By Hannah Blair
If seven out of ten women don’t want to be in the commercial sex industry, then why don’t they leave? No one is holding a gun to their head – they could just get up and walk out, right?
When people think about women working in strip clubs and brothels, they picture women who find pleasure in peddling their bodies for some quick cash. They picture women who have simply chosen to work in the commercial sex industry, but this isn’t the full picture.
Catherine MacKinnon said, “If prostitution is a free choice, why are the women with the fewest choices the ones most often found doing it?” The women you see in strip clubs and brothels are primarily there due to a lack of choice. No one fights to work in the commercial sex industry against all odds. Rather, women find themselves there when the odds beat them. The truth is that most women don’t turn to selling their bodies as an entirely free choice from a plethora of good options. The commercial sex industry is full of women driven there by the exploitation of vulnerabilities and the lack of alternatives. The vast majority of sex workers don’t wake up each day excited to get paid for the degradation and abuse of their bodies.
Whether those in the sex industry hate or love their “job,” many don’t plan on working in the industry forever. But the same complex reasons pushing women into the sex industry are the same complex reasons that make it challenging for them to leave.
Some women in the industry are there because of poverty and an absence of other necessary resources. They are pulled into the life by a desperate need for income and staying in the industry can become a way of survival. In a survey consisting of 475 women who were working in the commercial sex trade, 92% of them said they wanted to leave but they didn’t have a safe place to live, job training, sufficient health care, or access to therapy and other treatment services.
A big problem many of these women face is the lack of alternatives. It’s just about impossible to afford the cost of living making minimum wage. College students have been known to work in strip clubs because they can’t afford to pay their bills on top of what they owe for student loans. Ironically, the education they sought to set them on a sustainable career path is the very thing that is putting them on the verge of homelessness. There have been cancer patients who succumb to working in the industry because the costs of chemotherapy and other necessary treatments are out of reach without the supplemental income of selling their bodies. Some single mothers gravitate to the life because they might make too much money from their day jobs to qualify for state benefits, but they receive no child support and struggle just to make ends meet. The fear of losing their children to a broken system drives them to a world that takes more than it gives.
Many women in the sex industry end up with a criminal record, which presents issues with getting sustainable employment. Women who have spent many years in the life also have gaps in employment and may not be able to show necessary job trainings. They stay in the sex industry because they have no other way to support themselves. It can sometimes boil down to working in the clubs to put a roof over their head and food on their table or leaving the industry and having to live on the streets. Which would you choose?
By Hannah Blair
Dear Sex Buyer,
From the moment your eyes lock with mine, I cringe and you crave. There is an overwhelming fear that shudders through my body – the fear of not knowing what will happen or what is expected of me. I want to crawl out of my skin while you are trying to seduce your way in, and I am once again required to give my body to a man who tramples on the will of women. But you paid me, right? Money is a silencer—the reparation for unwelcome sex. And when you have been compensated, you have no right to complain.
You make small talk with me, trying to justify your rationale behind paying a young woman for sex. I put on an act. You might be the eighth person I have seen tonight, but I give you my devotion like you are the only one. For you, a night with me is nothing but a quick fix. But for me? It feels like eternity. Afterwards, I feel dirty; I should not have to scrub that feeling off my skin.
While this may be a regular occurrence for you, you need to know the truth. What you did, what you are doing, is not okay.
When you praised my appearance, my physique, or my “bedroom abilities,” you only saw that which fit in with your pre-conceived illusion of a raunchy woman with a never-ending sex drive.
When you wiped my tears, you did not acknowledge my emotion, because doing so would not support your artifice that I wanted to be there with you. You only had one objective, and that was to demonstrate your power by paying me to use my body as you saw fit.
When you thought you were doing me a courtesy by talking about the weather—that you were giving me a break from a hard night’s work—it did nothing for me but confirm that I was not worth more; that I was an instrument whose sole purpose was to please you.
How convenient it is for men like you who wish to elude the “complications” of relationships to be serviced by women who are forced to work lengthy hours for little wages. How opportune to live your life “split,” one foot in the world that everyone sees and the other in a world shrouded by darkness. Your wife believes the lie you sowed that you are working a long day at the office. What she does not know is that before you leave work for the day, you excitedly search the ads you bookmarked, ecstatic with the power and pleasure of being able to pick any woman you want. You have someone waiting for you at home who is clueless to the demons you have inside, and I have a slave master waiting in the parking lot with a dose of heroin and a knife. In the end, we both lose.
As far as your mortality goes, I look for the good. I know that somewhere inside, you have some kind of conscience; that you have silently questioned whether what you did was morally and honestly justifiable. I also know that you defend your actions and likely think you treated me well and never violated my boundaries. But you know what? That is called evading your responsibility. You are not confronting reality. You deceive yourself in believing that the women you buy are not truly bought; not forced into a life of sex work.
