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Address to the People’s Tribunal on Commercial Sexual Exploitation

By Lee Lakeman
March 2011

The People’s Tribunal on Commercial Sexual Exploitation was organized by La CLES (Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuelle), in Montreal, March 2011

I want to give my support to the accusations against the global sex industry.

Indeed I observe from my place in the work against sexist violence that the sex industry is guilty of overwhelming overpowering that is dominating our government, our community and our selves.

To see it we must observe NOT JUST INDIVIDUAL ACTS of sexual exploitation and INDIVIDUAL JOHNS BUT ALSO A GLOBAL SEX INDUSTRY.

Observe the sheer numbers of men:  Some say one in eight are purchasing sex.

Observe that the men of all nations and all classes buy sex.

We know that the men of the north and the west are buying all over the world from women of all classes and races because they have the wealth and power to do so unchecked.

There is a hierarchy of exploitation based mostly on sex class and race and therefore a hierarchy of responsibility based on the same hierarchy.

The amount of profit being exploited in the sex industry is horrifying if as yet unfathomable;  the harm in spite of what we know and hear here in still untold.

The industry is a system not just a collection of individuals or individual events of exploitation but a set of destructive human relations and anti-social processes.

I say that prostitution/ trafficking is best thought of as Violence Against Women.  That is: a control mechanism exercising social economic civil and political control over all women.

As in other forms of Violence Against Women, prostitution/ trafficking is a force created by the individual physical acts of each man against each woman.

But the aggregation or sum of the individual parts with the collusion of others is a much greater thing, a complex set of human relations, a much stronger structure a more formidable force of repression.


We know from more than forty years of observing and fighting to end wife assault and rape that each act of sexist violence combines to create a force that terrorizes not only that particular battered, raped or prostituted woman in the present and into her future, but it also makes of her subjugation, an example with which to terrorize even those women who were not attacked, were not battered or raped this time, not this time brought to our knees. 

Each successful act of violence against a woman or girl does so.

Each patriarchal retelling of that story of subjugation becomes a cautionary tale a compelling  warning,  a warning that should we transgress, we might be next to be battered or raped or to have our children seduced to have our selves or our daughters sold.

We observe too that women who are trapped by extremes of age, by marriage, by disability or illness, by poverty and racism are more vulnerable to men who would abuse.   They have less escape routes, fewer protectors, fewer safe guards, few routes to justice.  So these women are chosen for that sexist abuse. 

Women left with the care of dependents; the old, the young, the sick and the needy will be chosen because men know and exploit that many will endure violence against women rather than abandon their responsibilities to their dependents.  This is as true in prostitution as in other forms of sexist violence from incest to abuse of old women.

We know too that each act of violence against women punishes women for acts of freedom.  “You are acting like a dyke” he will say or “you are being a slut” or “you should not have dared to be in public’’ ‘out at night”, “to dress like that”, “to flirt” or to “be such an angry bitch”.   “You are an unfit mother”, he will say when she refuses to submit in front of her children or “You are a disobedient daughter’’ when she reveals his incest.  “You could have been safe’’ if only you worked for a pimp or took long enough to observe through the car window or ‘’hired personal security‘  ‘’worked indoors’’ and did what you were told.

Alone we fight each man against unequal physical economic and social strength. 

In such ways, Violence Against Women is a force that controls individual women preventing their exercise of freedom. 

Many women are forced to give up their access to the public sphere including their access to public resources and their access to a public and therefore political life. 

Violence Against Women is also a force that prevents women from forming and acting as a group to advance.  

Together in public life we make demands both in our communities and at the ballot box.  We can demand that Aboriginal land claims must be settled, that police come as quickly when called by poor women as well by wealthy women, that men share in the caring work privately but also share by supporting public childcare, public healthcare and public education.   We can demand that men share the wealth of the planet with guaranteed livable incomes for each of us so that no woman lives enslaved by dependence.  Collectively we can insist that borders must allow women to immigrate and that natural resources are not for corporate exploitation and destruction.   Collectively we can enforce legislation that forbids men from exploiting women and children anywhere.

