The Sex Trade and Feminism: An Interview with Ann Russo
by Ann Russo

 prostitution  sexual-violence

Salome Chasnoff: Why don’t you start by introducing yourself.

Ann Russo: I’m Ann Russo and I am the director of Women and Gender Studies at DePaul University. I teach lots of different courses. I teach courses on women and the law, women and violence, feminist theories and politics, Chicago women’s activism, media and popular culture and a variety of other courses. My primary interest in terms of research and activism has been within work around the violence in women’s lives. I’m really interested in the ways that we think about violence and the ways we respond to violence. I’m interested in sexual assault, domestic violence and I’m interested in this project because of its relationship to women’s involvement in the sex trade.

I do a lot of work, and have been doing work since I moved to Chicago 10 years ago, with a lot of community based organizations and institutions in the Chicago area. I’m on the board of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, which seeks to provide a safe, non-judgmental space for young women and girls who are involved in the sex trade and street economies in Chicago. It’s a very exciting organization that’s based in harm reduction. I’ve also been connected with Rape Victim Advocates, the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, Horizons, and other organizations in the Chicago area that are focused on the issues of violence against women and its connection to broader structures of sexism, racism and homophobia.

S: Could you give us a background on the history of the women’s movement? Especially the history of the issue of prostitution and how it connects to today and the struggles over vocabulary.

A: I’m going to give you my history because I think that my approach to those issues comes out of that history. The history around the issue of prostitution, sex work, the sex trade in feminism is a conflicted history, from the early ‘70s on it was a conflicted history. I’m going to break it down in a very simple way. It was divided between the work that viewed prostitution as a form of violence against women, really connected prostitution to the devaluation and the objectification and basically the hatred of women - women’s bodies, women’s souls, women’s sexuality. And that came out of a movement that was really focused on violence against women that we realized in the 1970s - through consciousness raising, through speak outs, through the formation of lots of organizations - that violence was pervasive in this society and that it was invisible and in some ways, that it was acceptable. There are other parts of the women’s movement that were really focused on the stigmatization of women’s sexuality, the repression of women’s sexuality, and they saw feminism as a place to really encourage women to express their sexuality, critique the double standard, to embrace women who were sexually active, who didn’t accept the strictures around women’s sexuality. That part of the movement really viewed prostitution, and eventually talked about it as sex work, as a place where women were expressing sexuality and were being stigmatized and criminalized for that expression.

So you end up with this polarization, which in the late 1970s and early 1980s started to come to a head between these two factions, especially over the issue of pornography because that issue also came into play. So the question became, what’s the feminist stance on this issue? What’s the feminist stance on prostitution? And there was a whole group that was okay with the criminalization. They felt like the problem was women’s exploitation and the men should be criminalized, rather than women, but they really wanted to end prostitution. The other group really wanted to decriminalize or, some groups even legalize, prostitution because they saw prostitution as part of a sex industry and they saw it as a job, like any other job. They really wanted to neutralize and challenge the stigma, and they thought that by doing so women’s sexuality would become less stigmatized and more embraced. So they saw this as a potential way to counter the double standard and repression of women’s sexuality.

In many ways you can still see this division today between organizations, although increasingly there are developing ideas and work that try to break out of these polarized viewpoints, prostitution as violence or prostitution as free sexuality. In a way, that is where we are today. We have debates today that continue to struggle between those polarized perspectives. But many people recognize now that the issue is much more complicated - that women are both victimized and expressing their own sexuality, that people make choices and yes they may make other choices, but this is the world we live in and they shouldn’t be criminalized. So there is a recognition that our lives are more complicated, that we are not entirely victimized nor completely free agents, and we are developing a more complicated perspective on the sex trade to go along with that. And that’s where the Young Women’s Empowerment Project comes in because it doesn’t take a position, yes or no. They are just interested in supporting the women that are involved in it and figuring out, “What do they want in their lives? How do they want their lives to look? How can they reduce the harm that’s connected with their involvement in the sex trade and street economies?” So it’s an approach that is much more towards empowerment of the women that are involved in it. On the other hand, there are still many of us that feel that there is still a need to look at the policy issues, the criminal justice system, how these issues are addressed by the police, the broad industry of it, who’s profiting, etc. Those questions are still very important, but we can’t address those questions with the perspective that women are either complete victims or free agents.

