Archives for February 2009

The Security of Sex: Take This Job and Shove It

Last September, a recently graduated co-ed, going by the pseudonym Natalie Dylan, decided to put her virginity up for auction on the Moonlite Bunny Ranch website.  She has claimed that she is doing so for a number of reasons from social experiment to paying for graduate school.  What’s interesting here, remarkably, is not that there actually exists a 22 year-old co-ed whose virginity is intact or that she is able to command $3.7 million for the opportunity to pop it. Instead, the ambivalence expressed both in the popular and feminist media have raised larger issues as to how we discuss women’s sex work and female sexuality.  The media is fascinated, shocked and constantly debating whether or not this “poor girl” actually knows what she’s getting into, whether or not she’ll regret it. Would she regret it less if she lost it to a former beau in the back of a car or on a bed of roses or on her wedding night?  Who knows and, honestly, who cares? I am not concerned with virginity.  I don’t recall any fireworks, club invitations or a hardy handshake at the time the money-making capacity apparently went down a notch or two. I am instead concerned with this idea that sex work may be considered to be degrading and exploitative in all situations.

As with everything else in feminist circles, discussions around sex and sex work seem to orbit ad nauseum around this elusive notion of choice.  Interestingly, unlike many discussions around choice, the most virulent debates do not hinge on who has the right to do what but actually on whether or not an individual may ever have the ability to choose to do sex work.  For some, this is an absolute impossibility.   During December session of the Transnational Network of Women’s Issues, which was held on the issues of trafficking and slavery, the two guest speakers illustrated the ambivalence towards choice in sex work perfectly.  When asked to place trafficking and slavery within the global structures of power, Carolina De los Rios, a case a manager with the Polaris Project said that “Poverty is triggering this work…These women work to support their family. They feel trapped by immigration [status] and threatening …Initially they made the choice but after a while they don’t want to do it.”   On the other hand, Jessica Leslie of Free the Slaves gave an example of quarry workers who had returned to the same type of work without the threat of debt bondage.  She remarked that they had returned “not necessarily because they liked the work or wanted to do that kind of work but because it was a work they knew and knew they could do to survive… The question was not whether they chose to do a kind of work but whether or not they were in a situation of bondage… It is the circumstances around that type of work that make it slavery or not.”

The distinction made by Jessica, however, is not generally made in regards to sex work.  While it is generally acknowledged that people do not go into quarry, domestic or other types of work associated with low-income communities because they like it, these types of work and workers are still discussed as having agency.  Yet, sex work is generally discussed in terms of being forced by different factors, primarily poverty; I am assuming sex work done by women as it generally what the media assumes unless we’re talking about Senators or televangelists and transgender workers are mentioned rarely if ever. Except that sex work is not always done simply out of financial necessity.  The example of Natalie Dylan and recent stories of highlighting higher-class escorts makes that clear enough. So, what distinguishes sex work from other forms of labor?

This whole discussion seems to go back to the public myth that there is something sacred about sex or at least that there is something more respectable about hooking up with a random stranger in a club as opposed to having regulars to pay the rent. Somehow the combination of SEX and MONEY breeds disaster, especially for women who might be doing so outside of a traditional marriage.  If women were simply having sex in parked cars for free, like teenage caricatures, I wonder if there would exist as much of a police presence.  Perhaps so, as much of the discussion orbits around these women either being fallen and needing to be saved or being burdens upon the community.

I asked Carolina to clarify what she had said before, wanting to know if sex work was inherently abusive.  She said “Yes definitely…we believe that these women are exploited in the sex industry. Many of these women have been trafficked.  Some never knew what they were getting into. They may have made the choice initially but then they were pretty much trapped and when they were not able to leave.”  This may be true but are workers victims because of something innately degrading about the work or is it the working conditions as mentioned by Jessica?  The dangers associated with sex work include rape, battery, low wages, poor working conditions, manipulation by pimps, and blackmail.  These dangers are not caused by sex work but can be drawn back to either the immigration status of workers or criminalization.

Does the media obsess over victimhood in sex work because society still feels that “promiscuous women” don’t deserve services, respect or legal recognition of their labor? Or must women’s sexual fragility be rescued incessantly from the man in the shadows?  It would seem that when it comes to conceptualizations of sex work, we have not yet departed from the notion that women’s sexual purity must be protected, that women are merely vessels to be exploited by hypersexual and predatory men.  Such an approach to analyzing sex work and trafficking ignores the larger powers at work in these situations and actually reinforces archaic constructions of female sexuality that disempower women and demonize men. These constructions trap all of us.