Violence Against Women, including in the form of prostitution prevents women individually and collectively from accessing freedom, from creating freedom, from fighting for freedom.

Violence Against Women including prostitution is both a cause of and a result of women’s oppression and we must abolish it.


The challenge to this industry implicates voluntary workers, customers, promoters, owners and developers. 

It spotlights debilitating human relations and criminally destructive social and economic processes with women as the raw material and prostitutes as the created objects, in which the hyper-sexualization of girls is a necessary industrialized process and human sexual relations are reduced to the crude economics of buyers and sellers.

But there are also observers and witnesses in social processes; girls watching are taught what to expect of acts of freedom, of sexual relations, forewarned of sexual and economic and social relations to come.

They and we become the prostituted.

In spite of feminism, women’s liberation is not yet at hand. 

We are all living in the belly of the beast of patriarchy. 

In the continued colonization of prostitution/trafficking, Aboriginal girls and women are served up as targets for men’s sexualized rage on reserve and off.  Driven from home and land by incest, wife assault and rape, Aboriginal women are trucked to and ghettoized in urban impoverished red light districts, forced to live in public and too often rendered available to “curb crawlers” as “street women”, more valued dead than alive.   

In the libratory work of the last four decades, we as a feminist movement have opened education and jobs, sexual rights and reproductive rights to many women.  But we did not succeed in pressing the individual men in our lives, in either Quebec or Canada to equally share the work of caring for our parents, our children, each other or of the community.

Just as we achieved those few changes for some women, patriarchy rebounded with a roaring backlash of sexist domination, an intensified globalization of capital and a new wave of global imperialism that stole as many options away.  As men transferred their losses to us they widened a chasm of economic differences between women.

As we women in Canada and Quebec became less compliant with sexism, less constrained in our choices, men in our lives more boldly refused to embrace the social transformation to public equality to equal households and egalitarian sexuality. 

They still demand that women, any women, but women under sexist control, care for the babies, the old, the sick, the household and the imagined emotional and sexual needs of men.

Unable to press us any further because of the requirement that we work outside the house and because of our resistance as the women’s movement, they have lent their voices, their political support, their votes, to the government supported profiteering of prostitution/trafficking.  Rather than change they colonize the women of the first nations and import women of the third world to those acts of work and submission.

“Guest worker” and “domestic worker” programs in which Philippine nannies and Latino domestic workers, the Caribbean aids in the old age homes, work without pay equity without the rights of a citizen or any future as a citizen but also work with the constant threat of sexual exploitation.

They do men’s share of the caring work and sometimes our share in order to send home pay checks for their children to lands from which multinational corporations and gangs continue to strip and export the resources, sometimes even the women.    

We watch the Eastern European strippers, the Asian massage parlour workers and Black escorts knowing that the poorest women born among us as well as these imported racialized women are pressed into the squalid acts of feeding male egos and satisfying a distorted masculine sexuality from which we have ourselves barely or only partially escaped.

Let us talk about the PROFITEERS and their hold on our government.  Sex trafficking for the purposes of prostitution is now a global trade larger than the traffic for cheap manufacturing labour, supplementing some and larger than the economy of many countries.

The sex industry makes common cause with other global profit making systems of patriarchy.  Those systems co-operate  to reduce and undermine any power of our governments to regulate and limit, to control or refuse the meanness of capitalism and the viciousness of violence against women.

Neo-liberalism buys our government and reshapes it to serve profit-makers not women.  Since 1995 in the pan Canadian context, unevenly but steadily, corporate forces have dictated to and restructured our governments. 

We have lost control of and access to liveable welfare rates and and humane social welfare policies, of progressive intelligent immigration policies, of labour rights and adequate wages and of pension security and legal aid programs, of childcare and old age homes and funds for women’s groups.

