I don’t normally do content warnings, but this piece contains some pretty offensive material; I would certainly recommend sitting down for it with a hot drink.
In her online talk The Sexy Lie, Caroline Heldman discusses objectification, questioning the idea that “sex sells”. This is an idea that many advertisers and publishers leverage, but Heldman challenges. Sex, by definition, is mutual – but 96% of objectifying media depicts women. “If sex sold, why wouldn’t we see half naked men everywhere in advertising?” Heldman asks. Because it’s not sex that is being sold, she says: it’s something else.
“To men, they’re being sold this idea constantly that they are sexual subjects. They are in the driver’s seat,” Heldman explains. Indeed, they are. In The Ins and Outs of Work, a booklet produced by the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) for women in prostitution, a man’s “inability to get an erection or to ejaculate” is listed as the number one problem a woman in prostitution might face. That’s being in the driver’s seat.
Another NZPC publication, Stepping Forward, offers tips to women reluctant to participate in anal sex with strangers – to “help” them accommodate a man’s demand. This, too, means men are in the driver’s seat.
If your anal/rectal muscles are relaxed and entry is on the right angle there should be no pain. It is not uncommon for it to take 20 minutes or longer for the anus and rectal passage to expand and embrace the length of the girth of a penis or object (porn actors have years of experience…) The anal/rectal relaxation process involves getting the sphincters to work in-sync with each other… This has to do with body memory and the more your body becomes familiar with something going in and learns to relax with the sensation, the easier it will become.
“Using chemical assistance to help relax is not advised,” this Ministry of Health-funded publication continues, “as it seldom means the body is actually relaxed but that you are less inclined to register the pain or trauma.” What’s more, in New Zealand, 99% of johns (“clients”) who buy women for sex are men. By contrast, 85% of people who are prostituted in the sex trade are women. And in NZPC’s booklet The Ins and Outs of Work, women are advised that
Some well-meaning clients will try to insist you have a good time too. Realistically you will not feel like having a really good time with these clients (of course if you do that is fine). Diplomatically maintain control of these enthusiastic clients. Position yourself in such a way as to avoid unwanted groping and invasive behaviours. Some sex workers feel comfortable faking orgasm and others feel this is expecting too much.
Looks like Heldman is onto something. “It makes men feel powerful to see images of objectified women everywhere,” she says – and the same obviously holds for actually buying and selling women. On the flip side, Heldman says: “women are being sold this idea that this is how we get our value; and this is the way to become the ideal sex object.”
Selling objectificaton to women is a process involving a vast amount of manipulation, since the cost for us is so high. This manipulation is something that pimps specialise in. So, reading Stepping Forward and The Ins and Outs of Work makes more sense when you realise that NZPC is closely affiliated with an international sex trade lobby recently run by a convicted sex trafficker. Reading Cosmopolitan and Dolly magazine, it helps to know about Bauer Media’s similar affiliations.
Bauer Media currently profits from online porn through sub-companies (Pabel Moewig and Inter Publish), after getting rid of most of its print porn publications by 2007. It used to hold publishing licenses for a range of German porn magazines: the German Playboy; Das neue Wochenend; Blitz Illu; Schlüsselloch (which means ‘keyhole’); and Sexy. It still owns Praline and Coupé. Bauer Media also own one third of the famous private T.V. channel RTL II, which airs pro “sex work” reality shows almost daily.
A recent study examined the reactions male students had to the kinds of men’s magazines Bauer Media publishes. Students were provided with quotations and sexist ‘jokes’ from the ‘lad’s mags’, and remarks about women by convicted rapists. The study showed that students were largely unable to tell the difference. It seems that equally, browsing literature targeted at women brings to mind the statements and grooming tactics of pimps – the pimps who are ultimately publishing this material.
