What the Sex Trade Means for Black Women: A Legacy to Confront

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by Taina Bien-Aimé

Photo by Himanshu Singh Gurjar on Unsplash

In his book How the Word Is Passed, Clint Smith shares a woman’s story of how her “master” would come fetch her sister at night from their bed when they were girls. Her sister was returned to their cabin before dawn, dazed and bruised.

Smith also writes about Julia Woodrich, enslaved in Louisiana in the mid-19th century, whose mother had 15 children from 15 different men. “Every time she was sold she would get another man,” reads the inscription on a wall at the Whitney Plantation, which is now a museum honoring the lives of those who lived and died in servitude there.

“In order to understand slavery,” the plantation’s tour guide told Smith, “we have to understand what slavery meant for women.”

Black women were among the most profitable assets during slavery in the United States. In 1808, when the transatlantic slave trade was legally ended, about a million enslaved people were living in the U.S. Sixty or so years later, when the Emancipation Proclamation announced the end of slavery, the Black population had risen to 4.5 million souls. This significant growth was partly due to the continuation of the slave trade between the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean. But it was also a direct result of the rapes, forced pregnancies, prostitution and sex trafficking of Black women.

These particular horrific acts did not stop with the end of slavery in the United States; they live on in today’s sex trade. And in order to understand the system of prostitution, we must understand what it means for Black women.

Since the first ships brought Black women to the Americas, they have been prime targets for sexual exploitation. Today, while Black women and girls comprise about 6% of the U.S. population, in many jurisdictions, they can represent over 50% of the prostituted population. Similarly, while their Indigenous sisters, desecrated since 1492, now comprise approximately 1–2% of the entire U.S. population, they account for 70% in some localities where they are bartered for sexual acts, called by red-light district names their mothers did not give them.

Equating the 21st century system of prostitution and antebellum slavery is imprecise, even if both depend on systemic commodification of human beings for the profit of exploiters and the state. For one, prostitution doesn’t look like enslavement to the naked eye. The sex trade — including strip clubs, escorting, and pornography — is far too normalized in our daily lives for us to see the abuse and devastation it inflicts on those bought and sold in it.

However, like the institution of slavery, the sex trade is a global multi-billion-dollar business that contributes to nations’ economic growth. And as such, the sex trade has gained acceptance in our everyday lives, alternately described as inevitable, a necessary evil, or as an enterprise to celebrate. Likewise, for both slavery and the sex trade, dehumanization and objectification are prerequisites for the guilt-free purchase and consumption of human beings.

The comparison between the sexual trauma inflicted on Black women in slavery and in the sex trade also diverges when, in the latter, they appear to walk freely. These are the women the poet and women’s rights activist Audre Lorde called the “daughters who line 42nd Street.” Their exploiters — whether a pimp, a brothel manager or an intimate partner — have no need for literal shackles when our collective indifference makes us blind to the consequences of well-oiled coercion and control.

“A main pillar of white supremacy is patriarchal sexism,” says New York Times columnist Charles Blow. A main pillar of male supremacy, white and otherwise, is prostitution. For 5,000 years, the patriarchy has shapeshifted atrocities committed against women and girls, skillfully obscuring their harms and ultimately absolving them as benign.

Case in point is the now pervasive term “sex work,” a euphemism for the sex trade that has dangerously changed the narrative in our culture to mask unspeakable degradation, sexual harassment, and male entitlement to sexual access.

The dominant “sex work is work” mantra is now so ingrained in the current ethos that it is gaslighting young adults in colleges all around the country and influencing our mainstream media into sanitizing, rather than challenging, the brutal realities of prostitution. This current environment also has the devastating side effect of stifling and dismissing those with lived experiences who dismantle the fantasy that the sex trade is glamorous and empowering.

“When I was ‘in the life,’ if anyone saw me in the club or on the pole, I suppose they could sugarcoat what they saw by saying I was ‘working’ when I was actually scared for my life every time a sex buyer came for me,” said Vednita Carter, a prostitution survivor and founder of the survivor-led organization Breaking Free. “Prostitution in the Black community stems from slavery and is based on racism. Black women and girls have been “prostituted” since we landed on American soil, so in no way, shape or form is prostitution a ‘job’ and I will fight to the end to ensure that no legislator thinks it is.”

The European Age of Enlightenment enriched the world with revolutionary ideas of individual liberty, progress, tolerance, and constitutional government. At the same time, those progressive thinkers developed rationales for colonialism, slavery, institutional misogyny, and the exploitation of millions of human beings.

Today, when so-called progressive political clubs require that candidates endorse the decriminalization of the sex trade in exchange for endorsements, they are taking a page from that history book. When district attorneys deem sex buying as men’s rights-based entertainment, rather than paid-for sexual misconduct, they are following in the footsteps of that dark legacy. When Black social justice movements call to legitimize pimping in exchange for a bag of silver coins, they betray their sisters like Vednita, erasing painful histories of sexual violence.

The path we must pave for truth and reconciliation lies not in calling for regressive laws that sentence the most vulnerable among us to the sex trade. We must instead ensure that states implement policies that offer those living on the margins a chance at survival without sexual exploitation. What Black women strive to pass to the next generation is a heritage that celebrates dignity and hope for equality, not one that keeps selling us on auction blocks for rebranded markets of flesh.

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Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
At The Edge of the Margins

One of the oldest international organizations working to end the trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls. Feminist, human rights advocates.