(Image Credit: RH Reality Check)

“Please don’t waste me”: Women, Mal(e)development, and Environmental Injustice

Majora Carter

In response to Kelly Cooper’s “Develop or Die”, I would add that the West’s self-image as a proponent of sustainable development also hides the realities of the environmental injustice within its own communities. As Majora Carter explains in her excellent talk, “Greening the Ghetto”, being forced to develop AND die is not something that just happens in less developed countries.

In the United States, race and class reliably predict one’s environmental health risk, with Black residents being twice as likely to have air pollution as their number 1 health risk and 5 times as likely to live within walking distance of power plants or chemical treatment facilities. Where Carter lives in the South Bronx, city planning has caused 40% of NYC’s commercial waste to end up in her neighborhood and, as a result, 1 in 4 children there have asthma. “From a planning perspective, economic degradation begets environmental degradation which begets social degradation. The disinvestment that began in the 1960s set the stage for all the environmental injustices that were to come- antiquated zoning and land-use regulations are still used to this day to continue putting polluting facilities in my neighborhood,” says Carter. In “Women’s Survival Economies and the Questions of Value”, Rachel Riedner writes about urban gardens in many parts of the world. Majora Carter’s South Bronx grassroots organizing also involved creating NYC’s first green and cool roof demonstration project- a roof covered with soil and living plants that could retain up to 75% of rainfall.

Although the environmental justice movement in the US has exposed serious race and class disparities related to pollution and health risk, until recently there was not much focus on how these issues affect women’s health. According to Jill Gay, “Few studies of pesticide exposure have been done concerning women. Farm women are often not classified as farmers but as farmers’ wives, excluding them from large studies of pesticide-induced cancer.” Still, evidence indicates that women are put at increased risk for environmental health problems for a number of reasons, including socio-economic status and gender roles. The Committee on Women, Population, and the Environment combines scholarship and activism to address these issues, pointing out that “Everywhere in the world, women do different work, in different places, and they fill different social roles, than do men. Women everywhere have primary responsibility for meeting the daily needs of their families. This often means that, literally, women are in the front lines of exposure to toxins in the environment. Because of their social location, (which also often has a real locational correlate), women are much more likely than their male counterparts to have early and prolonged exposure to water-borne pollutants, pollutants in the food chain, and household pollutants including indoor air pollution”. Yet, as you may have noticed, there is a growing concern in public media and discourse about the impacts of pollution on men’s health, especially in reference to male fertility- prompting discussion about the “vulnerability” of male reproduction, as in a recent article by Environmental Health News, entitled “Fish study proves “the pill” is NOT man’s best friend”.

Meanwhile disadvantaged groups of women continue to be pressured into coercive sterilization through programs like C.R.A.C.K. (“a national population control organization [in the US] that offers a $300 cash incentive to people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol to undergo a form of long-term (and often dangerous) birth control or permanent sterilization. C.R.A.C.K.’s tactics disproportionately targets poor women, incarcerated women, and women of color”.

Unlike the message propagated by the BBC and other media programs, the best examples of sustainable development come largely from outside the West. As others have pointed out here, women play a vital role in conserving the genetic diversity of crops like maize (as a 2002 study conducted in Guatemala by the UN and the International Plant Genetic Resource Institute established). Majora Carter’s inspiration came from Bogota where mayor Enrique Peñalosa “thinks cities in the developing world are at a critical moment where they can learn from the mistakes of industrialized nations and choose to develop in a way that is more people-friendly” and that “for these cities to prosper, they must provide happiness for their citizens”.

In the West, this is still a rare sentiment- as Carter says in her talk: “That development should not come at the expense of the majority of the population is still considered a radical idea here in the US, but Bogota’s example has the power to change that”. Mayor Peñalosa created walkways and bikes lanes, libraries, parks, and public plazas, planted trees, and produced one of the most efficient mass transit systems in the entire world, resulting in significantly reduced littering and crime rates. Carter notes that “His administration tackled several typical urban problems at one time and on a third world budget at that. We have no excuse in this country…”. Near the end of her talk, Ms. Carter argues for a bottom-up approach that incorporates grassroots movements into the development decision-making processes. Her words could apply equally well to the need for women’s involvement: “of the ninety-percent of the energy that Mr. Gore reminded us that we waste every day, don’t add wasting our energy, intelligence, and hard earned experience to that count….Please don’t waste me”, she says.