A statement in the editorial of this month’s Cosmopolitan that “Celebrating women is something we do day in, day out, at Cosmo,” is disingenuous. They would like us to believe that, but actually, 70% of women report experiencing guilt and shame after three minutes of browsing these kinds of magazines. It is well known that these publishers and their advertisers feed off insecurity – and abuse. Most models in these magazines weigh 25% less than the average woman, and are in the anorexia weight range. Now, in the U.S. and EU, 50 million women suffer from eating disorders, and girls as young as six are increasingly expressing anxiety about their shape.
It’s like what pimps do. They build false trust through what is called “boyfriending”, only to ultimately treat women like commodities. In the documentary Tricked, Danielle recounts her experience of “boyfriending”:
There was a lot of wining and dining and shopping, and all types of things to make me feel wanted and like I was being taken care of, and then about two weeks into that, I was forced to work on the track. He pulled me into an alleyway and beat the shit out of me and said, ‘Get in the fucking car, and make my fucking money’.
One pimp says,
I consider myself as a good person to these girls… I help these girls out with their babies, I help these girls out with so much stuff you wouldn’t even believe.
Danielle further explains this tactic:
I think a lot of pimps gain trust by “boyfriending”, which is basically when they act as if they’re your boyfriend… Now, when I look back, I think that I was looking for love, and… love meant sex. I didn’t really know what love meant. I just knew that sex got me attention and attention got me something that I thought was close to love… I was seventeen. But the age of girls being forced into prostitution now is twelve. I can’t imagine. It’s like being raped over, and over, and over.
Here’s how pimp Robert Money (pictured above) says that he employs this kind of manipulation:
This is what it is. The clothing, the jewelry, the nice car. They’re just your tools. A plumber need his wrenches, right? Electrician need his tester, am I correct? So, a pimp need his tools. These are the tools to capture the woman… I got ten thousand dollar watches, jewelry, diamonds, gold… bags of stuff I just carry with me.
Cosmopolitan does the same: half of this magazine is a product catalogue, and a good portion of the rest is cosmetic advice. This month’s issue also offers an overview of beauty treatments from brow tattoos, to lip filling, laser treatment and light therapy. It also promises to help you “nail the most insta-stalked looks by tonight” – pimp talk, much? NZPC’s Stepping Forward also offers advice on self presentation.
Emphasise your best features and highlight your persona e.g. 100kg, full figured sexy woman, warm and sensual or 50kg, attractive, mature and friendly, European woman.
As you may know, false advertising or giving a false description of yourself could create the risk of you wasting your time, losing money and disappointing clients. Remember that clients can compare notes via internet forums. A bad reputation can be costly in any line of work.
While Stepping Forward suggests women advertise online (the very place, incidentally, they’re told their reputation might be destroyed) Cosmopolitan organises a “Bachelor party” in collaboration with Tinder, writing another helpful article about the Fling You Need to Have This Summer. It also offers advice on Tinder dating (there’s some kind of sponsorship going on here):
Emma Tessler, the co-founder and director of US matching service The Dating Ring, explains her approach: ‘Go on as many dates as possible. Put yourself in situations where you think you’ll be rejected.’ Oh, boy, this sounds… not fun?! Her point is solid, though. Dating is a numbers game, meaning bad dates and rejection will happen, but they sting less if you have other dates lined up.
Stepping Forward talks about this “sting”, as well, in its section on “sex worker burn out” (a euphemism for PTSD). Symptom number 7 is “depressed, frustrated and low self esteem.” This is what NZPC thinks that looks like.
“No-one will choose me, all the other girls are so pretty and together, the only guys that choose me are the ones that find pretty and intelligent girls intimidating. I shouldn’t have had the extra French fry, why didn’t I stop after two; I think I’ve put on 3 kg since I ate it.”
If you are starting to feel like this whole game is taking the piss out of women, NZPC does not stop there with the outright whip-cracking cynicism. The fifth symptom of burnout is being “overly emotional,” and this is how NZPC describes it.