A: A harm reduction approach doesn’t take a position on whether prostitution is good or bad for the women or men that are involved in it. It doesn’t take a position that says the woman is a victim, or making a choice, or that it’s a good choice or a bad choice. What it recognizes is that women are involved in the sex trade and are subject to different kinds of harm, to violence, to STDs, to whatever. So the purpose of harm reduction is to meet those women or men wherever they are. Harm reduction doesn’t take a position, it meets people where they are, it doesn’t make a judgment, it doesn’t try to save the women, it doesn’t try to criminalize the women, it doesn’t ask them to think about themselves as workers in an industry. It’s not interested in any of that. What it is interested in is meeting the women where they are and helping them reduce the harm that they might experience by being involved in trading sex for money. So what it is interested in is reducing harm.

Some of the ways that one might do that is giving information about health, access to healthcare, how to deal with the police, how to get services around sexual assault or domestic violence. So it’s interested in supporting the women, giving them information, knowledge, so that they can make decisions about how to care for themselves, and in that process to support them in whatever decisions they make. So it doesn’t say to women, “We’re only going to give you services if you are not going to work in prostitution anymore” or “We’re only going to give you services if you have this viewpoint.” It’s more like, “How can we reduce the harm? How can we support you in any decision you make?”

S: Can you talk about the words prostitution versus sex work or the sex trade? How are these terms different?

A: Prostitution is a very old word. It’s a word that’s been around for a very long time. So in using that word there is a lot of negativity attached to it. It’s a word that connotes criminal activity. It’s a word that connotes fallen women, or stigmatized women. So it’s a negative term. When somebody calls somebody a prostitute, it’s like saying you are doing something wrong. So I think people moved away from that because of its negative attributions.

Some people use the terms sex industry and sex worker to neutralize the term prostitution. So it takes the stigma away by saying, “You’re working in an industry,” as opposed to choosing to be immoral. Prostitution is really associated with immorality and it’s been criminalized so it has that legalistic criminal definition as well. So sex industry and sex worker takes it out of that. It says that someone is simply involved in an industry or a workplace that involves sexuality, where sexuality is the commodity, or the service that is being offered. So for a long time there have been groups that have wanted to decriminalize prostitution and see it as nothing more than a business. A sex worker is simply someone who works in that business - so it decriminalizes and destigmatizes that work and shifts our attention to seeing it as a job and as a business. Therefore, people should be respected, they should be able to unionize, they should be able to make a living wage. It sets the work up as work.

Sex trade is a term that takes it out of only looking at it as a job or economics, but looks at the multitude of ways that one might engage in trading sex for money, for drugs, for shelter, for love, whatever the reason is. So it’s kind of a third wave that makes us think about the multitude of ways that people might exchange sex for a multitude of things. It’s not just about money, it’s not just about a job.

S: That’s what I was thinking of when you were talking. The word trade is like pulling back a curtain and seeing the whole system. Sex work is so individualistic.

A: Yeah, yes. I think the issue with this language is that there are people that take lots of different positions, and there are women that have been involved in prostitution or the sex trade or the sex trade - however you want to define it - that have a multitude of positions on this. There isn’t one right position, or one word that everyone accepts.

There are some people that have been involved in the industry or do research on this that feel like prostitution is a useful term because the women are stigmatized, they have been violated, they have been coerced into this and that to use another language is to deflect away from this issue. Then there are other people that feel like the only way to gain legitimacy for what they are doing and perhaps decrease police harassment or decrease the problems with the criminalization process is to define it as an industry. And I think there is a multitude of positions. Some people feel that if you only look at it as work, you are ignoring the issue of violence, the fact that many women are not making clear choices, that if they had other economic choices they would make them. Some people may say that while that is true, using the word prostitution we’re still using this old language and this old framework that is really tied to stigmatization and a devaluation of women’s sexuality and a disrespect for the women that are involved. So there is a lot of tension around these terms.

I use a multitude of terms in my conversation, as you can see, because I think that all of that is important. Some people started using the terms “prostituted women” and “prostituted girls” because they feel like “prostitute” sounds like something that you are, that’s your essence. “I am a prostitute,” whereas “prostituted” shows that it is something that has been done to you rather than you having control over that. You can be sure that people have had a lot of issues with that because it makes it seem like the women have had no choices and that they are only victims. But there are some women that feel like that, feel like that is representative of their experience.

So I think it is one of those issues where you can’t say that a group of women believe prostitution means this so that’s what it means. There are conflicting interpretations. Some women could have very similar experiences and they could be on either side of this debate. That’s why I think it is so important to look at the complexity of people’s experiences, to look at the richness of someone’s life, to recognize that people make choices and they are also victimized, or that they are victimized, but they also resist and make choices to take control of their lives. So I think that just staking yourself in just one position isn’t really the answer. The answer is to listen to the complexity of people’s lives and trying to figure out, “Okay, what does this mean and what can we do? How can we make it different? We need to address sexuality. We need to look at the lack of economic opportunities. We need to look at racism. We need to look at the criminal justice system.” There’s not just one thing so placing people in camps doesn’t lead us anywhere. That kind of debate doesn’t lead anywhere, and in the end, it doesn’t respect the complexity of people’s lives.