(Photo / Video Credit: TED)

Women’s survival economies and the questions of value

In Cape Town, South Africa, women are growing community urban gardens to sustain themselves, their families, and their communities in the face of food vulnerability. As one woman says, “I had no choice. I had to start farming because I had no money to buy vegetables from the shops. I also realized that if we farmed as a group, we would have more than enough food to eat and that we could generate an income from selling the rest.” Some of this produce grown in the gardens is sold but much of it is used to feed families and add nutrition to family’s diets. These gardens are, in part, a response to the current global food crisis but they’re also part of particular ongoing legacies of racism and apartheid where rural populations were moved to cities.

Maria Suarez, a Costa Rican journalist, who gave a talk in Washington, DC with Just Associates on January 26th, calls rain harvesting and urban community gardens “survival economies” or “care economies” where women improvise, share, generate, develop relationships, draw upon old and new knowledge, to sustain themselves and their families. Women create survival economies in the face of increasing economic inequality and impoverishment and food insecurity. Survival economies are built on women’s relationships with each other, within communities, and are tied, but not directly, to formal economy or formal market systems. Home gardens and rainwater collection does not receive a wage but rather goes directly to women and their families and members of the community. A better term might be women’s survival economies: alternative economic systems where women create ways to survive that are not directly part of market economies in response to pressures from neoliberalism.

The urban gardens are a response to local and global food crisis but they’re created from women’s shared knowledge, and shared labor to make and create their own lives, their family’s and community’s lives, outside of the market economy. In response to Suarez’s talk, someone in the audience asked her how we might find alternative models to the market economy which, in the neoliberal era, has impoverished women and their families. Suarez responded that we need change the ways we see “value”. “Value”, she says, is when our work, or creativity, and our lives are turned into money. In a market economy, only things that can be turned into money are “valuable,” anything else (like household work or raising children, garden growing, or any work is that is unwaged) is not “valuable.” When our dominant economic and discursive models see “value” as just money or markets or waged labor, we don’t value (in the other meaning of value which is to find something worthwhile or meaningful) economic structures and relationships that women live by. In this context, we might also note with William Aal, Lucy Jarosz, and Carol Thompson that in the context of the global food crisis and the inefficiency of commercial production, “small-scale urban agriculture in the form of community gardening is becoming increasingly important in seasonal food supplies and local forms of food security.”

Aal, Jarosz, and Thompson also point out that in predominant analysis of the global food crisis, women’s voices are not sought out or valued. As they argue, “The barefoot woman bending over her cultivated genetic treasure is not ‘scientific’, even though such farmers have cultivated genetic biodiversity over thousands of years. These free gifts do not fit into the corporate logic behind commercial agriculture, where only profit can be an incentive, not curiosity nor sharing. Yet indigenous knowledge provides us with all our current food diversity and is the basis for 70 per cent of our current medicines. Americans, for example, need to know that every major food crop we use today was given to us by Native Americans. In contrast, commercial agriculture makes a profit by depleting the gene pool, the result of valuing only very specific traits” What would it mean to talk about how urban space is used in the context of the global food crisis and women in the same paragraph? What would it mean to value women’s knowledge, women’s ingenuity, women’s labor, and, women’s lives?

Activist and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva writes about women in India who over generations have developed knowledge of seed diversity. Shiva advocates an approach to the food crisis that values the experience and knowledge of women.  The values – the ethics that women live by and, also, the different relationships to survival, for themselves and for their families – that women have developed that are outside dominant language and mechanisms of market economy. The independence, creativity, and shared knowledge that women have are, Shiva says, something worth preserving. In response to corporate efforts to patent seed knowledge that women have developed in India, Shiva says: “We will never compromise on this great civilization, which has been based on the culture of sharing the abundance of the world and will continue to maintain this trend of sharing our biodiversity and knowledge. We will never allow your culture of impoverishment and greed to undermine our culture of abundance and sharing.”


(Photo Credit: CNN)

Develop or Die

A refrain keeps repeating in my head: ¨Develop or Die. Develop or Die.¨ I heard that haunting, yet attractively alliterative, phrase on BBC a few weeks ago. Because the cryptic words have been stuck in my head, I began to contemplate whether I would/should chose to die or develop, whatever that means.  However, when I finally searched the BBC website, I realized that develop or die was not a question being posed to me, the viewer. ¨Develop or Die¨ is the name of a ¨new series on BBC World News tackling the challenge now facing Asia; how to develop their economies whilst at the same time handling the growing pressure from the West to protect the environment.¨ (I have not seen advertisements for the show on BBC Mundo, which is in Spanish and tends to cover mainly Latin American headlines, but I digress.) 

