Re-define who you think a sex worker is and how “willing” s/he is to be one

I’ve been reading all that I can about sex trafficking lately, ever since I started my internship at the Somaly Mam Foundation office in New York City, a nonprofit that supports organizations actively fighting to stop sex trafficking and to rescue trafficking victims. Somaly Mam’s autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, is an inspiring and disturbing account of her childhood, when she was sold into sex slavery, and of her discovery of her life’s purpose: to save other girls from suffering the same fate and to stand up against the people who greatly profit from buying and selling children and women. I also recently read Rachel Lloyd’s memoir, Girls Like Us, which talks about sex trafficking in the United States, and in particular, New York City. Lloyd clearly lays out every step of the process that leads to girls entering the industry, and the psychology of the people who judge them as “women” and “willing prostitutes” instead of the vulnerable, often abused and deceived young girls that they are.

New to my list is a non-fictional account of the sex industry in Mumbai, India called “Beautiful Thing” by Sonia Faleiro. Leela, the 19 year old protagonist, is a bar dancer in a Mumbai nightclub called ‘Night Lovers’. She tells Faleiro in the book that she is grateful to be a bar dancer, when she was pushed into the sex industry by her father when she was 13 and repeatedly raped when she protested. The other women’s stories in the book are similar: many are from small villages, and were raped or sold when they were younger.

The New York Times wrote a beautiful article about this book, and commented: “Leela urges the author not to pity her. “When you look at my life, don’t look at it beside yours,” she implores. “Look at it beside the life of my mother and her mother and my sisters-in-law who have to take permission to walk down the road.”

This book, by its end, seems to have taken something out of Ms. Faleiro. You get the sense she’d like to close with even a hint of optimism, but that’s hard to muster. Instead she quotes the gangster, Sharma, who explains that Leela will probably someday preside over a small brothel herself.

Sharma issues a line that will ring in your ears. “She will sell her daughter, even if she is her only child, her only family, because her mother sold her, and who is her daughter to deserve better?”

Leela, were she to read “Beautiful Thing,” would probably spark up a cigarette and tell us where to stuff our horror and pity. She’d agree with the dancers who declared, within the author’s earshot, “Tears are the indulgences of those who haven’t suffered enough.””

Why do we look the other way when we see sex workers? If they seem to be very young, why do we still think of these girls as women, and consenting women at that? Why do we believe that a sex worker is always “doing that kind of work voluntarily” if so many of them were abused, broken, and raped as children? How can we judge a sex worker if we do not know how her family raised and treated her, and how many other opportunities to make money she saw for herself? More importantly, how can we break the vicious cycle of poverty that creates the perfect victims for the ever-growing and profitable sex industry?

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