage meant the subjugation
of women by men and the destruction of mother-right. As Engels said,
"the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal
property" brought about "the world historical
defeat of the female sex."
Engels critiques bourgeois marriage customs of his own time, when
the nubile daughters of the ruling class were hawked to the highest
bidder in the marriage mart (the subject of many 19th-century European
novels). He comments:
"This marriage of convenience turns often enough
into the crassest prostitution - sometimes of both partners, but
far more commonly of the woman, who only differs from the ordinary
courtesan in that she does not let out her body on piecework as
a wage worker, but sells it once and for all into slavery. And of
all marriages of convenience Fourier's words hold true: 'As in grammar
two negatives make an affirmative, so in matrimonial morality two
prostitutions pass for a virtue'."
It is the institution of the family that brings money
into sexual relations. Whether it's renting a prostitute
by the hour or a wife by the lifetime, the family and the oppression
of women are founded on private property, and the religious codes
of morality and capitalist law are all that distinguish the wife
from the prostitute in this fundamental sense. It is a matter of
statistical record that many women suffer a decrease in their standard
of living as a result of divorce, while access to health care in
the U.S. depends on a job or being married to someone who has a
job. While the dowry and bride price are no longer common in Western
societies, obvious examples today of the relationship between money
and marriage are palimony, pre-nuptial agreements and the divorce
law business, the subject of the screwball comedy Intolerable
In capitalist society today, one purpose of the institution of
the family is to impose on the working class the burden of rearing
the next generation. The mother is subjugated to domestic drudgery
and the care and nursing of the young, the old and the sick, and
the children are raised to be the next generation of wage-workers
and taught to respect authority. The family also has a conservatizing
hold on the man, who is supposed to support his family as part of
the very definition of manhood. That a large section of the population
- if not the majority - does not live this way only serves to drive
the bourgeoisie into a frenzy of "family values" reaction
as it attempts to shore up its tottering institution.
The "conjugal partnership of leaden boredom, known as 'domestic
bliss'," Engels tells us, has yet another result: "Together
with monogamous marriage and hetaerism, adultery became an unavoidable
social institution - denounced, severely penalized, but impossible
to suppress." The difficulty is that our group-living mammalian
species adapts to lifelong heterosexual monogamy about as well as
you can stop a volcano from erupting. Despite punishments as cruel
as stoning to death (for example, as mandated in the Bible), people
persist in flouting the mandated "correct" sexual behavior,
and they are remarkably imaginative about it. From this conflict
between the demands of class society and
the most intimate personal feelings and desires comes the alienation,
the ugly hypocrisy, the misery and frustration, and the tales of
ecstatic love, that are the subject of works of art from Lancelot
and Guinevere to La Traviata and The Hours.
The prostitute is a player at all levels. On the sexual level,
she compensates for the hangups and fears that can keep especially
women from enjoying sex. Many customers come to prostitutes for
"kinky" sex - the kind of thing you want to hide from
your wife, neighbors, family and associates. Certainly gay male
prostitution is a prime example of this. As social historian Hilary
Evans says inHarlots, Whores and Hookers: A History of Prostitution
(New York: Dorset Press, 1979), it is necessary to "recognise
what perceptive madams and prostitutes have known for years: that,
except at the lowest level, the prostitute is providing much more
than just a physical body to meet a physical need."
The German Marxist August Bebel said in his classic work Woman
in the Past, Present and Future, "Prostitution becomes
a necessary social institution, just as much as the police, the
standing army, the church, the capitalist." While we oppose
the criminalization of prostitution under capitalist law, we see
prostitution as a component of the oppression of women, an analogue
to the institution of the family. Under socialism, the family will
be replaced by communal childcare and housework, enabling women
to participate fully in economic, social and political life. Job
training and education will be open to all, with a stipend for all
students, which will enable teenagers to live independently of their
families. Birth control and abortions will be free and on demand,
with free, quality health care for all. Sex will be
free from the snooping of preachy busybodies and corrupt cops. The
liberation of the prostitute can't be separated from the liberation
of women as a whole, and prostitution will die only as the institution
of the family is replaced. For women's liberation is through socialist
The "White Slavery" Panic in the
U.S. and the Status of Women
Splashed on the cover of the New York Times Magazine on
25 January 2004, Peter Landesman's "Sex Slaves on Main Street:
The Girls Next Door" painted a sensationalist picture of seemingly
normal family homes on every other block harboring women who are
held in "sex slavery" and are "sometimes killed."
It turns out that Landesman manipulated or left out some facts.