S: I’ve noticed that it seems like some of the differences in position among organizations fall out around whether the people they are working with are currently in the sex trade or are no longer, if they left by choice or even by struggle.

A: Not necessarily. I think people talk about their own lives in different ways. I think about my own life and choices I’ve made, and I change my story over time, you know, because you have a different language or you’ve read new things. You know, I used to read my own story as a survivor of incestuous assault and rape and domestic violence, I really read my story in terms of how I’d been hurt and victimized. Over time because of people I talked to, things I read, thinking of myself as a resister and a fighter, I realized that’s not really my story. You know, all of those things happened, and I was also somebody who was challenging my father at age seven and age eight.

So what is the story we tell about our lives? Our stories are really complex and all of our stories are valuable. I think that just like my story is like that, every woman’s story is like that. So lots of times it comes down to what language you have or what’s going to work for you, what’s going to get you through the day, what’s going to change your life and make it better. Having the words rape and incestuous assault totally saved my life, but then it wasn’t enough. So what else do you need? Sometimes you find the language that you need. I know people in my life that really define themselves in terms of prostitution and the victimization and the harm in their life, but are now looking at it differently. Now they see all that, but also see that they were trying to find themselves at the time and that was an option and they were curious. I think Dorothy Allison is a great example. She wrote a book called Two or Three Things That I Know for Sure. One of her messages in that book is that we need to tell all the stories, and our stories are messy they’re not just flat. I know this for myself in terms of child sexual assault.

Some people just want to see you as a victim. They say, “Oh, these poor women. Let’s go save them.” And they only want to see the harm that somebody else did to them and they are only defining them by what other people have done to them, rather than really seeing how the women define themselves and how that changes over time and what’s the power in their survival, their resilience, their ability to put food on the table, pay their way through college. So, I guess what I’m saying is, that I think there is a lot of complexity there, and richness and resilience and resistance. And I think we lose that when we only talk about women as victims. On the other hand, I also have a problem when people say it is free choice and they never face any issues. I don’t think that position does a service to anyone either. Again, that either/or perspective on this issue isn’t honest, it isn’t truthful.

I think about my own relationship to the sex trade and the ways that I was encouraged to get involved in it when I was in my teens and early twenties, and the decisions I made, the complexity of those decisions It’s honest to bring all of that out. When we talk about people, when we define their lives for them, it just doesn’t work.

S: That was great. You know, we’ve talked about how the women represented in the video are just a tiny part of the sex trade that is going on in Chicago and across the U.S. and internationally. Could you elaborate on that a little bit more?

A: I think one of the things when people think about prostitution versus the sex industry what comes to mind is street prostitution and that’s not everything, it’s important, but it’s not everything. Under a broad rubric of the sex trade or the sex industry, that’s just a small part of it, yet that’s what comes to mind. Those are the women most targeted by the police and most criminalized.

Not to diminish that experience, but I think it is important when speaking of the sex trade or the sex industry to recognize that it is much broader than that. It’s strip clubs, massage parlors, friendship networks, parties, telephone, movies, it’s lots of things. Even in my conversation, I’m reducing it still. It’s really broad based and I think it is really important to think broadly on the issue. There’s also a hierarchy, you know. There’s escort services, there’s all these distinctions that have a lot to do with race and class, how we view these women differently, how the police view it. The police also target the individual women mostly, rather than the businesses. If you think about it, the sex industry is a multi-billion dollar international industry. It’s all over the place, it is absolutely huge, huge profits, very connected with governments, other kinds of corporations. So when we think about it as only these individual women and what they’ve done wrong or right, we’re really missing this broader network of institutions and organizations and industries and governments and police officers.

I also do a lot of media analysis and I have found it very interesting the way in which the Chicago Tribune represents the issue of prostitution when the police or firefighters are involved. When it comes to light, what people are most concerned with is how it is going to damage these police officers reputations. So it’s just really interesting who is valued. The whole consumer side or business side is really invisible in the representation. All we see is the ones who are doing the selling, they are the ones that are being criminalized, they’re the ones that are stigmatized, devalued, they are the ones that are viewed as the problem. But you know there are layers of involvement, from the upper echelons of government to local police and firefighters, local corporations, then you have these international businesses, and that’s all invisible in the mainstream press’s discussion of it. What they are concerned about when they do bring it to light is these men’s reputation, how it is going to hurt their families. So there is a lot more protection and value put on these government officials that are involved in it, while the women themselves are getting put into jail and harassed and brutalized.

