The Sealed Letter by Emma Donaghue, a historical potboiler revisiting an infamous divorce case in Victorian England, seized my attention through the dark January days. Based on real events, the novel exposed the fate of an attractive and frankly sensuous and sexually adventurous married woman who transgressed strict Victorian mores of acceptable feminine conduct. The novel’s deftly created characters prove that even in this long gone world which is so often thought of as prudish and staid, a man had the freedom to express himself sexually as he pleased. If he were discovered transgressing social norms, his life in society could proceed in much the same trajectory. Not surprisingly, the man could also impose almost total control on every aspect of the life of the women and girls in his life.
A woman who confounded society’s sexual norms, however, did so at great peril. The novel examines the situation of an upper class woman whose existence is essentially erased after her transgression is documented. She is no longer a mother. She is no longer a wife. She is no longer a lady, She is no longer a friend. She has no money. Her life is anonymous. Sexual adventure equals annihilation.
The novel is particularly interesting in that it also plumbs the secrets of gender. The adventuring woman’s fate is imposed not only by male dominated legal and moral institutions but by female Society and women’s scorn. Further, what types of sexual expression is even tolerable to contemplate is addressed by the characters. The novel requires consideration of how lesbian love could ever find a place in so restrictive a society.
Women have often been important forces applying society’s laws, customs and mores which result in strict gender roles diminishing female opportunity.
All these concepts streamed to mind a few days ago as I was listening to Robin Young’s interview on Here and Now on NPR about Superbowl Sex trafficking Included Minors.
A veteran of the women’s movement, active in campaigns against domestic violence and sexual assault, I listened with interest. I registered surprise that the McCain family ( as in John McCain) would choose to address this challenge. The University of Arizona has a center to study the issue! But, as they say, the devil is in the details.
Five to Six percent of the trafficked persons were minors. Obviously, that is five to six percent too many. I join those of whatever political stripe who condemn the violation of the physical integrity of any child in any way, physical or sexual. Further, I deplore the emotional abuse of children, which I would argue, can include excessively sexualized or violent images or other media for entertainment or marketing which deluges our children from their earliest awareness.
But women are NOT children. Men are not children.
There was a problem with the University of Arizona report as described on the program despite Ms. Young’s best effort. Except to inform as to the number of minors involved, no distinction was made between various classes of commercial sexual activity. ” Trafficking” implies that the persons offering sexual services are not doing so voluntarily but are subject to compulsion. Typically, minors, undocumented workers who are held by force, or other persons who are kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery are the concerns. Sexual trafficking describes a worldwide horror. The University of Arizona speaker Professor Roe-Sepowitz, however, seemed to conflate into this category, all “online sex ads” and “on-line sex buyers”. She asks “How are we going to control this culture?”
This interview brought to mind an episode of Borgen, that wonderful Danish television program in which all things reasonable seem to be able to at least find a voice. A problem is identified in Danish society: Sex trafficking. A bill is introduced with criminal sanctions. A questioning mind wants to know if there is really a problem which requires fixing. The later hearings, investigation and drama reveal prejudices of those who condemn prostitutes and the users of prostitutes and those who suggest that whatever one’s moral beliefs about these issues, society has institutionalized paid sexual services since ancient times: it’s a living, it fills a need and if there is no violence and there is consent, it is not a crime. Also, it is not merely a heterosexual form of commerce.
We do not live in Denmark.
The impetus for the Arizona study (which engaged “ex-army intelligence” employees utilizing “internet sniffing techniques … to track terrorists in Afghanistan”) is that Arizona is the site of the next Superbowl.
I do not live in Arizona.
Now that the right wing cadre of “let me throw the first stone” moral dictators have lost their quest to impose Plessy vs. Ferguson civil rights limitations on their GLBTQ citizens, usurping the sexual freedom of adults under the guise of protecting legitimate victims of abuse, degradation, rape and more is cynical and hateful.
There is a legitimate debate to be heard about the issues of prostitution with respect to consenting adults. Nevada had such an ongoing debate successfully. Sex trafficking is too great a harm to be cynically manipulated.
Are these internet investigative techniques an expansion of power or are they old news? Either way, discussion of the study reveals a use of government surveillance and/or military internet monitoring techniques in civil society for political purposes which cannot be tolerated. The stakes are too high.
If we are not watchful, it will be far too easy to see the reconstruction of a world where barriers to self-expression are everywhere. When the headlines are all about children and sex trafficking, we may not hear the words “military spying tactics used against US citizens in the State of Arizona.”