Now you know. You can no longer pretend that you do not. You are not the exception. You are not the “good guy” who accidentally paid a broken woman for unwanted sex. You, as a buyer of sex, are never the victim. You are satisfying your own appetite at the expense of another human being, a marauder who takes what you want with no regard to the cost of your feeding.
You think you have the right. You truly believe that you only buy sex from women who are willing, women with all the choices in the world. But reality is different and you can no longer have a clear conscience.
Trafficking exists because men like you feel you have the right to satisfy your sexual urges using other peoples’ bodies.
Trafficking exists because you and your peers feel that your sexuality requires access to sex whenever it suits you.
I was exploited – both by those who pimped me and those who bought me. But I am stronger than you know. You did not break me. I will survive this, and so will you. The difference? I will grow. I will thrive and heal and overcome the brokenness I faced at the hands of another. But you? You will have to live with what you have done. You will have to live the rest of your days knowing you contributed to the violent exploitation of a woman who had no choice. And when the moment ends, let me remind you: I still cringe as you crave your next victim.
By Hannah Blair
On Saturday nights, as most families are gathering around the supper table or binging their favorite TV shows, volunteers with Hadassah’s Hope prepare to minister to women in the sex industry. As they enter into local strip clubs, the atmosphere shifts. They bring gifts and homecooked meals, opening up doors for conversations. They learn the names of the dancers, which allows them to pray with and for them. They listen to each and every dancer’s heartbreaking story, intentionally pocketing certain information so they can connect the girls to any resource they may need should they make the harrowing choice to leave the commercial sex industry. They become a safe place and as a result, relationships are formed.
These strip clubs are filled with bright, resilient, and creative women. Some are single moms who were forced to get a second job to provide for their kids. Some were roped into a life of sex trafficking as a young child and grew up never knowing a different life was possible. Some were drawn in by the glamour of stripping presented to them on social media and didn’t realize it was a lie until it was too late. These are the women that the heart of Hadassah’s Hope beats for, because they know that as the women take their places to begin work for the night, seven out of ten truly don’t want to be there.
Some women are trafficked into the commercial sex industry; research has proven this is the vast majority. Strip clubs and other facets of the sex industry are often left out of discussions regarding trafficking. We say trafficking is iniquitous, yet an expansive venue for this crime is sanctioned not only to exist but to flourish. Sexually orientated establishments, like strip clubs, are epicenters for trafficking. Traffickers often force their victims to work in strip clubs because they act as a safe haven for this crime. Not only do traffickers utilize strip clubs to advertise their victims, but they can directly sell their “product” under the guise of a working girl and pocket the tips their victims bring in.
Some women begin working in strip clubs willingly. The appeal of making large amounts of cash quickly and the imagined glitz and glamour associated with being a stripper cause many young women to join these agencies unaware of how manipulative and abusive they really are.
Many find themselves quickly losing autonomy over their bodies and being coerced to continue having sex beyond their point of comfort. If they don’t do what is asked, their careers are threatened with blacklisting, pay is withheld, and penalty debts are incurred. They find themselves in debt bondage, barely making ends meet.
Some women begin working in strip clubs because they feel they have no other option. The single mom who finds herself working three jobs and is still unable to make ends meet may decide to become a stripper so she doesn’t lose her home and her children. The young college student who is desperate to be debt-free may choose the commercial sex industry in an attempt to pay off her student loans faster. The high school dropout who got hooked on drugs to deal with her childhood abuse may begin working in a strip club to help feed her drug habit.
In many cases, trafficking survivors fall into this category. Those who are able to escape from their trafficker often face difficulties reintegrating back into society. Many are unable to find housing because they have a criminal record or their trafficker ruined their credit. It can be difficult for them to secure sustainable employment because many never graduated high school. And more often than not, victims are taught they amount to nothing more than a body to be sold for sex, and without resources and a support system in play, many survivors end up back in the sex industry because they truly believe they don’t have a choice. Vulnerability creates fertile ground for re-exploitation.
This is why Hadassah’s Hope exists. Whether or not a dancer is there by “choice”, they are still afforded the opportunity to exit the sex industry with an array of resources designed to empower them. The commercial sex industry is a broad spectrum of complex and nuanced lived experiences and no one has the right to decide that a woman is unworthy of resources because they “chose” their situation.
Every woman deserves to be loosed from her chains, whether placed by someone else or by her own hands.
Bliss doesn’t come from ignorance. Complacency does, and now that you now know the truth, what will you do with it? It’s time to begin changing the misconceptions we hold about the disparities between sexual exploitation/sex trafficking and strip clubs. At the core, these two are one in the same.
Purchasing a woman off the street is deplorable. Why should buying a woman on a stage be any different?