I think it is very important to think about who is being made visible and who isn’t. Really, when we think about prostitution, we really think about women, even though there are all sorts of people who are involved.

S: I think there is a connection between visibility and what has happened to public space over the last decade or more. The police, the governments want certain elements to be invisible so they criminalize the street prostitutes. They’re out there affecting property values while neighborhoods are gentrifying -

A: Yeah, gentrification is huge. It’s very infuriating. Then there also is a level of brutality that is becoming acceptable, in terms of police harassment and brutality, that is very disturbing. I did a lot research on the murdering of women that are associated with prostitution, hundreds all over the country, and again, they are made both visible and invisible. They aren’t given names, they aren’t given a story, they aren’t given any humanity. So then, it’s okay that they are being murdered, the police aren’t taking it seriously, they aren’t doing investigations, and then the media perpetuates that by not giving them names, or lives, or families, or communities. They’re just really dehumanized.

S: The women in our workshop have a lot of stories about that. Women disappearing, being murdered -

A: And nobody does anything! There was a great art project in Las Vegas in the ‘80s against police and media indifference. It was a feminist project and they created these huge posters of these women to make them visible. They found their families and collected stories and then made these posters and told their stories to demand some recognition, to tell the police that they do care. The police had been quoted saying, “Oh nobody cares about them, they don’t have any family, they don’t matter, it’s not like they’re our children.” It’s just that kind of indifference and hatred that I think leads to brutality and murder.

Just think about Aileen Wuornos. Nobody cared that she was working on one of the most dangerous places for women to work in prostitution in Florida, on the highway. I mean, it is a very dangerous place to work, women get killed all the time. So she starts fighting back and defending herself and the whole country goes up in arms because she responded in self-defense and killed men who were brutalizing her. What is totally lost in the media coverage of her case is the brutality along the highways in Florida where she was engaged in prostitution. They never talk about that, or the history of those men and sexual violence. That was totally invisible.

I: A lot of the women involved in the video project have commented about how prostitution is a non-violent crime. But there is really so much violence associated with it. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

A: Yeah, the crime is associated with the selling of sex. So they call it non-violent because the exchange of sex for money is non-violent, but what gets lost, and I think it is a good point that you are making, is that there’s a lot of violence, but it’s not the women against the johns or the police officers. It’s the johns and police officers that are really being violent against the women. It’s the customers and the police. Actually, it’s not just the customers and the police. It’s other people, just people in the society that feel like it’s okay to harass and name-call when they are just walking down the street.

S: The next issue we want to talk about is decriminalization. We’re currently living in a mess with a lot of people being hurt, so what would be your vision of how to address and resolve this situation?

A: I believe that the way to solve this whole array of issues is to change the society. It needs to be changed on a million different levels. So it’s hard to speak of a vision in this context because we’re talking about economics, culture, pervasive violence, dehumanization, devaluation of women.

So it’s difficult, but I think a first step for me - and this is very different than what my perspective was in the late ‘70s and early’80s - would be to challenge the criminalization. I think that criminalization sets the women up for violence, for harassment, for brutality, for decreasing options, for mistreatment, for marginalization. So I really believe that that is a central problem. So for a social policy, I think that that would be the first step, to address that.

It’s important to address criminalization also because of the way it is so race and class based. Criminalization is really racist. It involves targeting, racial profiling is really involved in who gets targeted, who gets incarcerated, who gets mistreated. So at a social policy level I think that is important.

At the more grassroots level, I think community organizing among women who are involved in the sex trade to define themselves, to organize themselves and also talk and figure out what they need. I think lots of times we start all of these organizations that have good intentions, but don’t really create the kinds of things that need to be created. So I think having empowerment projects or leadership projects or organizing projects where the women are able to articulate and get support for what the needs are.

I think there is a lot we can do in terms of media representation, to put a human face, to destigmatize the way women involved in the sex trade are portrayed, to humanize the way women are involved, destigmatize female sexuality, and really get a conversation going on sexuality, sexuality practices, a way to challenge the double standard, and to recognize people’s humanity. I guess my vision would really be a more compassionate and embracing approach to address people’s lives, and also for people to be able to determine what they want their lives to look like.

S: That’s great. I just have one last question. Is there a difference between decriminalization and legalization?

A: Decriminalization just means that there isn’t a law for trading sex for money. So decriminalization would simply make it so it wasn’t a crime. Legalization would create a whole regulatory framework. You can find that in Amsterdam and in certain parts of Nevada where there is a whole regulatory set of systems for regulating who’s involved, how they are involved, health issues, etc. That’s the difference. The government is more involved in legalization. There’s more of an oversight, monitoring, control over it, whereas decriminalization simply says that it is not a crime. There’s no regulations, there is no social control over it.