Magazine myths

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Myth: Prostitution is glamorous, clients are good guys

In the Paris airport over the summer, the headline of the UK edition of Marie Claire caught my attention. “Prostitutes Interview Their Clients.”

I don’t know what I expected to read in the prostitution article but I was aghast in their portrayal of clients. Poor, sad, lonely men who are helped and encouraged by the prostitute to feel better about themselves and even be more “loyal” in their marriages because sex with a prostitute keeps them from “cheating.” The women in the article all had one reason for doing their job as a prostitute—the money. To support a family or pay for education. The men were kind to and appreciative of the prostitute. However, in reality the majority of prostitutes experience violence and rape throughout their career. For example, in one study completed on violence experienced by prostitutes, sixty-eight percent of sex worker interviewed reported being raped since entering prostitution. Forty-eight percent had been raped more than five times.

On the other hand, the magazine featured three sob story clients, sweet and needy. One said, “Coming to see you is my reward for being a good husband and father the rest of the time.” Another, “When I’m with you, I feel good about myself.”

The clear result of this article was glamorizing sex with a prostitute and the occupation itself by making it seem cushy and loving. All the men spoke so wonderfully of the woman and how much she enabled them to be better, happier men. Unfortunately this is not reality; it may be the truth in these 3 cases but not the majority. It is important to recognize that difference and recognize that there are myths being perpetuated by articles such as these. Myths that there is no violence, clients are kind and good men always, and the sex worker is happy and supported.

By contrast, in the Netherlands, I had the opportunity to speak with a former sex worker about her views on the industry. She helped me to see the underlying compromising damage and sadness in the work. Her perspective on men who buy sex differed very much from those presented by the article in Marie Claire.  To her, clients were often demanding– even abusive– and rarely respected the women they employ.

She told me, ”Customers think because they pay, they are in charge… so you [give] away something personal, something from yourself, something you’d rather not give. Emotionally, it’s dangerous to let somebody else make decisions about your body. It’s not a big thing but if it happens too many times a night, it becomes a big thing. If people constantly cross your boundaries, small ones, big ones, whatever, in the end, it does start to hurt you.” Clearly, unlike in the Marie Claire article, in the life of a prostitute, her choice is stripped from her on a daily basis; she is forced into impossible situations by men who believe they own her. Glamor there?

Furthermore, she told me about the terrible situation of sex workers around the world, saying,  ”Group rape among prostitutes is like a common thing over there [Vietnam]; customers can choose to have sex with or without a condom– it’s not an option for sex workers to choose. They don’t get any extra money if the customers choose to have sex without a condom. Of course the payment is really low. So, the customer is in charge all the way.” Violence and degradation is all too obvious in her words.

Moreover, she felt the industry changed her for life.  Even though she stopped being a sex worker over a decade ago, she remarked,  ”I see every man for the rest of my life as a potential customer…Even after work, a long, long time after it, you still look at people that way. Specifically men. You get a different view on people as a sex worker. I think sex workers are less naive in many ways. You become a little bit harder. If you have a lot of violent experiences, you become harder in a negative way.”

You see why the Marie Claire article hit me as so superficial and false. After having conversations like these and generally having an informed perspective on the violence affecting women worldwide, I am shocked that the article presented clients as simpering and sweet and the women as powerful and independent. In our world, prostitution is one more way that women are forced into abuse and stripped of their dignity. “Choice” to be a prostitute does not exist– women are driven to it out of economic need (majority of women say they became prostitutes for the money, which leads to the question, why are women’s bodies bought at huge sums but we don’t pay women the same amount as men in other jobs? #wagegap), women are trafficking into prostitution, women are placed in prostitution by socioeconomic status, lack of education and lack of societal support, women are taught by past experiences of abuse (80% of prostitutes have suffered childhood sexual abuse) that their worth is their physical self. There are countless reasons why women are sold into prostitution but the real question should be — the real question behind the Marie Claire article– why do we still think it’s kinda cool or pretty? There is this justification of it that is unfathomable to me– justifying with articles that paint a nice picture, justifying by saying women choose to do it, justify, justify, justify.

The next step right now is to acknowledge what trafficking and prostitution really means. Recognize and condemn the brutality many women face at the hands of men. If you are a man, stand up against it too. Say you choose respect and love and support. Say you will fight for it and against objectification. You won’t be alone —  read about ways men combat trafficking together through organizations like the Renaissance Male Project. Men who do that are the men who articles should be written about, who should be interviewed–not those clients who are perpetuating a cycle of  exploitation.

Myth: Women cry rape

The November 2010 cover of Cosmopolitan UK bears the headline- “Women who cry rape. What makes them lie and destroy lives?” OK, first off, false reports of rape exist. Yet, they are 2% of all rape reports. 2% are lies, NINETY-EIGHT percent are true.

By focusing on false reports, the magazine is highlighting the ideas that 1. women lie about rape 2. women “use” rape as a threat to destroy lives –and highlighting those ideas undermines the reality that women rarely lie about rape. Women rarely lie about rape. Again, women hardly ever lie about rape– and they are not out to destroy lives when they talk about it.

It takes immense courage to report rape and/or press charges; reporting it takes overcoming shame, self-blame, fear, victim-blaming, and drawing on an inner strength  to sustain reliving the experience on paper and in court. Women who undergo that battle are heroes.

Only, articles like this add to the repertoire of doubters in our culture, fuels a fire of disbelief in a society that already wants to doubt survivors and make them doubt themselves. Articles that focus on the liars overcome the truth-tellers. One article about a woman who lied? Then for every other article you see about someone trying to tell the truth, you also see people denying her and doubting her (because once they read an article about women who lie about that sort of thing).

For example, in the recent case of the Texas cheerleader,  one commentator declared about the 16-year-old survivor, “She’s either a liar or she was asking for it.”  In the case of 14-year old, Samantha Kelly, the stress of victim-blaming drove her to suicide. She felt no one supported her and that more people were on “his side” rather than hers.

So, if you’re reading the article here in Cosmopolitan that explains why women lie, instead you should ask the question, Why aren’t women telling the truth? When 1 in 4 women are affected by sexual violence in their lifetime — those women make up a quarter of the female population– why aren’t they telling THAT truth? What is it in our society that is keeping them from speaking out?

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Written by carolinashley

November 17, 2010 at 7:08 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Thank you for speaking out about this! I’m glad someone already has and I hope too see more conversation about rape myths. Victim blaming is really big problem; it’s a BIG reason why many women don’t report their assaults at all.

    Consider how much sexual assault and interpersonal violence is underreported. If every survivor reported, the false reporting rate would shrink to an even lower number than 2%, probably something like .000000001. And Cosmo might still write an article. So let’s all try to make people aware of the realities of rape. As Carolin said, why aren’t women coming forward about their REAL experiences?? Education people!

    Annie Clark

    November 17, 2010 at 10:05 pm


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