In contrast to my initial interpretation, BBC presents ¨develop or die¨ not as a question, not even a rhetorical one, but rather a bottom line, a global imperative concerning Development, capital D. The series presents an opportunity for viewers of BBC (in English) to think about the challenges faced by Asia, as if all or even most of ¨Asia¨ faces the same challenges and risks. ¨Filmed on location in India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam. . .[and] Mumbai,¨ the series discusses tensions between the West’s desire to protect the environment through sustainable development projects, and Asia’s supposedly ravenous desire to achieve ¨development¨ through any means possible, regardless of ecological costs.  This uncomplicated rendering of a historical (needless to say gruesome) East-meets-West dichotomy is a little, well, irresponsible, to say the least; perhaps perverted would be a better word? 

The marketing of the series is symptomatic of how mainstream news presents development as something the West chooses for the non-West.  That is, individual news watchers in the global North are represented as permitting/allowing un- or underdeveloped throngs in other parts of the world to work toward achieving a developed lifestyle according to a linear development schema that the western governments have already discovered, perfected, and continue to enjoy.  Given the influence and power that multinational and transnational companies possess to shape and influence not only domestic public policy, but also the decisions of international and supranational governing entities, the idea that the ¨challenge to develop¨ exists over there in Asia is a bit shortsighted.

To continue the popular theme of developed people in the West making choices for everyone else, I note an interesting story from Democracy Now!: ¨Hampshire College Becomes First U.S. College To Divest From Israel.¨ The college ¨has become the first of any college or university in the U.S. to divest from companies on the grounds of their involvement in the Israeli occupation of Palestine,¨ including Caterpillar, General Electric, ITT Corporation, Motorola.¨ For more companies that are ¨directly involved in the occupation,¨ such as General Mills, Ace Hardware, Pizza Hut, Chemonics International, Hewlett Packard, Chevrolet, RE/MAX, check out Who Profits, a database organized by The Coalition of Women for Peace.

As the happy, content, free-market-loving West considers the consequences of development in underdeveloped countries, it turns out the story is a little more complicated. While divestment plays an important role in the shifting processes of globalization, media portrayals of ethical business practices often propagate dominant discourses of development as beginning in the global North/West and undulating out to the rest of the world.  As mainstream pundits continue to ponder not only what it means to develop, but also the who, what, when, where, and how of development, transnational feminists work to understand what it means to develop or die—often develop AND die—in Asia, Palestine, Israel, Darfur, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Iran, Burma, the Mexico-U.S. Border, and beyond.


(Image Credit: BBC)

The Security of Sex: Inaugural Edition

In case any of you may have missed it, January was a big month in the District of Columbia.  A new American President and government were sworn-in to much ado and it was celebrated with a larger than life level of pomp, circumstance and security.  It seemed as if every newscast, article and discussion on the inauguration was incapable of discussing anything else, but what was actually meant by “security”? The obvious security presence involved the area immediately around the National Mall, which was cordoned off, surrounded by thousands and National Guardsmen/women, patrolled from above and regulated.  However, the geography of security expanded far beyond the areas around the mall and affected much more than was necessary for general safety of the Mr. Obama and the invading throngs here to see his inauguration.  Those living and working within the district realized that security was just as, if not more so, concerned with regulation as safety.  The two have actually been conflated; something, which becomes apparent through debates regarding the closing of bridges linking Virginia to DC.

Making this more apparent is actually the exercise of section 104 of the District of Columbia’s Omnibus Public Safety Emergency Amendment Act of 2006, which allows the Chief of Police to designate “Prostitution Free Zones”. The area around 5th and L St, NW was declared a PFZ and heavily regulated by MPD during the inauguration period.  Such a name insinuates that perhaps that when such places have not been designated or any areas beyond “the zones” may be considered legal areas of prostitution. Alas, they are not and the absurdity of this designation has not been lost on commentators including Jay Leno, who seems to be in the minority of people aware of the law.  Prostitution within DC is criminalized; a person receives a $500 fine and 1-90 days imprisonment for the first offense with the punishment graduating in severity from there with each additional arrest. 