Among other problems, he neglected to mention that one of his main
sources, the former "sex slave" Andrea, who can't remember
her real name or her age, is recovering from multiple personality
disorder. The controversy over Landesman's article resulted in a
formal acknowledgment by the New York Times that some errors
had been committed. The sensationalist cover of the magazine, showing
the body and knee-socked legs of a school girl, was misleading;
the Times admitted that the girl is actually 19 years old,
and the photo was retouched to remove her school insignia, in violation
of the Times' policy against altering photos. However,
the Times stated that it
stood by the facts in Landesman's article. Now a movie based on
the article is in the works, with a script by Landesman and to be
directed by Roland Emmerich, known for such sci-fi thrillers as
Landesman's over-the-top sensationalism could have come right out
of the "white slavery" hysteria that swept Europe and
the United States 100 years ago. When populations not of Protestant
Northern European extraction began to dominate immigration into
the U.S., this development ignited profound racist and nativist
reactions with accompanying
hysteria over sex, religion and culture. Thus, while official government
policy toward immigration is largely determined by the labor needs
of the economy, social and cultural questions play an important
This was probably most dramatically seen first in reaction to the
Chinese immigration in the American West, particularly with regard
to women. The federal Page Law of 1875 forbade the entry of Chinese,
Japanese and "Mongolian" contract laborers, and of women
for the purpose of prostitution. This exclusion effectively banned
all Chinese women from joining their husbands, except for the families
of merchants, from 1882 to 1943, when the law was finally changed.
So a lively trade in prostitutes from China arose, where someone
could buy a girl and ship her overseas to a brothel - real sex slavery.
In some cases, when impoverished Chinese families sold their daughters
into American prostitution, the women faithfully sent hundreds of
dollars home to help their families. The women often stunned social
workers by refusing to leave their sexual bondage for Christian
missions. Real prostitutes have always had more complicated hopes
and fears than the mythic creatures the moral reformers went forth
Prostitution became a national obsession during the Progressive
Era, roughly from 1900 to 1920, when a period of capitalist reform
made the vice laws what they are today. Progressivist reformers
sought to clean up what they considered to be the worst abuses of
capitalist exploitation in the urban centers, from lack of health
care to slum housing and dangerous working conditions. Some of the
political attributes of Progressivism are well illuminated by its
anti-prostitution drive, which was actually a debate about the status
of women in society and is documented in Intimate Matters: A
History of Sexuality in America, by John D'Emilio
and Estelle B. Freedman (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
The new wave of immigration after 1900 was largely from South and
East Europe; for example, Italians, Polish Jews and Russians. At
the same time, birth rates were going down among white Protestants
as the divorce rate went up, prompting cries of "race suicide."
This was also the period of an unprecedented entry of women into
the workforce other than domestic service. From 1900 to 1910 the
number of female wage earners went from 5.3 to 7.6 million, a 43
percent increase, concentrated in office, telephone and factory
work. At the same time unionism and political activism grew among
women workers - which was definitely not to the credit of the racist,
anti-woman AFL craft union bureaucracy. In New York City, for example,
on 8 March 1908 women workers on the Lower East Side first celebrated
what was to become International Women's Day. In 1909 shirtwaist
workers went on strike in the city.
This growth of wage work meant the emergence of a layer of young,
independent, working-class women in the cities. It's the classic
Marxist point that the entry of women into the labor force represents
the first step in their liberation from the family yoke. In 1914,
a report by the Massachusetts Vice Commission put it this way: "The
independence of working girls brings temptations, and makes them
intolerant of restraint. It has become the custom of young women
to go about freely, unaccompanied."
At this time prostitution was formally illegal but generally tolerated
in most American cities. Each city had its red-light district, such
as Storyville in New Orleans, the Levee in Chicago, the Barbary
Coast in San Francisco, where vice flourished. Of course the reform
movement went after them first. Anti-vice crusaders held marches
and outdoor prayer
meetings in red-light districts.
In 1909 a sensationalist panic burst on the scene, launched by
the Chicago magazine McClure's, which described an "international
Jewish white-slavery organization." The hysteria spread like
lightning as articles and books with titillating titles and lurid
illustrations poured out, charging a conspiracy to abduct and force
women into prostitution. This "white slave trade" was
described as an international, organized syndicate run by foreigners
who brought foreign prostitutes into the U.S. and also lured or
kidnapped thousands of innocent American maidens into a life of
slavery and sin.
Dozens of cities launched investigations into prostitution and
"white slavery." A prime example is a Chicago Vice Commission
report of 1911, "The Social Evil in Chicago," which adopted
as its motto, "Constant and Persistent Repression of Prostitution
the Immediate Method: Absolute Annihilation the Ultimate Ideal."