“What do you mean”, sob, sob, “I’m the prettiest girl in the world” sob, sob, “You Bastard! There is nothing wrong” sob, “and stop picking on me!”
This is coming from the same booklet that also bombards women with poor-quality photos of men’s genital infections whilst telling them that anal rape shouldn’t hurt for more than 20 minutes. Rich is one word that springs to mind, among others.
Many women in prostitution suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), related to the sexual abuse rife in the industry, abuse that results directly from the male sexual entitlement Heldman discusses. Stepping Forward sanitises the issue of PTSD, talking instead about “burn out”. Under instructions on “how to stay a happy hooker”, it suggests “look after your inner self”, “take breaks” (“All work and no play make Jo a dull ho!”) and “cherish your body”.
The instructions following the latter echo pimp-speak to an uncanny degree. Here is another statement from Money in Tricked:
Pussy is a commodity. It has to be in selling condition. In selling order. You see an outfit on a rack when you go shopping – if you see holes in that outfit, thread coming out, buttons hanging off, you gonna bypass it, am I correct? Same with the pussy… you have to make sure your commodity is sellable.
An ex-escort talks about how “your pimp will pay for your food, and he would get your nails done, get your hair done, always want you to look the bets you can look. He would take care of me going tanning, I would go to the gym.” Here is NZPC’s more sanitised, polite version of the same imperative:
You are your business’s best asset and without maintenance you can become a liability. This does not mean you should spend more on superficial trappings like clothes, but quality investments like getting a massage, eating good quality food, using good quality products from shampoo and skin care to linen on your bed and even the bed itself. Join a gym, take Yoga or Pilates classes… the options are endless. Working in a dimly lit environment for hours on end is not the same as regular exercise… all you need is a pair of comfortable shoes. Don’t start with “what about the kids, partner, disabled dog, housework, no energy, allergy to sunlight” excuses. It’s sad but true, energy creates energy.
How about this “excuse”, from an account of rape by a woman who was prostituted in Australia?
The man felt it was worth paying $100 to have sex with a woman who had a tear-stained face and bleeding wrists… I insisted on clutching the cash while he used me.
Is all she needs some good shampoo and a Pilates class? Sure.
This month’s Dolly also offers “Yoga poses for when you’re stressed AF”. This while it also contains an article called Current Mood, which offers that “We all have moments when we go from being happy as Larry… to feeling like we need to cry into a pillow for no apparent reason.” Dolly puts these troubles down to a) hormones and b) ‘life’. Never mind it spends the rest of its 130 pages breaking girl’s self esteem so that they can better oblige men within a culture that sees 1 in 3 girls sexually abused.
Directly following Current Mood, Dolly offers a thirteen-page spread on drugs: information about substances from marijuana to cocaine and crystal meth. Again – for girls’ “own good”, just because they’re out there, and to keep girls informed, right. NZPC takes a similar approach – suggesting avoidance within a kind of ‘kids will be kids’ framework.
Avoid working under the influence of drugs or alcohol as this can impair your judgement and lead to situations that can get out of control. However, if realistically you are unable to work straight, try and reduce the harm happening to yourself, by working around others who care enough to watch out for you.
This is advice coming from an organisation that receives $1 million per year from the Ministry of Health. Take the drugs, if you need to, and get other prostituted women to protect you from violent men. Thanks. Oh, and by the way,
Your behaviours could bring heat down on those around you, don’t be surprised if people do not want to work with you.
Okay this is really helpful. I need to work, can’t work straight, and can’t get help. Perhaps there is some more advice on how to navigate this tight situation in Stepping Forward? Oh yes. It’s in the a section titled “Get over it or get out of it”. Great.
If you don’t like your job, the thought of going to work makes your skin crawl and you think you’d rather chew off your own leg than do another shift, maybe this is not the job for you.
Sure the money is lucrative, but how much are you going to make if you keep spitting at the clients in the lounge and swearing at them in the room if they haven’t asked you to talk dirty? There is no shame in quitting a job you don’t like. Getting out can be tricky, but there are lots of us who have done it and will help if you ask. Work to live and don’t live to work.