So what is a “Prostitution Free Zone”?  Anyplace “where the health or safety of residents is endangered by prostitution or prostitution-related offenses” may be declared a “zone” for up to ten days using taped signs and banners.  This means that “any group of two or more persons congregating on public space for the purpose of engaging in prostitution or prostitution-related offenses” who haven’t dispersed after being warned may be arrested on site and be fined $300, imprisoned for up to 180 days, or both (there is a list of acceptable group activities).  While normally one must be caught engaging in the act, these zones require no such proof for individuals to be arrested.

These penalties and targeting seem excessive for an act in which no one is physically harmed; they do after all include mandatory imprisonment.  Yet, DC Chief  of Police Charles Ramsey  justified the institution of the “Prostitution Free Zones” and quickly rebuffed the idea that prostitution may be a “victimless crime” saying, “nothing could be further from the truth for those residents who must endure the presence of prostitutes and their paraphernalia in our neighborhoods”.  He goes on to congratulate the city in combating “the presence of brazen street walkers in many of our communities” which is a “serious problem”.  While I’m sure that brazenness is in fact quite serious, it hardly seems an argument to justify such restrictions on movement, congregation and labor.  It also seems oddly reminiscent of justifications for “Black Codes” after the Civil War.  Such a comparison, however, seems less odd when you notice that Chief Ramsey seems to be talking solely about street workers, who are primarily woman-identified, low-income and African-American, as opposed to those who work primarily in brothels, massage parlors or out of their homes.  These are the people targeted by “the zone”.  This law and the continued focus on punishing prostitution within DC is yet another way in which the law has been utilized to regulate Othered bodies and continues to regulate black bodies.

Ironically, despite all this talk about extreme security due to the swearing in of the first African-American president in U.S. history: the inauguration of Barack Obama still only utilized half as many security personnel as the 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush.  The true irony? These numbers only refer to those personnel who were dealing immediately with those entering the city and the mall, it does not include the task forces sent to “clean-up” the city for the throngs.  While war was being waged on sex workers, as it continues to be, tourists and locals alike gathered in the millions to see hope personified and sworn-in, to physically see their government transition to one which respected basic human and civil rights, one based in the community organizing and that might actually repeal some of the sexual Puritanism of the last eight years.  Yes we can! But why aren’t we, really?

(Photo Credit: The Kojo Nnamdi Show / Daniel Lobo)

Narco Wives vs. . . . Regular Wives?

Gulf News recently published a story on Mexican narco wives (check out the picture). ¨Narco-¨ is a prefix that continues to gain currency in international news about Mexico, but the recent outburst of reporting around narco wives is particularly interesting in terms of how women are portrayed in relation to el narcotráfico. Certainly, there has been reporting around Mexican women and drug trafficking, but the Gulf News story offers a particularly egregious (not to mention garish) depiction of Mexican women. After describing the ascension of Sinaloan beauty pageant winners into the highest levels of narco life, the article ends curiously saying that ¨these women become untouchable.¨ What, exactly, is it about these women that makes them untouchable? Who determines what can and cannot be touched? The article is about, well, women, right? It says so in the title. However, no women´s voices are recounted in the story, and their supposed choice to enter narcodom is the only piece of information that hints at an agentic existence. In fact, the article reduces the wives to silenced beauties or narco arm charms, at best.  Still, the last word lingers uneasily: untouchable. If they cannot be touched, what does it mean to be touched?

Amidst these women´s secluded yet treacherous lives, Mexico, which was recently named a potential failed state, ¨is fighting for its survival against narco-terrorism”. As organized crime dominants headlines about Mexico, los narcotraficantes are not the only ones making money in Mexico; the empires of Carlos Slim, who controls most of Mexico´s telecommunications and is the second richest man in the world, and Walmart, which owns multiple supermarkets and cheap restaurants in Mexico, continue to boom. While international news would have us think that Mexico is full of narcos running wild, women, especially those in urban and suburban areas, perform the quotidian chores required to maintain their households and take care of their families. Filing through grocery stores with their children, middle, lower, and working class women finger through cilantro, t-shirts, packages of Wonder tortillas, bottles of Ajax. When the women return home, either they or domestic workers, who are overwhelmingly underpaid women, sort through and wash carefully selected produce and clean the house. Indeed, the Mexican household hardly goes a day without encountering in some way the effects of the decisions of Slim, Walmart, narcotraficantes, and México-U.S. policies.

From narco nails to the price of tortillas, Mexican women continue to navigate shifting geographies of consumerism, security, and survival that shape the contours of the global household.

(Photo Credit: Women’s UN Report Network)