Historian Mark Thomas Connelly describes these reports as identifying
"clandestine prostitution" as "almost any premarital
or nonmonogamous female sexual activity," i.e., any sex act
deemed a violation of bourgeois morality (The Response to Prostitution
in the Progressive Era [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina
Press, 1980]). The solution was to discourage women's departure
from traditional roles, and various measures were pursued to try
to force this to happen. Campaigners attacked ice cream parlors,
restaurants, dance halls, saloons and the automobile and demanded
censorship of movies, while they urged families to keep their daughters
home and out of the workforce. Since the "social evil"
was linked with
alcohol in the reformers' minds, the movement for Prohibition, which
became law in 1920, gained much momentum. Despite the hysteria,
very little evidence of a traffic in "white slaves" was
ever uncovered, and none at all of an organized international syndicate.
Prostitutes faced intimidation, exploitation and violence, which
only increased under this persecution. Those who were immigrants
suffered further. Racist reformers indignantly warned "respectable"
women to enter those "dangerous" Chinese laundries only
with an escort, lest they be ensnared in a Chinese brothel (James
A. Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American
History [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003]). By 1920
a panoply of laws had shut down the red-light districts and driven
prostitution underground and onto the street. Control of prostitution
changed hands from madams and prostitutes to pimps, mobsters and
cops. Physical violence rapidly increased.
The witchhunt came to a head with the outbreak of World War I,
when fears of sexually transmitted disease prompted government legislation
to "protect" military recruits from prostitutes. By the
end of the war some 30,000 women had been apprehended on suspicion
of prostitution and incarcerated, often without the benefit of due
process, trial, or legal
representation. The law permitted the government to incarcerate
any woman suspected to have a sexually transmitted disease, and
her lifestyle or rumored sex life could be reason enough for a medical
The Mann Act and the American Witchhunt
The most potent witchhunting law emerging from the "white
slavery" scare was the Mann Act (1910), which made it a federal
offense to transport women across state lines for "immoral
purposes." Over the next eight years, the Justice Department
obtained almost 2,200 convictions for trafficking in women. The
act's official title is the White Slave Traffic Act, but according
to historian David J. Langum, the first arrest was a madam escorting
five willing prostitutes from Chicago to Michigan (Crossing
Over the Line: Legislating Morality and the Mann Act [Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1994]). The Act was soon interpreted
by the Supreme Court to apply to noncommercial sex as well.
In the 1917 Caminetti case, two young married guys from Sacramento,
California got arrested for taking a train to Reno, Nevada with
their girlfriends. Enforcement of the Mann Act began the transformation
of the tiny Bureau of Investigation from a small Washington office
into the nationwide FBI.
One of the first victims of the Mann Act was heavyweight boxing
champion Jack Johnson, who was a hero to the oppressed black masses
across the country when he won his title. But the racists were not
going to allow Johnson to rest on his laurels, particularly since
he was known for his relationships with white women. When federal
agents persuaded white prostitute Belle Schreiber to testify that
Johnson had paid for her travel from Pittsburgh to Chicago for "immoral
purposes," the way was paved for an indictment under the Mann
Act. In May 1913 an all-white jury convicted Johnson, who was sentenced
to one year in prison.
The Mann Act is still law in the United States. While it has been
amended so that it cannot be so easily used against unmarried couples
who travel across state lines, other amendments have strengthened
its clout. It now applies to male "victims" as well, and
it has been used to crack down on gay prostitutes in Washington,
Unholy Alliance of Feminists and Religious
Today, stories of the perils of ice cream parlors and the like
are reserved for the witchhunt against a supposed national epidemic
of child abuse, which conflates everything from the brutal rape
and murder of Megan Kanka to consensual sex with a person under
18. It was not very long ago that even more ludicrous charges of
sex crimes grabbed headlines and mobilized police to persecute innocent
people. Throughout the 1980s dozens of people went to jail, charged
with crimes that never happened, in the panic over "Satanic
ritual abuse" of children in day-care centers. This hysteria
was also braintrusted by the capitalist state, the religious right
and the U.S. feminist movement.
This unholy alliance began in the 1980s when Women Against Pornography
declared porn to be the "cause" of violence against women,
and Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon drafted a law (later
ruled unconstitutional) that redefined pornography as the "sexually
explicit subordination of women." Feminist ideology played
a major role in supporting and justifying the government censorship
drive for busts that closed down mom-and-pop stores that rented
x-rated videos and spurred attacks on erotic art. Meanwhile, anti-abortion
bigots were torching clinics and threatening abortion doctors with
death, but the reaction of the mainstream feminist movement was
to call on the racist, anti-woman
state to "protect" abortion rights. Today the feminists
call on that same state to supposedly "liberate" prostitutes
and "sex slaves" through the anti-trafficking campaign.
The feminist guru of the crusade against "sex slavery"
is Kathleen Barry, professor of sociology in the Department of Human
Development and Family Studies at Pennsylvania State University.