We are offered the decriminalization of prostitution instead of income security. 

Increasingly the government refuses to protect women from sexist violence saying to us that in this era of privatization, that the government has no obligation to protect and that in fact freedom dictates that each woman hire her own security and then hire lawyers to sue for our rights when that privatization of protection against Violence Against Women fails.

The government says to us and to the courts that it is up to each woman alone to ‘choose’ a safe man, a safe job, and a safe place to live, to create safe conditions as though we could defend ourselves against the men who will choose to sell sexist violence to other men as pleasure and as if we could detect when and who among the men will choose to rape and beat and kill.   

There is an ideology and propaganda to this sex industry.

Patriarchy including capitalism is also like a religion and makes common cause with other religions in that it governs with ideas and priests as well as with money and with brute force.

This religion like almost all religions carries some of the same ideas:  that women are less worthy, that women and women’s sexuality must be controlled, that men are superior and that the subjugated chose their fates that those on the bottom choose to be on the bottom. 

In this most recent version of Patriarchy, this neoliberal version, we have the religion-like attachment to competitive individualism, to ideas of every woman and man for himself, to ideas of greed as normal, to ideas of corporate bottom lines and gross national product as the only measure of wealth and community well- being and we have ecological global madness at a level unprecedented.

It is not possible to wall off parts of the world for destruction while protecting other parts, nor to exploit the women of one part of the world without contaminating social relations everywhere.

The exploitation of other women’s lands and resources force their migration from homelands in the north and outer edges of Canada as well as from the poorest parts of Asia and Africa from the Caribbean and south America.

Any map will show you that sex trafficking and sex tourism thrive not only on the domination of women by men but also where the population is  poor and so poor as to be desperate.

Patriarchy’s capitalists require governments to assist the subjugation of women and the profit making by providing laws and policies that support that both.  

The Harper conservative government today and each provincial government and city government in cooperation with other patriarchal forces has refused to protect women from violence including by refusing to curtail the sex industry.  As yet no party provincial or federal has declared for the abolition of this violence against women.  They interfere neither with domestic prostitution nor with international trafficking of women and girls for prostitution.

They repeat shamefully to us that the criminalization of women for the poverty ‘crime’ of being prostituted whether internationally or domestically is a matter of desirable ‘law and order’ and the decriminalization of the international sex industry makes business sense.

Just as individual acts of violence count so do individual acts of resistance count.  The individual testimonies of women here tell us so.

The heroism of telling one’s womanly life as a victory story is of value to the rest of us.  Each escapee or survivor of the sex industry who dares to speak and to speak again, also creates a force, a force of liberty and each of us who retells her and our story, as one of dignity and heroism helps to generate that force.

The humiliation one feels in subjugation may be rendered more bearable in compassion but is utterly transformed in the solidarity of freedom-making action.

The humiliation one experiences in witnessing women’s subjugation is similarly transformed by bearing witness to and participating in liberation.

I accuse patriarchy in the form of the global sex industry

of colluding with individual men to overwhelm and overpower individual women in our search for safety and security and freedom.

I accuse the sex industry of overwhelming overpowering and undermining what solidarity we have generated in our communities with nonsense business propaganda about women’s choices and men’s entitlement.

I accuse them in lies to hide power of publishing and distributing defeatist propaganda feigning the helplessness of government to stand up for something more than ongoing exploitation, more than business.

I accuse the international sex industry of overwhelming overpowering  and dominating what measure of democracy women have been able to win from governments.

They break with the international instruments and agreements like the Palermo Accord

The international women’s movement and the men of good will mean to assure each other protection for women and girls from commercial exploitation and from government neglect of women and children and to confirm among and between ordinary people, that women have a natural and chosen right to peace and freedom. 

Violence Against Women including prostitution will be abolished.

Lee Lakeman

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