It is really hard to continue writing diplomatically, reading this. Here is an account from one New Zealand woman, from the South Island, who has managed to exit prostitution.
As a 16 year old street worker Anna Reed certainly never tried to help me, even though I was underage and going to the NZPC on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis. If anyone needed help it was me.
According to the Ministry of Justice, it takes women on average five attempts to exit prostitution before they stay out, if they manage to do so. No shit there is no shame in quitting. It’s just that it’s very hard to do. This same organisation points out one of the factors, dismissively, when it encourages women to “expand your mind”.
Now I’m not saying there’s not a lot to learn from [sex] work, in fact it’s a job that can teach you many skills you would be hard pressed to learn anywhere else, but it’s sometimes a little tricky incorporating these into your CV.
Oh yeah, but it’s still a job like any other, right. You just can’t put it on your CV. That’s okay, though:
Take a course, read good books, get a hobby (why does that always sound so lame?), so if at any stage burnout is no longer a passing phase, you have other options. Simply knowing you have a choice is liberating in itself. If you have the strength of character to become a sex worker, then you already possess a multitude of other skills, take time to recognise and develop them.
Women own a mere 1% of the world’s wealth: in this objectification, porn-saturated culture, we do not enter prostitution in the numbers we do because there are options everywhere. Only an organisation ultimately controlled by pimps would treat women like we are stupid and inadequate for not “being able” to face the reality of commercialised rape every day, because yknow, Yoga.
Dolly takes a similar approach to “therapy”, making it equally imperative that women keep chillaxed for the boys. Dolly interviews each member of the boy-band In Stereo in this month’s issue (Chris is a “creative genius”, of course), as well as pop performer Vlado. The holy grail in all of these publications is the male sex right; male sexual entitlement. What we want from dude interviews, then, is to discover more about what men require of us girls and women. So each dude gets asked some version of the question, “Describe your ideal girlfriend?” (“Would you ever date a fan?” VOMIT!).
Ladies, ladies. Dudes are chill. Dudes are just chill, and they want a girl who is chill, a woman who is chill. Like that’s really all they ask. Is that so hard to comply with? (What’s the bet three out of four of these guys already has a regular porn addiction?) The Ins and Outs of Work also relays this expectation that women be like super laid back, under the headline “Burn Out”.
Do your best to maintain a professional approach with every client and try not to let it show if you are feeling down or burnt out. Clients don’t want to have your problems dumped on them either. Ways of avoiding burnout include not letting your world become the brothel, escort agency or the street; deliberately make sure you get a change of scenery and are also giving back to yourself… have your own time out.
Erm – thanks for the advice. There’s more of that, too, from a woman used to role model in this publication. Much like the women in glossy magazines, she presents as very easy-going and relaxed – but her words do not quite manage to conceal the amount of pressure she is under.
I always used humour with clients. It’s good to have a laugh and not take things too seriously – it puts the client at ease and can diffuse potentially volatile situations. Try and keep light-hearted.
Stepping Forward and The Ins and Outs offer plenty of perspectives from role modelling women in prostitution: Sian, Fifi, Violet and Sara are asked to reveal everything they do with clients, in graphic detail. Dolly also offers a two-page spread on Victoria’s Secret “angels”: “Here’s how our faves from this year’s crop of angels got their wings”. Each angel offers her age, story of discovery and career highlight (“being the youngest model ever to be chosen as a Victoria’s Secret angel”), alongside a photograph in lingerie.
Cosmo’s interview with Chrissy Teigen may actually take the cake for presumptuousness. After describing how Teigen’s nipple was accidentally exposed in the interview, Cosmo gets straight into it: “Do you know John’s full history with women?” is the first question. Teigen has been with partner John Legend over ten years, and they recently had a baby.