Her book Female Sexual Slavery (New York: Prentice-Hall,
1979) is considered the seminal work in the anti-trafficking movement.
Barry later updated her views to cut a wide swathe indeed in the
definition of "sex slavery":
"Female sexual slavery includes not only women in
prostitution who are controlled by pimps but wives in marriages
who are controlled by husbands and daughters who are incestuously
assaulted by fathers. My definition...breaks away from traditional
distinctions between "forced" and "free" prostitution
and between wives and whores. When women and/or girls are held over
time, for sexual use, they are in conditions of slavery....Slavery
is one aspect of the violation of women and children in prostitution,
in marriage, and in families."
- The Prostitution of Sexuality (New York:
New York University Press, 1995)
Just in case she left anything out, Barry argues that whatever
isn't "sex slavery" is sexual exploitation. Women, you
see, believe in love, but men just want sex. She wrote a 381-page
book just to rehash that old tripe.
The voluminous anti-trafficking literature is peppered with references
and footnotes to Barry's writings, which give the cachet of academic
respectability to what is simply anti-sex ranting. But Barry is
no mere theoretician. She conducted her first international meetings
on the subject in 1980, moving on to an international conference
in Rotterdam in 1983. In 1988 she founded the CATW, which lobbies
mightily to change anti-prostitution laws so that, as is now the
law in Sweden, it's the "customer" who is penalized instead
of the prostitute.
The Network of Sex Work Projects, an organization that fights for
the rights of sex workers, organized a demonstration in protest
of CATW policies at the July 2002 International Conference on AIDS
in Barcelona. Their leaflet, "The Anti-Sex Work Anti-Trafficking
Agenda: A Threat to Sex Workers' Health and Human Rights" (www.nswp.org),
states in part:
"CATW recently published a 'hit list' of organisations
receiving US funding, accusing them of "promoting prostitution."
This hit list includes well-known and well-respected organisations
HIV care and prevention services."
The CATW was one of 13 feminist organizations that lobbied the
U.S. Congress for the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection
Act; others included the Feminist Majority, the National Organization
for Women and Equality Now. They joined forces with anti-abortion
bigot Congressman Chris Smith, a sponsor of the bill, and the International
Justice Mission, a group of Christian missionaries that launches
raids on Asian brothels to "liberate" the prostitutes,
while the Dateline NBC cameras roll. As a reward for the feminist
contributions, Laura Lederer, director of the anti-trafficking Protection
Project and editor of the anti-pornography bible Take Back the
Night, was given a prominent position in the U.S. State Department's
For Women's Liberation Through Socialist
In functioning as an ideological prop of the capitalist state,
the American feminist establishment is simply fulfilling its role
as the voice of those bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women whose
only quarrel with capitalist society is that it denies them full
access to the boys' club of ruling-class power. But for most women
the system of capitalist imperialism means unemployment, homelessness
and lack of health care, or for Third World women, oppressive practices
like female genital mutilation or enforced segregation under the
veil. In the Third World, most women get to watch their children
die and die young themselves, often in childbirth or after some
botched abortion. To single out prostitution as somehow a problem
towering over this brutality can only play into the hands of the
bourgeois ideologues backing up U.S. imperialism.
The "sex slavery" crusade is a cynical and dangerous
business because it both legitimizes government persecution of immigrants
and invokes state authority to intervene as moral arbiter in our
most intimate affairs. It bolsters the anti-sex witchhunt as a whole
and deflects attention from the real violence perpetrated every
day against women and children under this class system. The social
alienation of a system in which the mass of people are tools for
the enrichment of the very few is compounded by the institutionalized
inequalities of race, religion, nationality and sex. Violence against
women springs in part from the deep sexual insecurities fostered
by repression and social irrationality.
Women have fought in the front ranks of every revolutionary struggle
on this planet, from the women of Paris who marched on Versailles
at the beginning of the Great French Revolution of 1789 to the women
workers who sparked the Russian Revolution on International Women's
Day 1917 with a march demanding food for their starving families.
Today the struggle for women's rights has assumed even more political
importance after the capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR and
East Europe. The International Communist League looks to organizing
the courage and
dedication of militant women workers under the banner of the revolutionary
proletarian party. The precondition for women's emancipation is
the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order, which exploits
women as workers and oppresses them as household drudges.
As we said in "The 'Date Rape' Issue: Feminist Hysteria, Anti-Sex
Witchhunt" (Women and Revolution No. 43, Winter 1993-Spring
"To create genuinely free and equal relations between people
in all spheres, including sex, requires nothing less than the
destruction of this class system and the creation of a communist
world. In a classless society social and economic constraints
over sexual relations will be non-existent, and in the words of
Frederick Engels, 'there is no other motive left except mutual