“Some guys are really attracted to pregnant women. Was John into the bump?” is a follow up question. “Did he watch the birth?” comes awkwardly after, before “I’m told it does a real number on your vagina”, “How long was it before you had sex again?” and “What is your bedtime ritual?”
Sheesh. Risqué. After reading this, I actually still have no idea who Chrissy Teigen is, or what she does, but I wish she’d emptied her drink in this interviewer’s face, frankly.
“What is sexual objectification?” was the question asked by Caroline Heldman. “It’s the process of representing or treating a person like a sex object, one that serves another sexual pleasure,” she says. A solid definition. Feminist scholar and lawyer Catherine MacKinnon also sums up objectification succinctly.
man fucks woman;
subject verb object.
All of these publications (and pimps) help to groom women for this object role, in a similar way. “I care about you, but calm down, and suck it”, would be a blunt, but apt summary. Fostering dependency is a key part of the game, so when Cosmo offers sex advice to readers, their sex Q&A page promises “no-BS responses to questions you can only ask Cosmo“. A casual tone and lots of special lingo like “bae” and “‘drobe” (for wardrobe) help build a sense of camaraderie and trust in Dolly as well. The weight and authority is there in the glamour, the advertising big bucks and bling.
In NZPC’s publications, all the glamour of advertising is gone, of course. The booklets are a damn sight realer. While over half of Cosmo is advertising, about half of Stepping Forward is about sexually transmitted infections, including graphic images of penises with genital warts, gonorrhoea and chlamydia. The images are black and white, poorly lit, and barely useable as a guide – they seem more like a token gesture at safety. Perhaps no-one really expects women to be able to be sexy whilst carrying out careful medical examinations. In NZPC’s publications, it is not glamorous advertising bucks that lend weight to the “we are here to help you” performance, but government funding.
Here are some more examples of what that Ministry funds. Stepping Forward offers tips for how to work through your period, and “bi-doubles”: “The elusive threesome is a fantasy most, if not all, heterosexual males have thought and dreamed about”. What helpful advice can be offered to provide for such a demand?
The only reason some agree to do bi-doubles is for the money… If you choose to be part of a bi-double, you don’t have to enjoy it, just pretend you are. Just like any sex job, there is an element of performance. It is the facade of enjoyment and pleasure that all clients pay for, it is what we do; and the same goes for the bi-double.
NZPC does make plenty of gestures at self-assertion through its booklets, with a kind of “Go, you” tone. The booklets pretend that a prostituted woman can put her foot down and never do anything she doesn’t want to, and say what she likes, alone in a room with a man. It also repeatedly emphasises how helpful the legal system is to women in New Zealand – even though only 13% of rapes reported here result in a conviction. 13%.
Hint: no-one who is really “here to help you” will encourage you to allow yourself to be anally raped until it stops hurting.
Somehow, this sex trade lobby continues to complain that the biggest problem exploited women face is that sex is too taboo. Corporate media is working its butt of to funnel women into a life of objectified availability and consumerism, and still, the sex trade lobby insists there is a “stigma” on “sex work” because we apparently still live under the repressive reign of Queen Victoria. Well no, dear lobbyists. That was a while ago. In case you hadn’t heard, Queen Vic died in 1901.
In her essay Sexology and Antifeminism, Sheila Jeffreys describes how the “discipline” of sexology was founded soon after that time. This was while the suffragists were active as part of the first wave of feminism.
This period, immediately after World War I, was a time in which many women had considerably more freedom and independence than they had had before. The fact that large numbers of women were not marrying, were choosing to be independent, and were fighting male violence caused considerable alarm. This alarm is apparent in sexological literature.
Many women also had little interest in sexual intercourse. Moreover, “they thought that no woman should have to do sexual intercourse” – this was, of course, also many decades before second wave feminists fought to have rape within marriage made illegal. In response to this increased resistance and independence, sexologists invented the concept of women’s “frigidity”. Frigid women were defective, and had to be sent to gynecologists and psychoanalysts. To defend the status quo of women’s oppression, women’s sexual subordination was naturalised in sexology. Havelock Ellis, the discipline’s founder, argued that
male sexuality was absolutely and inevitably aggressive, taking the form of pursuit and capture, and that it was normal and inevitable for men to take pleasure in inflicting pain on women. Women’s sexuality, he said, was passive. Women were supposed to be captured and took “delight” in experiencing pain at the hands of male lovers.
Hot off the heels of sexology came the pornography industry that we know today. By the conclusion of World War II, there was big business in the promotion of this objectification of women. Businessmen-pornographers like Hugh Hefner (Playboy) Bob Guccione (Penthouse) and Larry Flynt (Hustler) began grooming the market to make porn socially acceptable. By the 90s, bunny merchandise was being consumed by girls everywhere – the bunny branding everything from stationery to pyjama pants. Cosmopolitan‘s publishers, Bauer Media, have been involved in this global sex trade lobbying, and once owned the publishing license for Germany’s Playboy.
“It was a very different world,” says feminist writer Gail Dines, “after Hefner eroded the cultural, economic, and legal barriers to mass production and distribution of porn.” It is now even considered up for debate now whether pole dancing is the best after school activity for 8-year-olds.
How did this shift to the mainstream happen? The answer is simple: by design. What we see today is the result of years of careful strategising and marketing by the porn industry to sanitise its products… reconstructing porn as fun, edgy, chic, sexy, and hot. The more sanitised the industry became, the more it seeped into the pop culture and into our collective consciousness.
So now women, increasingly, find themselves with men who expect porn sex from them. That is why women are increasingly reporting anal rape; and why there is a section in Stepping Forward called “Greek sirens: a beginner’s guide to anal sex”, despite the heightened risk of HIV/AIDS it subjects women to.
So, no, our problem is not that “sex” – or objectification – is too taboo.
To find out what is really taboo, have a look at what the sex trade lobby does not want discussed. The sex trade is bigger than I.T., and has a huge influence on what is or is not “allowed”.
NZPC’s programmes coordinator Calum Bennachie has produced some writing that speaks to this quite clearly. In his piece Their words are killing us, published in a newsletter for the international sex trade lobby (NSWP) Bennachie misrepresents and demonises second wave feminists and prostitution abolitionists vehemently, including two lesbian feminists, one of whom had been in prostitution herself. Another provided the critique I drew from earlier, on sexology: Sheila Jeffreys. Bennachie pulls no punches: he encourages the silencing of these women “at every opportunity”.
And what do these women talk about, primarily? It’s no surprise: objectification. They talk about objectification, and how it is instutionalised through prostitution.
That’s why women are always told to do Yoga and take a bath as though our emotional struggles are a mystery to the very the same people who are heavily invested in breaking women’s self esteem. Pinpointing the problem, helping women truly understand what all the “burnout”, “mood swings”, and “crying inexplicably” are about – that’s the taboo. Resisting objectification is the taboo.
Wherever female bonds and friendship are represented in all of these publications, they largely revolve around men. Other women are a place to go for beauty and sex tips, to offload emotionally about men whilst sparing men the trouble of hearing about it, and for help defending yourself against male violence. These friendships are always still secondary to relationships with men; even competitive. No wonder some women are feeling alone; that too is what makes it easier for the sex trade lobby and Bauer Media to manipulate us into dependency on an Aunt Judas and a false friend.
This is a lie, about female bonds. Every first and second wave feminist knew and knows that, however powerful the backlash she faced. The Grimké sisters; Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton knew; Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, bell hooks, Marilyn Waring, Robin Morgan and Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin; Sheila Jeffreys, Julie Bindel, Rachel Moran, Autumn Burris, Meghan Murphy, and countless other women all knew, and know that.
Empowerment comes from sisterhood, and sisterhood is found in resistance.
Thank you to Manu Schon for her research on Bauer Media.